Metalwork project teaches life lessons

BRISTOL — It’s not unusual to see four students lingering late in Jim Brown’s technology education room at Mount Abraham Union High School, putting the finishing touches on an intricately welded steel contraption as the semester winds down.
For Austin Lafayette, Keith Thompson, Ethan Gendreau and Michael Jerome, the school project they were completing was the last in a set of three stanchions used to hold goats steady during milking. For Jim Choiniere, a Mount Abe alumnus and dairy farmer with land in Addison, Bristol and New Haven, the stanchions will be a fundamental part of his business as he transitions from milking cows to milking goats.
Choiniere has been raising a couple hundred goats for several years now, but as he thought about ramping up production, he was looking for a better way to milk the goats. Inspired by a neighbor’s setup, he began contemplating making his own steel mechanism to keep each goat in place.
“Commercial head locks out there are very expensive,” he said. “I normally build everything myself, but the farm has gotten bigger over the years and I’ve run out of time to do these kinds of things.”
And then Choiniere thought of the tech ed program at Mount Abe, where he knew welding and simple machines were part of the curriculum. One of his own high school teachers put him in touch with Brown, who loved the idea of having students in his industrial technology class work on building the stanchions.
“It’s a real project,” said Brown. “It’s not just a teacher telling the students to do something.”
And the four students took it seriously. Lafayette has been on the project since last spring, when a student in a mechanical drafting class designed a model that the student welders could use.
The stanchions are made of welded steel arches, with slots in between them for the goat heads. Once a goat puts its head through the gap to get to the feed on the other side, a bar closes down over the top of the slot, and the goat must stand in one place until the bar is lifted again.
It took longer than expected to build the first 13-foot-long stanchion, which fits 12 goats, and the students continued to work on the project after the school year ended at Brown’s own shop at his home. Choiniere paid the students for the time they worked outside of school and made a donation to the school’s tech education program.
This semester, Lafayette took the lead on the project, and the four students last Thursday were close to finishing the third stanchion. Brown said all four had worked hard on the project all semester, putting in extra time whenever they could.
“It’s fun,” said Jerome, “and it’s for a good cause.”
And Lafayette said he and the others haven’t just learned to weld and use a plasma torch.
“We’ve picked up logical skills, and how to use tools right,” he said.
And, he said, they’ve learned perfection. The jig, a frame the students used to guide their welding, needs to be structured exactly right in order for all of the pieces to fit.
“If you don’t do it exactly right, it won’t work,” said Lafayette.
Choiniere said the stanchions will help him out as he adds more goats to his herd in the coming years. Last month, he and his wife, Lynn, sold off the last cows on the dairy farm that’s been in his family since 1940, and they’re putting all of their energy into goats and crop production.
“Goat milk prices stay stable, because you have a contract,” said Choiniere. “With cows, you can go to your mailbox tomorrow and find that you’ve lost 20 or 40 percent of your income in one week.”
And he’s found that transitioning to goats has some unexpected benefits. His barn doesn’t need much conversion from cows to goats, and the goats are much cleaner animals.
“Cows are not very intelligent,” he said. “You have to clean them every day, and they’ll lay down in the worst spots.”
And his buyer, Vermont Butter and Cheese Creamery of Websterville, is eager to increase the amount of Vermont goats’ milk that goes into its cheese. Goats’ milk is a niche market, but there aren’t many goat farmers in the state and the demand is high, so Choiniere is optimistic about this business move.
“Three months ago … it was a bad story, but we’re heading in the right direction,” he said.
Still, milking cows runs in Choiniere’s blood.
“I still consider myself a cow farmer,” he said. “But my father was paid in 1985 the same per hundredweight that I’m getting now, and fuel prices have quadrupled.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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