Farms are sacrosanct in Vermont. In every water quality debate or regulatory argument, farms are always held apart and protected. We have a picture in our minds of what Vermont farms look like and frequently speak of their vital role in our precious working landscape. But farms are changing and I’ve been wondering whether our attitudes should be changing with them. First, I decided to research what changes are actually happening.
My first real exposure to farms in Vermont was when I started working on a dairy farm in Williston when I was 12. It was typical for the time, milking about 50 cows and growing about 10 acres of corn and 80 acres of hay. Fifty years later, that’s not a typical dairy farm in Vermont. By the averages, today there are 180 milk cows per farm, but that is deceptive because so many cows are now on very large farms. There are 1,000 farms considered dairy in the 2012 census of agriculture, but that’s also deceptive because over 200 of the 1,000 dairy farms counted by the census milked fewer than 10 cows, which are presumably not commercial farms.
A good market for wool made sheep the primary livestock for much of the 19th century. But as tariffs and westward expansion killed the market for Vermont wool, butter became a prime cash crop and cows began to be common on our hillsides. By 1920, Vermont was a dairy state. There were still 47,086 ewes in the state, but that was just a fraction of the 1,681,000 sheep in Vermont in 1840 (today there are about 10,000 ewes in the state). In 1920 there were 290,122 milk cows on 25,336 farms, an average of 11 cows per farm.
The 1950 Census of Agriculture shows an average of 17 cows per farm. At that time, a large farm was defined as milking over 50 cows and there were 122 such farms in Vermont milking an average of 66 cows. Those 122 were less than one percent of the dairy farms and their cows were less than 4 percent of the total in Vermont. Today the census enumerates 58 farms with 500 or more cows, containing almost 40 percent of the milk cows in Vermont, averaging 900 cows per farm. Addison and Franklin counties each have 18 of these large farms, Orleans County has eight, and Caledonia two.
Our idyllic picture of a dairy farm involves a red barn, cows cozy in the winter in their long rows of stanchions, or out on lush green pasture in the summer, families haying together, and probably a quaint sugarhouse in a classic bush of grand old maple trees. There are very few such farms in Vermont today. Those old cozy red barns were not good for cows. Windows dripped with condensation in the winter, air exchange was minimal. The cows were confined at the neck in wooden stanchions, turned out once a day (if they were lucky) to move around an icy barnyard for a few minutes. Leg problems and respiratory disease were common
Barns changed as farmers realized that happy, healthy cows produce more milk. First, wooden stanchions were re-placed with tie stalls, where the cows are tethered by a chain, more able to toss their heads a little and to shift position. Many small farms still use tie stalls, the farmer bringing the feed to the cow and milking them in their stalls, but the large majority of Vermont farms have gone the next step, allowing the cows to roam around the barn, walking to get their feed or to be milked in a milking parlor. Stalls are available for cows to lie down whenever they choose. Cows thrive in cold, fresh air. These changes have meant the gutting and re-configuration of existing barns, or more often, a whole new barn built for the new purpose.
On smaller and mid-sized farms the new barns are often hoop barns, shaped like a big Quonset hut but with a covering of translucent fabric. Walk into such a barn on a bright winter day and you will instantly sense the advantages. The air is fresh, cool but not biting cold. The cows wander around in comfort and make little noise. In fact, the quiet of these barns is recognized as conducive to happier and more productive cows.
Large farms today have strings of barns. They are usually red, but that is the only similarity to the barns of old. The cows are loose and separated into groups so that they can be fed rations tailored to their needs. Cows wander long alleys, eating at feed troughs strategically placed for efficiency. A large milking parlor is centrally located so that groups of cows can enter and leave quickly. Huge fans keep the air moving.
Cows used to spend their days and summer nights out on big pastures, composed of the marginal, steep or ledgy land that could not be hayed or cropped. Cows often wandered a mile or more, using energy that the farmer would prefer went into producing milk. The feed in a continuously grazed pasture is not great. Low-quality plants tend to out-compete the high-quality grasses. As farmers have realized these short-comings pastures have become smaller, more productive, and more consistent. Pastures are rotated, and a few farms now practice very intensive rotational grazing, where the cows enter a fresh paddock of lush grass after every milking. On large farms, cows are not pastured. They leave the barn only to spend a few hours in a concrete barnyard.
And then there is manure. In the “good old days,” manure was forked into a wheelbarrow and wheeled out the door, up a plank to be dumped onto a pile that grew through the long winter. Innovative 19th-century barns featured an upstairs wooden stable where manure could be pushed through holes in the floor to accumulate in the ground floor below. In the 1950s regulators mandated concrete stable floors that would harbor fewer bacteria than wood. Mechanical gutter cleaners moved manure outside to a pile with the flick of a switch.
Those manure piles outside every barn consisted of as much sawdust bedding and wasted hay as actual manure. They were solid enough to stand tall and shed much of the precipitation that fell on them. Once saturated, all those piles oozed a certain amount of runoff, but unless the pile was very near a stream, the ground usually absorbed it. The cows and their nutrients were dispersed over many farms spread across most of the state.
In 1940, the average Vermont farm had 14 cows. By 1950, that number had only risen to 17. But rapid change was about to begin. In 1964 the average acreage of farms, that had been around 150 for most of the century, had risen to 273, reflecting a wave of consolidation. The number of farms with milk cows in Vermont dropped in half, from 14,660 in 1950 to 6994 in 1964. The number of cows per farm rose to 32. By 1982 there were 53 cows per farm. In the 1990s the total number of cows in Vermont began a marked, steady decline and cows became more and more concentrated on a few farms. Today we have 180 cows per farm but the total number of milk cows is just half what it was in 1950.
Over time the new barns required less bedding and as feeding cows became more scientific and feed became richer, less hay was wasted. Manure became more liquid. In 1980 handling manure as a liquid was a brand new phenomenon in Vermont. As cows were concentrated on fewer and fewer farms, so were the nutrients they produced. Runoff from farms became a recognized water quality problem. Regulations were instituted, including a ban on spreading manure on snow. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) began paying part of the cost of storage facilities to help farmers manage manure.
Next month we’ll look at today’s farms, both dairy and the growing segment of “other,” the regulations they live by, and their impact on water quality, the land, and our vaunted Vermont scenery.