ST. ALBANS TOWN — When St. Albans farmer Jack Brigham was studying agriculture in college, he was taught cows needed lots of high-calorie corn and to be kept inside. Letting them into a pasture was considered a waste of valuable energy the cows could be using to make milk.
The conventional wisdom was that “you’ve got to keep them stuck in a stall and feed the hell out of them and get as much milk as you can,” Jack said.
Today, the cows on the farm Brigham operates with his wife, Heather, eat minimal amounts of corn and spend time outside every day, even in winter. They walk freely between the pasture and the barn as the mood, or the weather, strikes.
For a year now, the Brighams have been in the organic milk business.
Organic farming has been better for their animals, better for the environment, and better for the Brighams, Jack said.
“You feel like getting up in the morning,” Jack said. “You’re getting paid half way decent to do it.”
The constant anxiety caused by fluctuating milk and feed prices is gone. The Brighams are earning $38 per hundredweight for their milk, more than double what conventional farmers are paid.
That means they can operate with a herd of 70 instead of 250 cows.
They contemplated the shift to organic for a few years before doing it. Heather was concerned about not being able to use antibiotics to treat sick animals. “I just wanted my cows to be healthy,” she said.
On an organic farm, “you can’t fill her full of drugs,” said Heather of an ailing animal. “Either she gets better or you get rid of her.”
But getting rid of unhealthy cows hasn’t been a problem. The cows are healthier. “We had tremendous improvement in herd health,” said Jack.
“It really does build up their immune system,” Heather said of organic management.
Pastures on the Brigham farm are filled with a wide range of grasses, clovers and other plants. The cows eat not only the plants but anything they can reach along the fence line. “All that stuff has different nutrients and minerals that they need,” said Jack. “That’s what a cow is made to eat, not silage, not ground-up animal parts.”
The Brighams offer mineral block to their cows, but the blocks remain mostly untouched in the spring and summer. However, the cows go through about a block per week in winter. “They know better than you do what they need,” said Jack.
He compared conventional feed for cows to the processed foods and TV dinners eaten by people.
“The whole state has gotten dependent on corn,” said Heather.
The Brighams don’t grow any corn. Milking cows receive a small amount of organic corn, but heifers and calves are fed only hay and grass. The health difference is especially evident in the younger animals who were never fed a lot of grains, according to Heather.
Cows are creatures of habit, said Jack, and they weren’t keen on the change in their diets at first. Production dropped. “They said, ‘We aren’t going to give any milk. We want our candy back,'” he said.
The candy was the “oodles of chemicals and grain,” they’d been eating, he explained.
“We went to all kinds of workshops and conferences,” Jack said. “’Hang in there. It gets better.’ We heard this from everybody.”
They hung in. Production increased. It got better. To which Jack adds, “Thank God.”
Today he sees it this way: “The cows have all adapted. The people have all adapted.”
The soils are still adapting.
“We’re trying to build the soil up after years of soil-ruining conventional agriculture,” Jack said.
With the headwaters for the Rugg Brook on their farm, they’ve excluded cows from waterways since they resumed grazing in the 1980s, long before they went organic.
Now, the cows are grazed intensively for brief periods of time. A new section of pasture is opened up for the cows every 12 hours.
When cows are grazed intensively, they eat enough of the plants to damage, but not
destroy them. The damaged plants come back stronger, with deeper roots, which helps to build healthier soils.
Putting all of the animals in a small area also digs up the soil in ways that supports long-term health, creating depressions that hold water and pushing organic matter down into the ground.
All of those cow pies, help, too.
When soils are healthy, cow patties are broken down immediately, Heather explained. The fungi, insects, bacteria, worms and other organisms in the soil set about decomposing it and incorporating those nutrients back into the soil.
Judith Schwartz, who was scheduled to speak Saturday morning in Taylor Park during Soil Fest, described the benefits of carefully managed grazing in her book, “Cows Save the Planet,” which Jack has read. He intended to attend the event, as well.
Schwartz argues that restoring soil health will have a host of environmental benefits, including moderating climate change by removing carbon dioxide from the air and sequestering the carbon in the soil.
“This, in my mind, is the answer to the problems we’ve been having with our lakes and our streams,” Jack said, noting that healthy soils absorb more water.
The only fields where he spreads manure are the ones the cows can’t graze on because roads separate them from the field.
The manure he does spread is broadcast low to the ground with a dragline. It’s more solid than liquid and doesn’t run off, he added. One of the challenges he’s encountered is that he doesn’t have enough manure to spread on those fields.
“People are throwing blame at farmers,” Jack said when discussing St. Albans Bay and Lake Champlain. “We’ll take our share of the blame.”
Pointing to the silt that runs off I-89 into the Rugg Brook, Jack noted that farmers aren’t the only ones who need to make changes. “Everybody’s got to do their part,” he said.
Jack believes organic farming is one part of cleaning up the lake.
There’s a huge demand for organic milk and a lot of small abandoned farms in Vermont, he pointed out. “Organic farms don’t need to be huge,” he said.
When he started farming, most farms had 40 to 60 cows. “Then you had to have 100, then 150,” Jack said. “It just kept going.”
Now Vermont is seeing farms with 2,000 cows or more. But those farms are still family farms, Jack argues, even when they have dozens of employees.
But to survive, they need to control feed costs, and that means growing corn. “It’s a giant black hole, unfortunately,” Jack said. “When you get to that size, it’s pretty hard to put on the brakes.”
But for the Brighams, both of whom were raised on farms, putting on the brakes was how they could preserve their farm.
Holyoke Farm, where they live, has been in Jack’s family since the late 1700s. His ancestors raised Merino sheep, when the wool could be sold to the British for their textile industry. “They say all the nice old farmhouses in Vermont were built on sheep money,” Jack said.
Their house was built in 1803, and Jack still has the old deeds. “Each generation that inherited the place had to provide for their elders in the manner to which they were accustomed,” Jack said. That included providing a place to live, a horse and buggy, and wood for heating.
With at least seven generations having farmed at Holyoke, “we didn’t want to be the generation that went out of farming,” Heather said.
By showing their children it is possible to make a living on the farm, they’re hoping to entice one of them to take up the mantle.