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Progressive Farming

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History Space: 100 years of dairy farming in Swanton

On 23, Jan 2018 | In Featured, Progressive Farming | By Admin

Burlington Free Press

Jan. 20, 2018

How do you build a business that lasts 100 years? For dairy farmer Robert Manning, owner of the Manning Farm in Swanton, it’s about family support and playing an active role in the community too.

“Farmers have deep roots and are invested in the long-term vision of the town they live in,” said Robert Manning. “It means a lot to me to see 100 years of what we’ve accomplished, especially with how much it’s changed s

ince the farm was started.”

The Manning Farm celebrated their 100-year anniversary in November of last year. The farm has been a family operation ever since it began with Robert’s grandfather, Gerald Griswold in 1917. The Manning family has always been active in their community – Robert served for more than 20 years on the town zoning and regional planning boards – and he says those connections helped people better understand farming.

“Back in the old days people were once removed from a dairy farm – now it’s three or four generations removed and they may not understand farming,” Robert said. “We work seven days a week around the clock to make food so that other people don’t have to.”

When Robert was a kid, there were 17 farms on the same road. Today, there are two, including his own.

“We had 135 acres when we started and now it’s around 1,200 between what we own and rent,” Robert said. “When you look out over the land after you’ve tended to it – it’s rewarding.”

After Robert’s grandfather died in 1966, Robert and his wife Sandy bought the original farm, which was across the road from where they are now, and in 1971 they purchased what is now the current Manning Farm. Today, three generations of family members work alongside each other to keep the farm running smoothly, and the fourth generation, Robert’s great-grandkids, provide some comic relief.

Family members work on the farm

Many Vermont dairy farms, like the Manning Farm, have expanded to allow for additional family members to work on the farm. In 1980, Robert and Sandy’s son David returned after college and helped shape the future of the farm. David played a big role in transitioning the farm to a free stall barn in 1980, and putting an addition on the barn in 1997 and again in 2016.

“The barn is self-regulating and has fans and curtains that run automatically based on the temperature outside to keep it 50 – 60 degrees in the barn, which cows prefer,” David said. “For bedding, we use water beds with sawdust on top and rubber non-slip mats in the alleys. Cows generally are sleeping or lounging an average 12 to 14 hours per day. The barns are really comfortable for them.”

In the 1980s many Vermont farms made the switch from the use of tie stall barns where cows are kept in fixed milking stalls, to the free-stall barn where they can roam freely. The cows are moved to a milking parlor designed to milk many cows at the same time, greatly improving efficiency. When the farm started 100 years ago they had just five cows. Today the farm milks 500 cows three times a day. This is possible because three of David’s six children decided to work on the farm, too. David’s daughter Rebecca Howrigan manages the health of the cows.

“I’m proud of the advances we’ve made to ensure our cows are healthy and in turn provide high-quality dairy products,” Rebecca said. “My favorite technology we use is the pedometers that the cows wear on their ankles. I have a FitBit and I track my steps, but I also track the steps our cows take, among other things.”

Computer keeps track of cows

On average, the cows at the Manning Farm take about 3,000 to 5,000 steps a day. The data is sent to a computer and Rebecca monitors it constantly throughout the day. Like a person, if a cow isn’t feeling well she’ll be laying down more. The computer has an algorithm that alerts Rebecca so that she can be proactive to help the cow feel better.

“We take the health of our cows very seriously because their health is directly related to their ability to make high-quality milk,” Rebecca said.

Rebecca didn’t always know she would be a dairy farmer. She has an English degree from the University of Vermont and gained experience working for a heifer breeding service, before returning to the farm where she and her husband Patrick are raising their kids – Regan, 6 and Ryland, 3.

Rebeca’s younger brothers, Nick and Oliver Manning, ultimately decided that the farm was where they wanted to be as well. Nick manages maintenance on the farm, Oliver focuses on the calves, and they both manage the farm land that is used primarily to grow crops. Just like the barns, the way fields are managed have evolved too. The Manning Farm tractors are outfitted with GPS that allows them to drive themselves, leaving just the turning to the driver. It’s called precision agriculture and it allows farmers to keep a closer eye on their fields.

“It helps us get a better understanding of what the fields need, and it can eliminate human error. We put the GPS system on our corn chopper and so it records all the yield information, and we can see if we needed more fertilizer or less in other places – also what varieties of crops grow better in certain soils,” Oliver said. “In the past, you might put a set quantity of fertilizer or manure on a field – especially with runoff concerns – this technology helps us to make sure the right amount is applied in the right spots to help protect the environment and waterways.”

Farming for the next 100 years

The evolution of the Manning Farm is a familiar story in Franklin County, where there are 184 dairy farms out of the 868 total in the state according to 2014 updates by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture to the U.S. Census of Agriculture.

The number of dairy farms in Vermont has steadily been decreasing, but according to USDA data, the milk being made has remained stable as individual farms have grown, consolidated and adopted new technology to become more efficient and sustainable.

Most recently, farms have been under increasing pressure to adopt sustainable farm practices to reduce the impact of manure on local watersheds. The Required Agricultural Practices (RAPs) were introduced last year by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture Food & Markets, and are a set of requirements farmers must adopt to improve water quality.

“Required Agricultural Practices (RAP’s) are about assisting farmers in improving farm operations to support soil health and reduce erosion and run-off on their farms. Acre-per-acre, agricultural land has four times less phosphorus run-off as developed land; we want to support our farmers to reduce phosphorus pollution in our waterway’s and keep farm land open, rather than lose our farms and risk development that may increase phosphorus pollution. We are here to help continue to grow a culture that supports clean water practices in Vermont, on our farms and beyond,” said Secretary Anson Tebbetts of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture Food & Markets.

The iPhone app for farming

At Copper Hill Farm in Fairfax, dairy farmer Kurt Magnan uses a soil health app on his iPhone to monitor the manure and other fertilizer they put on fields. The app tracks weather conditions and makes recommendations on when to work in the fields, and how much nutrients the soil needs. Additionally, for the past four years, the farm has planted 450 acres of cover crops on their corn fields.

“Specialized equipment allows us, and many other farms, to plant cover crops that grow through the winter on the fields to prevent sediment and water from leaving the fields during the snow melts and spring rains through erosion,” Magnan said.

According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) data, Vermont farmers planted a record-setting 25,727 acres of cover crops in 2016 on approximately 25 percent of all annual cropland – a 58 percent increase in acres of cover crops planted in 2015. NRCS reported this has resulted in significant reductions in soil erosion and phosphorus in our waterways.

Manure turns into energy

Technology is leading the sustainability efforts in many other ways too. More than a dozen Vermont farms have installed methane digesters to turn manure into renewable energy. In 2015, Nelson Boys Dairy in St. Albans installed a Green Mountain Power ‘Cow Power’ methane digester. The farm generates four times the amount of power it consumes. That extra power is sent back into the grid and is used by local homes. The digester also turns manure into a liquid byproduct used as fertilizer on their fields, and the sterile, dried solids are used as a fluffy bedding for their cows.

“At the foundation of what we do is quality and health and comfort for our animals. Animal welfare and the environment are very important to us. We are, first and foremost stewards of the land, and we’re proud of that,” Dylan Nelson, of Nelson Boys Dairy said.

The milk from Nelson Boys Dairy, Copper Hill Farm, and the Manning Farm is processed at the St. Albans Co-op in St. Albans, along with the milk from more than 360 dairy farms. The three farms also participate in the Ben & Jerry’s Caring Dairy Program which helps farms that supply milk to Ben & Jerry’s continuously evaluate and improve their practices.

“It covers everything from our hiring practices to our land management to cow care, so it really keeps us on point with social responsibility,” Kurt said.

As the demand for sustainable, responsibly produced food increases researchers are exploring the impact of different types of diets on the available land base in the U.S. A 2016 study from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University found that a vegetarian diet that includes dairy products could feed the most people from the area of land available in the U.S. when compared to other diets, although diets with low to moderate amounts of meat also fared well in the study.

“Before we go about converting land to other uses, to develop sound agricultural policy, we have to understand the impact of dietary patterns on land use. We don’t want to short-change the equitable distribution of nutritious, life-sustaining foods to the whole population,” said author Gary Fick, Ph.D., professor in the School of Integrative Crop Science at Cornell University.

For the Manning family, this is good news as they look ahead to the next 100 years.

“There’s an opportunity with all the advancements in technology for us to gain efficiencies so we can feed more people on the same land base,” Rebecca said. “Farmers are continuously finding new ways to improve for the good of the environment and our communities.”

To learn more about Vermont dairy farm practices visit:

Laura Hardie is the Farmer Relations & Communications Manager for New England Dairy & Food Council and New England Dairy Promotion Board.