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4 Rules + 1 For Being A Successful Dairy Farmer

By   /  April 21, 2014  /  2 Comments

No matter what you raise on pasture, you can always learn something from a farmer like Lyle Edwards who has pushed through hard times and worked to create a good life for his livestock and his family.

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Here's Lyle with his first love.  At 9, his uncle drove up and gave him the key to the trunk of the car. He opened the trunk and took out Bangs, a newborn calf. Lyle raised her for almost two years, and then she went back to his uncle's farm.

“Spud” got his nickname early, pegged by his Dad as a tater lover.  Here he is, at age 9, with his first love. His uncle drove up and gave him the key to the trunk of the car. Spud opened the trunk and took out Bangs, a newborn calf. He raised her for almost two years, and then she went back to his uncle’s farm.

“I love the cows,” says northern Vermont dairy farmer Lyle “Spud” Edwards.  “It’s why I farm.”  He knows them each individually, because he works with them twice a day, 365 days a year.  He and his wife even name them, Spud adding that the odd names are Kitty’s:  “Minerva, and Thea, Trillium and Stripe.”  And because he loves the cows, he runs his operation by four simple rules that have kept him and his herd happy. Here are the rules, not necessarily in order of importance:

1. Breed them well.

2. Feed them well.

3. Clean them well.

4. Milk them well.

He’d also add that you have to be a good money manager, but that’s true for all farmers.

#1 Breed them well

Spud and his wife Kitty run a herd of registered Holsteins, milking 50, and shipping the milk to Organic Valley. He likes Holsteins because he knows the breed well and feels they will make him more money and more milk than other breeds. He likes semen from bulls that sire productive, good milkers with exceptional udders. He goes for high volume, but also long productive lives. His cull rate is 12%, which is low, especially given the volume of production.  The rolling herd average is 20,000, which is pretty darn good. But, as he puts it, it’s not rocket science. It’s cattle husbandry.

#2 Feed them well

Spud's grandfather raised Jersey's. At 13, he was working on his grandfather's farm.

Spud’s grandfather raised Jersey’s. At 13, he was working on his grandfather’s farm.

Part of that cattle husbandry is how he feeds his cattle.  Spud makes sure to give them high quality feed, enough to eat, and high quality forage or pasture. For Spud’s cattle, high energy roughage is the key; as he puts it, he wants as high energy as he can get it, because energy makes milk. When he’s looking at feed, he looks at NEL, the net energy of lactation, not at protein content. For maintenance, he feeds grain at every milking, about 12-13 lbs per cow, per day.

Spud has always pastured his herd, and since 2002 when he went organic, he’s added those standards to his management.  Spring Brook Farm is about 70 acres of pasture and 50 acres of hay land.  Spud divides the pasture land into 25 paddocks, and he runs the cows on a simple rotation through them. They spend anywhere from 12 hours to a day or two in each paddock before moving to the next one.

Organic standards require him to take regular soil tests, and the best thing he’s ever done for the pasture is to lime them, using wood ash. The soil tests usually call for lime, or calcium. To return nutrients to the hayfields, each spring he applies manure from the pit at about 2000 gallons/acre, and another light application after the second crop of hay. He’s also tried an organic nitrogen amendment called Nature Safe, made with feather bones. Even with amendments, his land won’t provide quite enough feed, so he buys hay out of the field, locally, and every once in a long while, he’ll buy in round bales as well. 

“I transitioned to organic because I was sick to death of conventional milk pricing system. It was corrupt and pissing me off.  Organic is more sustainable and stable. You have a price that you can rely on.”  He also notes that organic has been better for his cows as well.  He’s had nowhere near the health problems as an organic dairy that he had under the conventional system.  Transitioning was easy to do, because the main stumbling blocks of winter turnout and pasture were things Spud already did.

Spud's cows relaxing in the spring pasture a few years ago.

Spud’s cows relaxing in the spring pasture a few years ago.

#3 Clean Them Well

Of course there is pre and post dipping for cleanliness but, comfort is also a part of this rule.  Spud’s cows are kept clean and comfortable with lots of sawdust for bedding , along with Pasture Mats, hi-tech cow mattresses for their stalls.  The barn is kept clean with fly tape, and they keep the mangers clean to keep maggots from breeding.

#4 Milk Them Well

The Edwards have help milking, and they look for folks who, to put it simply, do a good job. That means knowing when the cow is done. Over-milking or under-milking can cause problems, and he’d rather avoid those.

+ 1: Be Tenacious

Spud doesn’t mention this when he describes how he ended up at Spring Brook Farm, but it’s important to add because it’s a big part of how Spud is and how he’s created success.  When he looks at the future of farming he says that  if someone really wants to farm, if there’s a will there’s a way; in any period, any economy, any place. If you’re young and want to farm, you can do it. “The talk about it being too expensive has been going for years,” Spud says, remembering that his grandfather told him that fifty years ago.

“You don’t have to have money,” says Spud.  “The only thing is, you have to work.”

Early on Spud had to work through some tough things, learning a lot along the way.  A poor choice of partners led to herd health problems and resulted in bankruptcy.  The stress led to the breakup of Spud’s marriage.  This was followed by the death of the youngest of his three daughters in a car accident.

But Spud pushed on saying, “I’ll never get over losing my daughter, but I’ve found a way to have a life.”

Spud and Kitty on vacation in St. Kitt this January.

Spud and Kitty on vacation in St. Kitt this January.

He’s built that life with his wife Kitty and a lot more hard work.  He got back into dairying by working for another farmer and then milking his own cows on a rented place after hours.  When a Westfield farm became available, the owner banked on Spud’s work ethic, offering to finance it for Spud and Kitty. After five years, Spud was able to go to the bank for a loan.  When the herd on their new place needed to be reduced, the sale of the animals allowed him to pay off his mortgage. Now he gets to do what he loves, and with the people he loves!

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About the author

editor and contributor

Rachel's interest in sustainable agriculture and grazing has deep roots in the soil. She's been following that passion around the world, working on an ancient Nabatean farm in the Negev, and with farmers in West Africa's Niger. After returning to the US, Rachel received her M.S. and Ph.D. in agronomy and soil science from the University of Maryland. For her doctoral research, Rachel spent 3 years working with Maryland dairy farmers using management intensive grazing. She then began her work with grass farmers, a source of joy and a journey of discovery.

2 Comments

  1. Karla Rado Richey says:

    Ive know Spud for the past 40 yrs and he’s an amazing farmer…not many like him in the world but thank god he’s still dairy farming!

  2. Chip Hines says:

    Success stories are great for giving support to those still on the way up.

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