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Farm Show hints at things to come in agriculture landscape

ESSEX JUNCTION — Francis Bronson of Bridport has been a regular at the annual Vermont Farm Show for 30 years, and this week attended the 82nd annual fair at the Champlain Valley Expo in Essex Junction even though he has left dairy farming.
While looking over some of the show’s more than 150 agricultural exhibits, Bronson said he was impressed by some of the technological advances on display.
“There’s some innovative thought processes on some of this stuff,” he said. “I wish some of it was around when I was still going.”
The Farm Show, which runs from Tuesday through Thursday, is expected to draw thousands of visitors — some to learn more about their food at Wednesday’s Consumer Night, some for meetings of various agriculture groups (such as the beekeepers and Christmas tree farmers), and some to get glimpses of what the future of Vermont’s agriculture might hold through cutting edge technologies.
The Expo buildings were moderately full Tuesday. Visitors milled around both north and south wings of the expo hall collecting candy, free pens and samples of all kinds of dairy products, and visiting with representatives from equipment rentals, feed suppliers, insurance agencies and the USDA.
The biggest names — the ones with the tractors, tillers and mixers in tow — came from the Midwest, Europe and Canada. Standing next to a massive 1,100-square-foot hay mixer, Kuhn Equipment representative Craig Cooper said he attends six to seven events every year in New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Maine. Cooper said while the number of farms is trending downwards, existing farms are looking for larger equipment to meet the needs of increasing herd sizes.
The fair also featured experts in animal nutrition and management. Marty Waterman, a dairy consultant from Hyde Park, said the approach to animal feed today is more holistic than in times past. Years ago, Waterman said, it was common to find antibiotics in cow feed. Today, antibiotics are still needed to treat sick animals, but the days of applying antibiotics in a broad spectrum are gone.
“Everything is done through nutrition and management,” he said. “The milk in the ’90s versus the milk now is incredibly different. Over the past 20 years, it just keeps getting better and better.”
Waterman said the dairy industry’s approach to welfare of livestock has also improved. While striving to maintain or increase capacity, barns and milking parlors today feature better ventilation, more space and ample light. In the summers, cows are sprayed with water and cooled with fans to lower stress.
“The evolution has been to the point where if you treat the cow right, she’ll treat you right,” he said.
Allison Wilshere of Cargill Animal Nutrition, visiting from a research campus in Elk Ridge, Mich., was promoting what she described as the “next best thing” for animals. After conducting research in partnership with Texas A&M University, Cargill has developed a line of horse feed enhanced with live cultures to help horses absorb more fiber in their feed and forage.
“Seeing the science and watching it transition to people’s everyday life is the most fascinating part,” she said.
The expo floor also featured vendors from fertility consultants, which distribute semen from bulls of various pedigrees to sire calves with similar features and qualities. Genex Cooperative Inc., a subsidiary of Cooperative Resources International, distributed “Holstein investment guides” featuring lists of bulls with desirable traits including health and fitness, production, calving ability and robot compatibility. Peter Burtch, an account specialist, said keeping the cows breeding is equivalent with profit.
“The sooner we get them pregnant is critical,” he said. “Every day a cow is open costs a lot of money, so our focus is on fertility and making sure they get bred in a timely fashion.”
Genex has also developed the ability to separate sperm cells by gender, making it possible for farmers to pay for a bull’s semen with a higher degree of certainty that the resulting calf will be a female.
Milking technology also had a strong showing. Lely, from the Netherlands, and DeLaval, from Sweden, each presented fully automatic milking apparatuses. The machines entice cows with a high-density molasses treat while a scanner reads the cow’s tag to access her medical history, usual milk yield and teat location. The machine cleans the cow’s udder and milks her. Updates on the herd are sent to a desktop computer, where the farmer can monitor the health and productivity of each cow as well as the performance of the machine. Alerts and alarms can be sent to the owner via email, voicemail or text message.
Mark Bigelow, from DeLaval’s Middlebury office, said the new technology saves time and labor.
“The thing with human beings is you want a little time for yourself,” he said. “The old way of thinking about farming was that you had to milk in the morning, take care of chores all afternoon and then feed them and then milk them again at night. People are looking at this as profitable.”
Other gadgetry on display included manure separators that extract liquid and solid matter, diverting solid waste to be used in bedding or compost and methane gas to be used to generate electricity. New photovoltaic arrays that can be installed onto a barn or house can generate hot water. Bill Spence of Daedalus Solar Works in Williamstown said the expo was a good opportunity for “tire kicking.”
BEYOND JUST MILKING
Meanwhile, Leslie Michaud of Kingdom Creamery in East Hardwick scooped ice cream with her daughter-in-law and grandson. After operating their dairy farm for three generations spanning 60 years, the family has produced ice cream for the past three years. Operating as both a dairy farm and small business, Michaud said the hardest part of expanding into producing ice cream was creating a marketing strategy.
“As a farmer, when you don’t have your own product, the milk is going in the milk truck and shipping out. The milk truck leaves and you go back to milking cows,” she said. “Once you have to market your own product, we’ve learned there’s a lot more that has to be put into it.”
Kingdom Creamery has over 400 milking cows. After seeing the advancements and services offered at the expo, she said her view was positive.
“It’s wonderful,” she said. “If you’ve got the money.”
When asked if she uses any of the new automated milking equipment, she held up her hands.
“You’re looking at them,” she said.
After surveying much of what the Vermont Farm Show had to offer, Roxbury’s David Santi, a carpenter who specializes in farm buildings, saw the future and said it would have one very familiar component.
“You’re never going to press a button on a replicator machine like on Star Trek and get food,” he said. “It isn’t going to happen. You’re always going to need farmers. Period.”

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