For the Love of Cows: Out to pasture with an organic dairy apprentice

To say that Wolfe’s Neck Farm dairy apprentice Kelly loves cows is a vast understatement.  Despite the inevitable exhaustion that comes from rising before the sun for milking (Kelly is not a morning person), the moment she’s given opportunity to speak about cows, she immediately lights up. The joy in her voice is energetic and palpable.

Her interest in cows had grown while working on a small family farm near her hometown in upstate New York.  It was on this farm that she “met a cow and fell in love”, catalyzing a strong commitment to working and caring for them.  After earning an undergraduate degree in Ag Business from SUNY Cobleskill, she created an online profile with Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship to pursue her interest in dairy farming. When Kelly told her family that she was enrolling in Wolfe’s Neck Farm’s Organic Dairy Farmer Training Program, no one was surprised.

Kelly came on as one of the first apprentices after the launch of the Organic Dairy program in 2015.  She’s experienced both the reward and challenge of being involved in the evolution of the program.  As a participant, she has had to both live and work beside a team of rotating apprentices, and recognizes the importance of finding time to herself.  At the end of each work day, she often heads to the gym or seeks solitude in her room.  No one takes it personally; everyone knows the days are early, strenuous, and long.

Chores begin promptly at 5am.  There are three apprentices on morning shift each day: one to do the small livestock chores, one solely on milking, and one to prepare the fencing and outdoor paddocks.  The remainder of the day is spent working on projects structured around the needs of the herd and the rotation of grazing areas.

Kelly deeply appreciates the value of a pasture-based dairy herd and a farm that supports organic practices.  She notes that to her, it always seemed natural and important that cows live a healthy life out on grass, a feeling she intuited even before learning about dairy farming.  The program has introduced her to the science behind this belief.  She now has a better understanding of why it is valuable for cows to graze the same land that they manure on to, recycling the nutrients back into the soil rather than depleting the resource.

One of the most poignant lessons that Kelly has learned in the program thus far has been the importance of flexibility.  Despite how organized and punctual you might feel as a dairy farmer, it’s the cows that determine the tone and mood of each day.  Some days the cows do exactly what they are told to do, come in easily, and follow directions.  Other days, they have a mind of their own.  She recalls a day when she and a fellow apprentice, tried to lead the cows up a road to a new grazing pasture.  The fencing must have been cut, because she turned around and it was “like the cows had exploded… everywhere the sun touched there were cows”.  Eventually, they wrangled the cows together and back to where they were supposed to go. Unpredictability and flexibility are something Kelly has learned must be accepted and embraced in dairy farming.

Despite their occasionally irritating behavior, when asked about what the most gratifying part of the experience in the program has been thus far, the answer is immediate: the cows.  She claims she could spend every minute of the day with the cows and be happy.  She gets deep satisfaction from knowing that these large animals depend on her every day.

Kelly is not entirely sure what her next steps will be as she nears the end of her two years in the program, but one thing’s for certain: it will involve cows.  She knows she is on the right path and wants to stay in dairy. She is grateful for the hands-on practice experience that the Organic Dairy Research and Training Program has provided for her, and even the willpower it gave her to wake up for a 5 a.m. milking.

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