Allow me to introduce you to an old family friend (and my former boss), Charmayne Busker.
Along with her son and daughter, Charmayne runs a dairy farm in Kent County, DE. They are currently milking 160 cows, plus have 140 additional calves and heifers that aren’t producing milk right now.
How much milk do 160 cows produce? They actually average 2500 gallons per cow, per year. That means Charmayne’s farm is responsible for supplying 400,000 gallons of milk each year.
Each gallon of milk weighs 8.8 pounds. So wrap your head around this: her one farm is producing 1,760 TONS of milk each year.
(I had to check those numbers four times. Seems crazy, right? But I promise it’s accurate.)
The family tills 400 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat, and some small grains. In contrast to most of the other grain farmers we’ve met, three-fourths of their crops go directly towards feeding their cows. The rest is just sold as a cash crop.
The family also owns and operates five chicken houses, though Charmayne says she mostly tries to stay away from them. Her kids run that part of the farm operation on their own. Charmayne told me, “I basically have no responsibility in the chicken houses, and not much knowledge about them either. I prefer the cows!”
That’s not too surprising. Charmayne grew up on a dairy farm, and her late husband, Chuck, spent time on his grandfather’s dairy farm in his youth. In 1979, they purchased the family’s current farm, bringing along a few cows that they had raised as 4-H projects. Charmayne tells me they started out milking about 30 cows, and then just slowly grew from there.
In 2005, they built a new milking parlor in which the cows are brought in on an elevated surface, putting the milking equipment at eye level. “The parlor allows for much better management,” Charmayne tells me. “We can see more of what’s going on with the cows, spot any problems more easily, and can even milk more cows in the same amount of time.”
With their new system, the fresh milk is never exposed to air. The milk runs straight from the cow, through the milkers, into a stainless steel pipeline which immediately cools the milk to 36 degrees Fahrenheit. The milk then travels down into a 3,000 gallon cooling tank. A refrigerated milk truck picks up the milk every other day and takes it right to the dairy. The milk is very well protected from any outside influences.
Caring for Our Cows
“I’ve always loved working with cows,” Charmayne says. “There’s a great level of pride in raising a calf from birth and seeing her turn into a grown cow.” She thinks most dairy farmers would agree. “All the things you’re doing for your pets – keeping them cool, providing fresh food and water – we’re doing for our cows.”
They even have a nutrition consultant! A local nutritionist visits the farm periodically to make sure the cows are getting a good balanced diet, and makes suggestions on things to add to their feed. They have a varied diet, including surprises like cotton seed, brewers’ grain, and even dry citrus pulp in addition to the more typical silage, corn, and soybean meal.
“Every mouthful they get is as nutritionally complete as we can make it,” Charmayne explains.
Weather extremes can be tough on the cows. In the winter, for example, the calves are snug in their hutches, but Charmayne and her family have to monitor their water buckets to keep them from freezing. “Hot weather is worse,” she tells me. “Cows really dislike the heat.” She keeps the cows cool by using overhead misters and a multitude of fans in the barns. They also switch to sand for bedding instead of straw. “The sand keeps them much cooler in the summer, just as the straw does a great job keeping everybody warm in the winter.”
Even though they aren’t producing any milk yet, it’s important to keep the baby calves as healthy as possible. Access to fresh water and good, nutritious feed is their best defense against any illnesses.
Meds and Milk
But what if the cows do get sick? “There is no routine feeding of antibiotics, not even for the calves. We only give medicine in case of an illness, just like you would take your child to the doctor if they got an ear infection,” explains Charmayne.
And in mature, milking cows, there’s absolutely no tolerance for antibiotics in their systems. “If a cow is sick, we’ll give her medicine, but we milk that cow separately and her milk never enters our tanks,” she tells me. If antibiotics were found in the milk – it’s tested every time, with an extremely sophisticated test – then that entire 3,000 gallons of milk is considered contaminated and won’t be shipped. “It’s a big liability for dairy farmers, so we’re very careful.”
Why the big fuss about antibiotics in milk? “Well, some people are allergic to certain antibiotics, like penicillin,” Charmayne explains. “Or if a tank of milk is going to be made into cheese, even a low dose of antibiotics can mess with that process.”
Not to mention, animal medicines are expensive. They don’t overuse any antibiotics, and they are only using ones specifically approved for dairy cattle.
Another hot dairy topic is raw, or unpasteurized, milk. What’s Charmayne’s opinion on the topic?
Charmayne says, “I feel like we do a really good job out on our farm, and I’m not the least bit concerned about drinking our milk, straight from the tank.” And in fact, they do drink their own milk (and always have).
The problem, really, with unpasteurized milk is that it has a very short shelf life – really only 2-3 days of freshness before the milk will start to sour. Pasteurization allows for the convenience of an extended shelf life, meaning you and I can buy our milk in a grocery store and not have to drink it all on the day of purchase. That’s certainly something to keep in mind if you do want to find a farm that will sell you raw milk – drink it right away for the best experience.
Charmayne does think the raw milk tastes different, which she explains is because of the fat content. “Here at our farm, our milk is 3.9% butterfat. To compare, whole milk is only 3.2%, so you are seeing a bit of difference there.”
We’re Going to Cow Camp
Charmayne is one of those farmers whom everyone seems to know and respect. She’s not just a farmer; she’s an active member of the farming community. Many area farmers know her from her 30+ years with our local Farm Credit, where she worked as a loan officer and a manager. But in the dairy world around here, she may be best known for Cow Camp.
Charmayne and her family have always been active participants in and supporters of local 4-H groups. In the 1980’s, Charmayne and Chuck hosted a one-day fitting and showmanship class at their farm for young 4-Hers with dairy projects. It lasted only a couple of years, but they brought the idea back in 2002.
“We now hold a weekend mini-camp for any 4-Her who is interested, both those who currently have cows and those kids that want to gain a little more experience with large animals,” Charmayne explains. “Campers bring their calves out to the fair and we teach the kids not only how to show, but really how to care for their animal.”
They hold workshops that focus on different aspects of dairy education. This year, they will have both a veterinarian and a dairy nutritionist on hand. They are also going to work with the kids on their very own dairy promotion videos. They round the weekend out with a mini dairy show and a family picnic.
If it seems like a lot of work, well, it is. But the family has plenty of help. “There are maybe twenty dairy farms left in Delaware, and we’re a very close-knit group.” Many of them have become life-long friends, and she always has plenty of help when she needs it.
Being a dairy farmer is probably one of the toughest jobs in agriculture. There are no lazy mornings, no vacation days, and no calling out sick. The cows are milked twice a day, every day. Of course, there are some redeeming qualities, too.
“The best thing about being on the farm is being able to work with my kids, and to see them doing something they really enjoy. This was my husband’s dream, and I think he’d be pretty proud of how they’ve stepped up.”
Charmayne had one last piece of wisdom for us, “Drink milk!”
Want to see a little more about where your milk comes from? Check out this video from the MidAtlantic Dairy Association.
Farm Women Fridays is a series of interviews that will run through the summer of 2012. If you have any questions (for me or the other women), please leave them in the comments or tweet me @carabecca! You can see all the Farm Women Fridays posts here.