A thoroughly modern dairy farm in Bristol
As we know more, we’re changing our practices because we don’t want to injure the environment. We haven’t always done it right, but when we find out something is wrong, we change it.
— Chanin Hill
BRISTOL — When Four Hills Farm business manager Chanin Hill married Brian Hill 26 years ago, the Hill family farm, which sits at the base of the Hogback Mountains on Burpee Road in Bristol, was home to about 260 Holstein and Jersey cows.
Since then a lot has changed.
Today, the Hill family manages a milking herd of about 2,300 (still Holsteins and Jerseys) and farms 5,700 acres of land in Addison County.
“We went from that tiny little barn down there,” Chanin told farm tour guests on Aug. 24, gesturing down the road, “to up here, where we built the current barns, in 1996.”
During the tour, part of an open house hosted through the New England Dairy Promotion Board, the Hills shared other innovations; among them a methane digester, no- or low-till planting practices, GPS-controlled planting equipment and their state-of-the-art milking parlor. The Hills have adopted some green practices that keep their staff of 45 employed year round.
The operation of the Four Hills Farm, started in 1973 by Robert and Jeannette Hill (Brian’s parents), paints a picture of dairy in Vermont in the 21st century.
Walking into the milking parlor at Four Hills Farm, you hear cows murmuring but also, the whirr of machines. As the cows line up to be milked in stations set in long rows on either side of a clean, white-tiled aisle, a computer with a flashing LED screen records each animal’s body temperature. The cow’s milking history is stored and recorded, so the farm’s nutritionist can make informed choices about how best to supplement her diet and herd manager Britney Hill can keep an eye out for any signs of poor health.
“We milk our cows three times a day and produce more than 20,000 gallons of milk” per day, Britney, who is Chanin and Brian’s daughter, explained to a crowd of about 20 visitors.
That works out to 3 million gallons of milk per year flowing from the Four Hills Farm, Britney said.
In the Bovine Maternity Ward, Britney explains that cows, like people, have a nine-month gestation period.
“We have about 10 calves born every day on the farm,” she said. “In general, they tend to calve at night during the summer, because it’s so much cooler.”
Once labor is finished (it can take several hours), the calves are placed in a special pen for a few hours, where their mother can lick off the after-birth.
For the following two weeks, the newborn cows are placed in pens in a special calf barn, where they are fed colostrum — the antibody-rich “first milk” that provides the calf with a boosted immune defense during the first two weeks of its life.
Then, each gets a special collar, equipped with a unique radio frequency ID and is turned loose into a pen with its peers.
“Automated calf feeders identify each calf and deliver it a precise amount of milk every few hours,” says Britney. This goes on for 70 to 85 days, at which point the cows are introduced to a diet of grain and hay. “In this case, automation lets us give them a more natural feeding cycle of many small meals throughout the day, than if we were to manually feed them just two to three times.”
At Four Hills Farm, the average dairy cow lives for about five years, at which point, most are sold for slaughter to be made into ground beef. Heifers are first bred at one year and three months of age and may calve two to three times over the course of their lifetime.
Since 2012, the Hills have produced about twice the electricity needed to run the farm on a given summer day through their enrollment in Green Mountain Power’s Cow Power program. In the program, the Hills use methane from cow manure seasoned in the digester to turn a turbine and create electricity; GMP buys the electricity and sells it to general customers, thus giving farmers an incentive to operate digesters.
“In the winter, we make about four times what we need, so we sell everything to the grid and buy back what we need,” says Chanin.
At about 3 percent of overall revenue, Cow Power doesn’t generate much income, but it does provide the Hills with free, sterile bedding made from the cooked fibers left over after liquid fertilizer has been extracted from manure sent into the digester.
“This saves us about $300,000 per year,” says Chanin.
Four Hills Farm has invested a lot of money in new equipment for no-till farming practices. At the Aug. 24 tour, University of Vermont Extension agronomist Kirsten Workman described the practice with a home-gardening analogy: “Imagine dropping a seed in the middle of your lawn, without roughing up the soil and trying to grow something. With cover cropping and no-till practices, that’s essentially what we are asking farmers to do.”
The Hills have adopted this practice, along with the soil-stabilizing practice of cover cropping, on the majority of the 5,700 acres they manage for crops. GPS-guided tractors allow Brian and his staff to record with detailed accuracy where and when each seed is planted in a given field, which nutrients and fertilizers were applied, when they were applied, and when each crop was harvested.
“We’re at a point now where we grow 60 to 70 percent of our own feed,” says Chanin, which saves costs.
“What we would have recommended to Four Hills Farm in terms of cropping practices 20, 30 years ago is very different from what we are saying now,” says Workman, who says that the science around best practices for managing runoff and water quality is evolving rapidly.
For farms, changing a practice means investing in expensive technology, new training and year-round work for staff that were once seasonal employees.
“As we know more, we’re changing our practices because we don’t want to injure the environment. We haven’t always done it right, but when we find out something is wrong, we change it,” says Chanin.
At Four Hills Farm, specialization has been a key factor in their ability to adapt to changing market conditions and best sustainability practices.
“Farming today takes diversification. We can’t just grow our herd by adding more cows, acquiring more land as we did in the past. You have to look hard at the systems in place within the farm,” says Chanin.
For the Hills, this means that each family member oversees a different “department” of farm function. One daughter, Meghan, oversees breeding. A nephew manages pesticides and fertilizer. All have earned or are working toward post-secondary degrees in their respective fields and are constantly using technology to collect and analyze data about how cost-effective and sustainable the systems they manage are.
“Like every other part of our lives, farming has become very technologically oriented,” says Chanin. “We like to say we farm for the third generation. We want our kids to be able to come back here. To do that sustainably, they are going to need to know a whole lot more than we did.”
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