The summer of 2013 brought me to two farms on completely opposite ends of the dairy farm spectrum.
By William Mathew Cain
Growing up on a Connecticut angus farm seemed wonderful until I joined 4H and saw all the excitement of my new dairy farm buddies. I wanted what they had. My first show heifer was not an angus, rather it was a “leased” Holstein. Dairy just gets into your blood I guess.
Being 16 this year finally gave me the freedom to see dairy up close with two exciting summer internships: one at the prestigious Arethusa Dairy Farm in Litchfield, CT; and later at the 3,300 cow Curtin Dairy in Bridgewater, NY. I think of these experiences as “bookends” in today’s world of successful dairy farming.
Starting first at Arethusa, I came face to face, or more accurately “butt to cheek” with high-end production cows, the kind that routinely sell in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and win consistently at the most competitive national dairy shows. Emails from visitors arrived weekly to my boss, Matt, from all over the world. Prior interns traveled from as far away as Russia and Australia to work with and learn from this collection of “super cows.”
While interns tend to be at the bottom of the knowledge pyramid, those people working above me at Arethusa made me feel special. Listening to vets coming from as far away as Maryland to perform embryo transplants, flushes, and the commercial aspects of state-of-the- art breeding, I quickly began to understand the linkage between what is taught formally in Ag science and its application in the real world.
Arethusa is very much a “retail” enterprise, conducting community tours and selling branded products to local schools and through an offsite commercial store. Cheeses,yogurt, ice cream, and a variety of milk flavors carry the Arethusa name and label for excellence. Visitors associate the quality of the herd, as evidenced by success in the show ring, with both better health and flavor of its consumer products. Unlike a “Norman Rockwell” image of a New England dairy farm, Arethusa portrays an image of modern science and technology central to agricultural efficiency and evolution.
The “bookend” Arethusa represents is breeding genetics and herd improvement. Herd managers develop their herds to compliment real goals and objectives of commercial dairymen using measurable data. Unlike the next dairy operation I visited, only a small part of Arethusa’s income comes from dairy products sold to local consumers. The biggest percentage of farm revenues comes from the sale of breeding cows and embryos on a global scale. While milk is a “commodity”, Arethusa’s retail products and prize-winning heifers are “brands”, priced very differently and requiring sophisticated marketing.
My next course on the 2013 internship menu was Cassville, New York, home of the Curtin Dairy Empire. This internship exposed me to “Curtin work ethics” and how hard work and smart work go hand in hand. Work ethic, I quickly realized, is in this family’s DNA and bonds together the 50 plus employees who comprise the “professional” Curtin family.
Manager Mr. Dennis Yousey, who coincidentally judged my 4H Show in Connecticut years earlier, met me on my first day and really made me feel at home. After working at Arethusa’s 80 cow milking herd, 3,300 cows seemed a bit overwhelming. He introduced me to Greg, a Cornell Ag School graduate, who is a herdsman and seems to know more about bovine health than a room full of PhDs. I was assigned to work with Greg and my station was working with sick cows. On my second day on the job, I was issued an “official” Curtin jump suit and realized immediately that real dairy farming is indeed a dirty job! My mom said these coveralls were the only item in the washer and still needed a double cycle.
The Curtin Dairy, I was soon to learn, is all about three business principles I hope I remember for life. First, respect for the dignity of work and those who do it, starting from the bottom up. Curtin Dairy employs about 50 people, all who depend on the farm’s success for their family livelihood. The bulk of employees all seem to have worked there more than 10 years and expect to stay there until retirement. Everybody seemed to think like “owners” and not employees when it came to getting tasks done. This was my first exposure to the terminology referred to as “corporate culture.”
The second business principle of upholding safety and maintenance standards was never compromised. Farming can be a dangerous business and safety requires work procedures that minimize risk and exposure to accidents. Curtin prides itself in making safety a way to work and demands that everyone practice principles that maintain healthy employees. Hard work is very different than dangerous work. I felt like “a kid in a candy store” looking at all the Curtin’s equipment and implements. Large scale dairy production requires major investments in labor-saving equipment and modern means of production. Maintaining this vast array of equipment was at least as important to operations as cow care and production.
Lastly, but most important, the Curtins really understand the business side of farming. Computer and advanced analytics, from crop production to milk production, drive operations. What takes place in the “front office” drives coordination and integration of every aspect of the enterprise, adjusted for seasonalities and the constant flow of new state and Federal regulations. Checking commodity prices ranks second only to the constant inquiries into weather and rain patterns.
Running a highly automated production operation like a dairy farm, however, does not mean there is no personality to keep things loose and spirits high. Jack Curtin, the primo boss, could compete with any talk show host, especially if you like dry humor and a sense of Irish wit! I quickly learned that how you say things is sometimes more relevant than the words themselves.
If farming is a way of life, I experienced two extremes. Arethusa is filled with ribbons and awards and is changing the generics of our dairy genes for generations to come. Today, million dollar cow genetics are limited to very few competing farms geographically spread across the country. In future generations, those same genetics will be mainstream and define the competitiveness of commercial dairy farms on a local level. For the moment, the Curtin Farm and other highly efficient operations give New York state the hope of retaining big customers of dairy products, such as yogurt plants, which depend on high quality, stable costs and predictable supplies. Sometimes the best way to learn is by leaving the comforts of home and seeing the world through wider lenses. Arethusa and Curtin Dairy are like night and day, but in the end they are both dairy farms.
William Cain is a high school student from Cornwall, Ct that lives on a Black Angus farm, but is very interested in dairy farming. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.