Dairy farmers in Massachusetts struggle to make good-quality feed, make ends meet when milk prices are low and push the limit on cow numbers to keep their farms afloat.
At least that’s what a contingent from Wisconsin learned Oct. 9 when they visited the Jordan Dairy Farm near Rutland, Mass. The group of 25 visited the farm as part of a New England states tour organized by The Country Today and Viking Travel.
The farm is not what some people might call a showplace dairy operation, but visitors were able to get a feel for similarities and differences between dairy farming in Massachusetts and Wisconsin.
Brothers Randy and Brian Jordan represent the fifth generation of Jordans to operate the farm since the Jordans moved into Worcester County in 1885. The family has been operating at the Rutland location since 1943.
Their herd size has grown from 60 cows in 1943 to about 300 today. They own and rent about 1,000 acres within a 22-mile radius of the farmstead.
“We had a goal of getting up to 350 cows and milking three times a day, but that didn’t quite work with the size parlor we have,” Randy said. They milk with a double-six parlor, using the services of 13 full-time employees on the farm.
Jordan said the family increased its herd size out of necessity, not just to get bigger.
“It was about sustainability more than anything,” he said. “It’s not that we want to milk 300 cows, it’s because we have to milk 300 cows. It’s just a sheer fact that at the end of the day, the bank needs to get its money whether we’re milking 100 or 300 cows.
“My brother has two kids and we have two kids. We want the kids to be able to farm someday and be able to make a living doing it.”
Jordan said comparatively, milk prices are similar to what they were when his uncle started milking cows 50 years ago.
“But fuel prices aren’t the same as what he paid 50 years ago and that ton of grain we bought today isn’t the same as what he bought it for 50 years ago,” Jordan said. “You talk about tightening your belt so you can survive and make things better. I’m a big guy and I can’t tighten my belt that much, but yet at the end of the day, that’s what you’ve got to do.”
Jordan Dairy sells its milk into the wholesale market to Dairy Farmers of America, the largest milk market for the state’s 142 dairy farms. The farm’s milk is bottled and is sold into the Boston market.
“Part of our (milk price) problem is we’re wholesale milk, not retail milk,” Jordan said. “There has been talk (in the family) about trying to do something retail to set our own destiny of where we’re going. But it’s a leap of faith when you’re in your mid-40s and you think about making another $1 million investment. Sometimes it’s a tough decision.”
In 2011 Jordan Dairy became the first of five farms in Massachusetts to produce energy from an anaerobic digester. The digester converts manure and food waste into energy.
Jordan said as of 2014, all food waste is banned from going into landfills and sewer systems in Massachusetts. About 100 tons of food waste are delivered to the farm for use in the digester each week.
“People often ask if the digester is successful, and I declare in a word, yes,” Jordan said. “We think it’s a good thing. (Electricity costs) continue to go higher — it’s not going to get any cheaper. We’re selling about $45,000 of electricity a month above and beyond what we use, so it all works out.”
The Jordan family owns the digester with several business partners.
Jordan Dairy is relatively close to the urban areas of Worcester and Boston, so the digester also helps minimize odor, Jordan said.
“Going through the methane digester, it’s eliminating the majority of the smell of the manure,” he said. “We moved more than 8 million gallons of manure last year to our fields. It’s capturing more of the nutrients and helping us grow our crops.”
Jordan said central Massachusetts suffered through a drought last year, and while most farmers were concerned about their fields drying up if they cut their hay short, he was able to follow the hay harvest with liquid manure that provided needed moisture.
“It was like irrigating, but yet you’re getting a dose of fertilizer with it as well,” he said. “We got four cuttings above average last year and it’s because we brought product out there.”
Jordan said the farm takes pride in producing high-quality milk, with a somatic cell count of about 60,000 and a 25,000-pound herd average. The cows’ diet is about 75 percent corn silage and 25 percent haylage. The farm doesn’t grow alfalfa because of the clay soils and harsh winters.
The farm also buys day-old turkeys and raises them to sell directly to consumers. This year, they are raising about 2,400 birds.
Raw milk sales are allowed from the farm in Massachusetts, with retail sales highly regulated, Jordan said. All retail containers of raw milk are required to be conspicuously labeled with the statement: “Raw milk is not pasteurized. Pasteurization destroys organisms that may be harmful to human health.”
“Some people have a niche selling raw milk,” Jordan said. “Our niche was getting bigger and more efficient.”
Massachusetts has a unique taxation system designed to keep property taxes down if the land is used for agricultural purposes. Under a classification known as 61A, significant tax benefits are offered to property owners willing to make a long-term commitment to farming. In exchange for those benefits, the city or town in which the land is located is given the right to recover some of the tax benefits afforded the owner and an option to purchase the property should the land be used for any purpose other than to continue raising farm products.
“Anyone who has open ground wants a farmer to come in and farm the land and sign the 61A papers to lower the tax rate,” Jordan said. “As long as we give them the signature we can use their land for nothing.”