Good Neighbors Keep NY Dairy Farm Growing

10/6/2012 7:00 AM
By Marjorie Struckle New York Correspondent

During a time when agriculture is declining and urban sprawl is reducing acreage, the Coon family is thriving with the support of their nonagricultural neighbors.

Where farms have steadily declined over the past 60 years, Coon Brothers LLC dairy farm is expanding.

There are currently 18 dairy farms in operation in Dutchess County, N.Y. Coon Brothers — located six miles from the Connecticut border and 50 miles from New York City — is the largest.

"Our goal is to keep the farm profitable for a comfortable family living to make it attractive for someone to keep it going," David Coon said.

Brothers David and Peter Coon own and operate Coon Brothers LLC, which had its beginnings with their father, Dirck, and uncle, Garrison, in 1953. The business is welcoming a third generation.

Isaac, the son of Peter and his wife, Alice, is now a full partner, and their other son, Amos, is also working on the farm. Daughters Lisa, Teri and Laura are professionals and remain in touch with the farm life.

David and wife Kimberly's children participate in the farm activities and enjoy showing dairy cattle. Daughter Caitlyn is in college and son Andrew is a high school student.

One third of the 350 milking-age animals and the 350 supportive young stock is Guernsey, with the remainder Holsteins.

"We are a commercial herd bred for production, not for show, but they need good legs and feet and udders and that puts us in the showing," said David.

This was evident when a calf they sold to a 4-Her a few years ago was named grand champion Holstein and supreme overall dairy champion at the Dutchess County Fair.

The land base has increased since the establishment of the farm. They own 200 acres but crop a total of 2,000 acres, all within six miles of the barn. The remainder of the land became available as farms ceased operations. They also have been provided with lands owned by estates, individuals and hunt clubs. Still other land has been placed in preservation.

Some of the estate owners are content to receive an agricultural tax exemption. Others are pleased their land is used for agriculture. Some of the land use is bartered; a very small amount is rented.

Neighbors are happy with the farm's practices, which prevent the land base from being lost to housing developments. The Coons have set the standard for conservation practices and general stewardship of all the land they own and use.

Six hundred acres are necessary to feed and support the farm's livestock. But with the neighbors' trust and support the farm is able to feed the livestock, and rotate the land use and sell the excess feed.

The home farm contains alfalfa and pasture. Use of buildings on the neighbors' land and at home permits the Coons to have all the dry hay stored inside.

All the animals are housed at the farm facility in various grouping barns. Recently, barns built in 1960 and 1971 were torn down.

"These barns had very inefficient stalls and the animals were fed outside where rain water collected," David said.

Replacing those barns is a new, 127-by-230-foot dairy barn with the capacity to house two groups of milk animals — a special needs group and a small group of close-to-calving animals.

Prior to the barn construction, the family had considered a rotary parlor but the lack of technological services in the area led them to build the new barn.

"It is difficult. Although there are equipment dealers available, the technical support is relatively new," David said.

Much of the researching of new ideas and techniques falls upon the Coon family.

"The availability of veterinarians is a serious issue," David said. "All the local vets are the same age, nearing retirement. We don't like to call them to come out during the nights. Luckily, new younger vets have come into the area for large animals.

"A downfall in addition to the lack of support services is the lack of neighbors with similar farming activities," he said.

The twice-a-day milking in the double-10 milking parlor takes about 4½ hours. The farm work requires two full-time milkers, four outside people and two people doing chores. Many of them have been employed at the farm for more than 10 years.

They rely on David's father to monitor the farm activity, fondly calling him “the inspector.”

With a smile David said, "With all the family members it makes it possible to take vacations, in addition to being at the fairs."

All the buildings connected to the parlor use an 8 percent ramp, which is considered to be a handicapped slope. David expects roofs to be added over the lanes at a later date.

The new barn has 200 gell mats, indoor feeding and currently enough stalls for every animal to lie down at the same time.

"We expect a lot with the new barn, from cow comfort of the animals, getting up and down,” David said. “If this works out as we expect, we are going to need to spend to fix up the other barns."

The animals are grouped in high and low production groups based upon the days in milk, and breed, rather than by production number alone.

"The special needs group is housed together for whatever care is required, be it mastitis, sore feet, or recently fresh cows. They generally remain in this group for three days, depending upon need and available space," David said.

The new barn also houses the high-production Holstein and Guernsey groups.

The older barn houses Holstein 2-year-olds, lower-production Holstein cows, and a group of Guernsey and young Holstein cows.

Dry cows are housed on pasture as long as possible before moving into a dry-cow-designated barn. Bred heifers are also kept on pasture before being stabled for the winter.

The calves are housed in individual pens and, as they age, into group pens in an older tiestall barn with tunnel ventilation. When the heifers reach breeding age they are moved into another barn.

The Holsteins have a herd average of 23,000 pounds, while the Gurneys average 16,500 pounds of milk per year.

"All the milk goes into the same tank, the protein and fat are good values, and we don't get hung up on it," David said.

The milk is shipped to AgriMark to be used to label Hudson Valley Fresh Milk and Dairy Products.

"It's producer-quality milk sold local in New York where the farmers pledge production superior quality in milk," David said.

The farm complies with CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) requirements, utilizing a million-gallon slurry store tank for manure storage. The manure is spread in the fall after September and emptied again in the spring.

"The manure goes where it needs to go; it always has and always will. This is understood by the neighbors," David said.

The total mixed ration is made with all home-grown feed with protein added. The farm raises hay, alfalfa haylage, grass bales and corn silage. High-moisture shelled corn and soybeans are grown,, processed and fed, with the extra sold.

After the wheat grain is harvested, the straw is baled. The other milk barn has mattresses which they cover with shavings and straw to keep the animals dry.

All the animals are bred with artificial insemination. Animal numbers remain constant, as they sell young stock to maintain the numbers.

"That is why we don't use sexed semen except for three months of the year when calf barn numbers are low," David said.

Educating the public about their food source is important to the Coon family.

School classes and other tours visit the farm. David said he believes they need to educate the teachers, as well.

"It's very important the teachers have accurate information to share with the classes," he said.

Coon family members volunteer on boards and committees, including Extension, Soil and Water Conservation District and Dutchess County Agriculture and Farmland Protection, and have been involved in 4-H and Junior Holstein programs.

"They (the Coon family members) are very unassuming, yet when they offer information or question a policy at a meeting, everyone listens," said Jennifer Fimbel, Cornell Cooperative Extension resource educator for Dutchess County.

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