Flurries of activity for first-gen farmers

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by Sonja Heyck-Merlin

Bo Lait Farm is owned and operated by first-generation farmers Alexis and Conor MacDonald. The farm is located in Washington, Maine, 25 miles southwest of the state capital. The name Bo Lait is a nod to the couple’s French and Scottish heritage – Bo is “cow” in Scottish Gaelic and lait is “milk” in French. The couple has a three-year old son, Rory. Except for some occasional help from a neighbor and Conor’s parents, Alexis and Conor operate the farm themselves.

Conor was raised on a homestead in New Hampshire and has fond memories of visiting his uncle’s Nova Scotia dairy farm. Alexis grew up riding horses in Maryland. The pair met at a wedding in North Carolina, where Conor was stationed in the Special Forces. Alexis was working for a foster care agency in Washington, D.C. at the time. Fast forward a few years, and they were planning their lives together.

Alexis said, “We knew we wanted to have livestock and to maintain an active lifestyle. It came down to choosing between a hobby farm or making a living farming. We decided it would be nice to make a living and chose the dairy route because we were more interested in animals than crops.”

Because of its proximity to their families, the vast network of young farmers and the affordability of land, they chose Maine. In 2015, they purchased 70 acres with an 1860s farmhouse connected to a 25-stall stanchion barn. Since then, they have purchased an additional 100 acres and also rent about 200 acres for hay. “Our place was a dairy through the 1970s, back when you could make a living with 12 cows and some woods,” Alexis said. “Then the owners switched to beef, which lasted through the ‘90s. When that ended, they rented out the fields, and more fertility was taken than was added.”

The stanchion barn was the only useable dairy infrastructure. Initially, they imagined a direct market business, but lenders would not finance the necessary infrastructure improvements without an established product line and proof of sales. Organic Valley, however, was short on milk at this time, and Bo Lait signed on with the Wisconsin-based cooperative.

With a market secured, they purchased organic cows, primarily Holsteins, from Maine farmers. Since the purchase of the Holsteins, they have added some Jerseys and Ayrshires to help increase their butterfat and to reduce to the animal’s frame size. The herd has increased from 20 milk cows to 45, and they do not anticipate increasing the herd any more.

Their early years were marked by a flurry of construction projects – adding a 35-by-85-foot freestall barn with 45 stalls, a heifer barn, a concrete high use area, stacked manure storage and a shop. The freestall is a sand-bedded barn that houses the milk herd, dry cows and breeding-age heifers during the winter months. There is also storage for sand and sawdust. Attached to the freestall is a 150-by-80-foot uncovered feed area. The cows can move between the freestalls and the feed area, where during the non-grazing season they eat round bales from rectangular feeders on wheels.

Until recently, the cows were shifted from the freestall into the stanchion barn for milking. In December 2020, they moved into a much-anticipated milking parlor. “Both of our backs are already a little too sore to only be in our thirties,” Alexis said. To build the double-four herringbone parlor, they jack-hammered out a section of the stanchion barn, poured concrete and fitted it with used equipment from a Vermont farm. Alexis joked that the construction project shaved a few years off Conor’s life, but they both look forward to milking in a system that is safer and more comfortable. During milking, they feed a grain ration of eight to 12 pounds of organic grain depending on the stage of lactation, with average production per cow at around 52 pounds.

Like much of Maine’s fallowed farmland, the MacDonald’s pastures were low in fertility. Through the use of rotational grazing on their 75 acres of pasture, each year they are seeing improvements in their yields and pasture quality. “It’s incredible to me how soil health trumps everything,” Alexis said. “Everything comes back to soil health, and we’re trying to be more conscientious every year to what the land needs. We soil test, spread amendments such as lime, chicken manure and of course our own manure, and make sure to try not to overgraze.”

While rotational grazing is important from both a herd health and soil fertility perspective, Alexis explained they have experienced dry summers almost every year they’ve been farming. “Droughts really put a damper on our grazing potential,” Alexis said. During dry years, it’s a balance between meeting the organic grazing standard (30% dry matter intake from pasture for a minimum of 120 days) and not grazing too short. If necessary, they will leave the herd in the freestall and bale feed on the high use area. In an average dry year, Alexis said the cows are held back from pasture for about 14 days. “We prefer this method to bale feeding on pasture,” Alexis said, “because we’re trying to capture manure and trying not to destroy a section of the paddock, which seems to happen fairly quickly.”

They have found that in their grazing-based dairy, bull breeding makes more sense than AI. This decision is based on the cost of AI, the difficulty of catching and breeding first-calf heifers and from a management perspective. “For our first two years, I was working full-time off the farm, and Conor was the only one here. There were not a lot of eyes on the cows, and over time we’ve had pretty good luck with bull breeding,” Alexis said.

Once the freestall was built and their grazing systems established, Alexis and Conor decided that it was time to invest in their own haying equipment. For their first three years, they relied solely on purchased forage. Despite the persistent dry weather, they’ve been able to put up the majority of their own feed for the last three seasons. In 2020, they produced 700 individually wrapped bales (which due to the drought is a few hundred bales shy of what they need).

Six years into their farming careers, the flurry of construction projects, equipment purchases and forage improvements have waned, but the MacDonalds’ appetite for continuous improvement has not. “We’re always learning what’s best for us and our herd,” Alexis said. “Since we’re first-generation farmers, we don’t have that family knowledge to fall back on. We educate ourselves in a variety of ways, and are always learning from our victories and mistakes. With a little luck, we hope to be caring for this land and our animals for many years to come.”

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