Student Update: From skyscrapers to paddocks


Emma McCormack, a final-year Agriculture student is back with her next update to discuss her visits to farms in New York; Connecticut and New Jersey.

Student Update: From skyscrapers to paddocks

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Emma McCormack, a final-year Agriculture student is back with her next update to discuss her visits to farms in New York; Connecticut and New Jersey.

Emma McCormack, a final-year Agriculture student is back with her next update to discuss her visits to farms in New York; Connecticut and New Jersey.

This week, I pulled on some boots for the first time in a long time and headed for the greener side of New York.

An hour or two of driving and the skyscrapers were long forgotten, there were more trees than I'd ever seen before. Mountains; lakes; fields; and hills surrounded the highways as we headed further north. It was hard to believe we were still in the state of NY.

I was keen to spot some cows, having not set foot on a farm in three months. I'm just not a city girl - although I have had an awesome summer here in America. It's just not my forever home.

Three states in a day

I conducted some research and had a list to hand of farms in New York; Connecticut; and New Jersey to visit. We were essentially on route to Boston for a bit of a road trip, so we planned our route to stop at a number of farms between New York and Massachusetts.

I had a rude awakening, to be honest. I saw plenty of hay barns; milking parlours; cows; cubicles; and fields over the last few days, over a vast amount of area. None of it was what I had expected.

Originally, when planning these farm trips, and this piece, I was going to compare my experiences of dairy farming in Ireland and the U.K. to what I have learned here. It is a totally alien concept over here in the US though, there is no comparison. Instead, I'm just going to tell you what I've learned here and how things run in the dairy industry in this area of America.

Farms were small. With the vast size of the United States of America, the farms I saw weren't huge. I reckon I visited around 10 farms. My list went out the window, almost literally. Some of the farms I'd planned on visiting were large, commercialized farms which were open to the public, and sold fresh dairy produce according to their promising websites. I wanted to see this sort of operation, as well as actual working farms who don't make every decision with a public audience in mind.

No grass and no litres

It was a big learning curve; I had plenty of questions in mind for the Yankee farmers; how many litres are cows producing, is grass a big part of their diet, how modern is infrastructure. There wasn't a blade of grass to be seen, even though this summer has probably been the most ideal in a while. There has been a lot more rain than usual over the last few months, with temperatures in the mid 20's to mid-30's most days.

The epidemic in Irish farming this year was caused by a long, hard and cold winter followed by a summer drought. One of the farmers here explained to me, that this is a consistent issue over here in the US, especially in New York, and it's really quite difficult to grow high quantities of palatable grass. She went on to discuss the high costs every year of purchasing fodder if the farm is too small to produce any itself or if they don't have the machinery needed.

In winter, the fields lie under several feet of snow. It is easier here to judge the quantity of fodder needed, as most regions in America do get to experience all 4 seasons of the year, unlike in Ireland where we apply sunscreen when leaving the house and end up having to go back for a raincoat.

The price of milk too low

The price of milk here, in the eyes of every farming individual I spoke to, is mainly to blame for the downfall in the dairy industry especially in Connecticut over the last decade.

At the moment, farmers are paid around $13 per 100 pounds of milk, around here. This works out around €0.24/litre. They find it difficult to seal a contract deal with co-op's unless they're large-scale. There is less space for the small-scale farmer in the market each year. "Get big or get out" - this seems to be the mantra around here.

84-year-old Mr. Williams is a kind man I met along the way, on a farm I spotted from the road and spontaneously decided to take a look.

He took me on a trip down memory lane as he told me how he had been dairy farming in this county for over 60 years, and how things have taken a turn for the worse. He is no longer active on the farm and has leased it out to a company who run summer camps for city children. The kids are each are assigned a cow, which they are responsible to take care of each day, under the supervision of the adults.

Mr. Williams shook his head as he leaned on his stick and looked down upon the sheds in front of him, that once were alive with Holstein Friesians that produced a lot of milk over the years. Costs became too high, rewards too low. With the weather here, most farmers have no choice but to purchase grain every year, the price of which they have no control over.

In this area of America, between New Jersey, lower New York and a lot of Connecticut, many farms that once had big contracts with their local co-op, have now either gone out of business and closed their doors or been forced to take a very different route.

Tourists can drive up this far and buy fresh, organic and free-range produce, from these quaint little farms nestled in the hills. From veal and quarts of strawberry milk to creamy yoghurt and soft scoop ice cream, they supply it all.

Nothing added and nothing is taken away. It was a far cry from what you would buy in a lot of American grocery stores, like cartons of milk that would keep fresh in the fridge after they'd been opened, for up to 3 weeks easily. It's hardly healthy or natural.

Hygiene and happy cows

I did question the hygiene standards and cleanliness of the sheds and food producing areas, but there seems to be much less worry over here about disease on the farm. It's because of the weather, I think. I must add that the animal husbandry couldn't be faulted anywhere I went. The welfare of the cows was consistently prioritized.

The country markets in quiet villages are kept in business because more people want to know what they are consuming.

There is a diminishing place for these farmers around here. If you aren't holding cheese making courses or opening your gates to the public, you quickly fall to the wayside, unless you go large-scale and high-input.

One husband and wife I met, are determined to stay in the working farm category although they do sell their raw milk from their own barn. They aren't bothered about progressing or growing their herd size or increasing the amount of milk they produce but they were the closest thing to the kind of dairy farming that I know about.

A small and old, signature red barn was where the full Jersey herd of 50 cows came in twice-a-day for milking. Cows looked good and were incredibly quiet - being used to strangers about the sheds.

The cows walked into individual cubicles at milkings, where fresh hay awaited. The milker would make their way along the feed passage on the outsides of the shed, and attach a chain to the collar of every cow, to secure them until they are all milked out and can be released. The machine they used for milking the herd, gave me a laugh. I'll admit it.

Coming from a shiny, new 54-bail external rotary parlour in Scotland, I was taken aback. I know I've been spoiled, but even an 8-unit herringbone would have sufficed. This contraption was on wheels with one set of cups attached to the large glass jar.

The milker wheeled it up the centre of the shed and milked the cows on each side, one by one. They said it takes around 45 minutes to milk the herd. They don't know any other way.

Way behind Ireland with figures

These farmers obviously don't record how much milk each cow gives unless they physically assess at the jar each time a cow finishes. Milk produced here in America is not measured in litres but in pounds. All excess milk goes to calves.

Besides hay, the girls eat grain and sometimes maize or grass silage - basically whatever is accessible and affordable each year. Grass is not a big part of the equation at all. They are managed on 60-acres of just average quality land and are out every day besides during milking. Cows have the option of coming inside at night.

Letting the herd out is just to minimise labour and animal contentment. Grass they eat outside is not valued at all.

There are small units like this one which are still running, but they're very old-fashioned, and not at all success-driven. It was a fantastic opportunity to drive across the American countryside and see how milk is produced outside Ireland and the U.K. but I don't think I would be rushing back to work here.

One of the farms I visited, there was very little happening. It used to be one of the largest of its kind in the county but is now just as run down and dishevelled as its neighbours.

The one thing I revelled at, was the amount of feed the farmer had, stacked along one entire wall of the shed, which we reckon was around 120-feet long at least. Thousands and thousands of small square bales of decent hay. I mean thousands. They were stacked the length of the shed and to a width of 3 or 4 metres too.

For a man with 40 cows, I wondered would he ever use even half of what had accumulated over the years. I contemplated loading up a few and heading for home!

Lifestyle over profit

Farmers here genuinely love what they do - it's clear from the fact that profit is not a big element of many businesses, yet they still stick with it, albeit adapting largely. I was a little disappointed. I suppose being a young woman entering the farming sector, I love farming either way but I want a farm to perform as well as possible. To me, numbers matter at the end of the year as does progression.

I know in other American states like Ohio, the weather is more suited and grass can be grown more easily. I've only seen the dairy farming in a small area of the country so I'm conscious not to make a generalised opinion of American dairy farming based on my experiences here. I will have to travel further afield on my next trip to the USA and see plenty more farms but for now, I'm looking forward to getting back to the real farming at home.

I don't know if the odds are against the farmers here and that's why the number of working farms is dropping like flies, or if they're just not thinking outside the box and determined enough to make it work. Maybe they just don't like hard work - who knows? I noted that most farms were not littered with machinery - they only had what they needed, if even. I think some Irish farmers tend to justify the purchase of machines that they'll only use twice a year. In this instance, we cannot expect much of a profit.

However, in general, Ireland are miles ahead in the dairy industry. Things are tough at home too, but people don't bail out. They persevere through the difficult days - not even considering giving up as an option.

Is there any man to work as hard as an Irish man?

Emma McCormack

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