‘Hands-on’ is key to successful dairy farms

Posted: Thursday, November 13, 2014 12:30 am
By Tessa Edick
For Columbia-Greene Media


There’s a reason all milk is not created equal — and it starts with an age-old approach, the farmer offers daily hands-on attention working with the animals. When cows are considered part of the “family” and treated well, they in turn feed us in abundance by providing nutrient dense, quality milk.


The officially classified and registered Holstein cows at Walts Dairy are bred for better bodies to sustain longevity, ability to handle stress and other characteristics important to breed with a single goal — increased production of quality milk to be sold on supermarket shelves, and in Hudson Valley Fresh’s cases, an astounding “cow to carton” in 36 hours.


Who else can say that?


Nutrition not only tastes better — it is better for your health. And proximity has everything to do with that nutrition density. Local matters. So the next time you reach for any food labeled as certified organic — ask questions and you will wonder — why didn’t anyone ever tell me that?


At Walts Dairy, a fifth generation family farm in Copake, the Kiernan family lives, works and eats on property with a schedule that increases yield based on a consistent schedule and nutrient rich local diet with their herd of 200 milking cows.


They believe that this “hands-on attention” is the secret to the animal’s quality milk yield and long healthy life. It’s American family farming at its best with everyone committed to working and living on the farm in collaboration you too support when you reach for their milk as part of the farmer owned local dairy cooperative Hudson Valley Fresh brand.


Their Holsteins are black and white and range in age from 2 to 11 (Eggbert being the oldest in the herd — still clean, comfortable and happily producing milk at age 11). The additional 200 heifers kept to raise as replacements calve yearly to optimize lactation and increase production — key to maintaining a viable livelihood in the dairy business.


In 1927, the Kowalski family bought a farm in Shelton, Conn. and built a dairy continuing their farming heritage. The successors to their herd of 53 milkers became the Kiernan family — Bill Kiernan married Rosalie Kowalski in 1966 — and Bill took over the operation farming full time in 1972 while Rosalie continued to do cancer research at Yale Medical School. In 1985, Walts Dairy continued as it transitioned from Connecticut to New York in Walt Kowalski’s name and built the herd as their family also grew maintaining quality production of dairy and the farm name.


Four children and multiple grandchildren later — the Kiernan family has cultivated skills as farmers as well as other accomplishments that greatly benefit the family business: Cornell graduate of Ag Economics & Evaluation (Bill Jr.), SUNY Cobleskill graduate of Diesel Tech and Ag Equipment Tech (David), Town Councilman, crop and feed coordinator (Walt) and banking (Amy). David Kiernan puts it simply, “I’m doing what I always did — milk.”


Now David’s fifth generation daughters, Summer (12 years old) and Sydney (11 years old), are also active in agriculture through 4H, as equestrians and showing cows at the Chatham Fair.


The dedication to the family farm business at Walts Dairy starts early and is a noble and impressive accomplishment. Each day starts at 3 a.m. when Bill Sr. wakes to prepare for the first milking beginning at 5 a.m. David has taken his dad’s “spot” milking. Walt is in charge of feeding the herd from the crop work grown on property. David explains, “We produce everything we make to feed the cows. Primarily everything we grow to feed the animals is very important to milk quality too — it’s true we are what what we eat — for the cows, too.”


David Kiernan continues passionately explaining that all of their milk is sold to Agrimark, which distributes top quality milk from all of the participating HVF dairy cooperative farms exclusively to Boice Dairy in Kingston, who then bottles this never co-mingled milk from only 10 local farms to then distribute to retail markets, inside an impressive 36 hours from milking.


“We’re changing the trend in consumption of fluid milk that nationally is decreasing by 2 percent annually. Hudson Valley Fresh whole milk is our best seller and increasing by 40 to 50 percent in sales yearly. High quality milk is the way to go — that’s what HVF has over organic options.” And the nutritional values top any other bottled milk with the lowest somatic cell count, too — vital to fresh milk.


The Kiernan family agrees that the “key to keeping a cow 10 to 12 years and producing about 20 to 25 thousand pounds of milk every other day is hands-on attention” and David explains that he milks the cows himself because he “picks up” small details handling the animals — milking all 200 cows twice daily in approximately 90 minutes with another farmer.


“You know the cows, you see when they are off, not eating or not feeling well — there is not as much milk. Being more personal and providing hands-on attention and comfort, [they lay on mattresses in clean stalls with fresh sawdust] you have more milk to sell,” David said.


The main reason David went back to the farm after his first John Deere job was to “give my kids the same opportunity I had on the farm” discussing the values that come from a connection to farming — commitment, drive, strength, compassion, hard work and the valuable skills needed to be as he puts it “an everything man”: carpenter, electrician, mechanic, vet, crop and livestock farmer in the dairy business.


His father Bill Kiernan Sr. proudly continues, “I look at David and he has the ability through my legacy — my grandmother’s grandfather was the head engineer for the Trans Siberian Railway in the 1800s — and David has that civil engineering ability today — he looks at something, can assess and make it happen.” An asset to the farm.


Summer Kiernan’s dad David says, “Summer is insane for cows — that’s all she talks about.” And both of his daughters are very involved. Walt’s kids Sheryl Ann, Timmy and Wally have all worked on the farm to date and adds, “Everyone is pretty much involved.”


I asked about the success of Hudson Valley Fresh being in the hands of the people — what we as consumers buy — and what our food buying decisions at the supermarket impact? David agreed that consumers play a vital role in Walts Dairy’s success (growing steadily since its first year with HVF earning $33!) and went on about the HVF Founder Dr. Sam Simon, “Sam is the reason why HVF has been successful — and he’s a great guy.”


Walt continued with a food truth we should all heed, “all labeling of milk doesn’t mean anything — it starts with cows and farming properly inside the barn — the label is selling a bill of goods instead of supporting a true agricultural economy that protects and pays their farmers who work on average 15-hour days.”


Walt continues, “All of this to simply make milk seems silly — it’s just milk — we start to wonder if anyone appreciates it?” People have become so removed from the farm there is confusion and loss of common sense. One hundred years ago everyone had a relative who was a farmer and today, “80 percent of kids say milk comes from a carton” and don’t mention a farm. And the critical things for expansion and survival, land and labor, are the biggest challenges farmers face today in addition to the “machine” that sucks away their most valuable assets — their own kids — the successors on their farm.


Bill explains, “Kids today want more money, less hours and farming is not that way.” Is the media selling the American Dream and sacrificing local agriculture no longer feeding the people but making money at the expense of the family farm?”


And Bill goes on, “With 73 percent of the forage Walts Dairy cultivates to make the components of their milk better (proteins, butterfat and solids) you realize you can’t commercialize a farm top to bottom and working with living beings means you have to take good care of them beyond a label for a premium quality product” — and to make a fair living wage — which is what the HVF cooperative offers.


It’s your choice three times a day, every day, to choose what you eat and to whom you allocate your food dollars. Do you even know where your food is from or who you support? It’s time to know. Get involved and seek out products from family farms like Walts Dairy. It makes a world of difference just by drinking local milk. And it tastes better, too. FarmOn!


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