Happy cows’ equals quality milk at Vermont dairy

5/17/2014 7:00 AM

Leon Thompson

Vermont Correspondent

HARDWICK, Vt. — Taylor and Nick Meyer hear the question often, and, each time, they offer the same reply.

“There’s no secret,” said Taylor Meyer while standing with Nick, inside their barn at North Hardwick Dairy, in Hardwick, Vt. “They just have to be happy.”

“They” are the 50-plus milking cows that have helped the Meyers earn Vermont’s Highest Cow Milk Quality Award not just once, nor twice, nor five times. Because why stop there?

No, the Meyers, their parents, Stephen and Patricia, and their brother, Andrew, have accepted the annual honor 10 straight times — the latest being at the 80th annual Vermont Farm Show on Jan. 30, during the Dairy Farmers’ Appreciation Banquet hosted by the Vermont Dairy Industry Association (VDIA).

Seventy-nine cow milk nominees and seven goat milk nominees qualified for the 2013 competition. Quality parameters such as bacterial and somatic cell counts, as well as farm inspection scores and flavor, are factored into judging winners.

Runners up in the cow milk quality category were Andrew and Debra Hogan, of Whiting, and Dale and Alma Briggs, of Addison. The Highest Quality Goat Milk Award went to Huard Family Farm, of Craftsbury Common.

The Meyers became Organic Valley farmer-owners in 2003 and were the first organic farm in Vermont to take the milk quality award a year later. They have earned the title every year since 2004.

“Farms with low counts years after year demonstrate their dedication to cleanliness and cow health and to the production of the highest quality milk,” said Dr. Julie Smith, VDIA president and University of Vermont (UVM) Extension dairy specialist. “I could not be more proud to have a Vermont dairy farm receive top honors for producing high quality milk for 10 years in a row.”

Originally from New Jersey, Stephen and Patricia Meyer moved to Vermont in the late 1960s and started milking cows on the small hillside farm they bought in the late 1970s. Initially, they operated as a conventional dairy farm, with about 30 cows.

After graduating from nearby Hazen Union High School, Taylor took his bachelor’s degree in history from UVM and went to New York City, where he worked for MTV as a production assistant. Nick graduated from UVM with a bachelor’s degree in small business and spent time in the western United States as a snowmobile guide.

Meanwhile, their parents’ farm was becoming “labor intensive and limiting,” Taylor said. He and Nick assumed the farm in 2001, transitioning to organic farming, with help from Organic Valley.

“It’s well worth it,” Nick Meyer said of the yearlong process, and the subsequent, annual recertification.

Aside from homeopathic remedies and tinctures —just some of their successful prevention methods —the Meyers pamper their herd with rotational grazing on 100 of their 350 acres, meaning they switch cows to fresh pasture every 12 hours after milking.

The brothers also continuously work to improve the self-sustainability of their land. They built a wind turbine in 2008 and grow their own hay and feed crops filled with barley, peas, oats, and alfalfa.

“They just love it,” Taylor said of his cows.

Rather than focusing on monstrous yields in short bursts, which can put stress on cows, the Meyers treat their animals well over long periods of time. Longer life spans yield higher milk quality, Taylor said.

“It’s also a big sell for the consumer,” he added.

Stephen and Patricia Meyer still live up the dirt road from North Hardwick Dairy, and still help on the farm. Andrew now focuses on the businesses he owns in town.

Taylor and Nick do not expect to be called to the podium in 2015 for the Highest Quality Cow Milk Award, because North Hardwick Dairy is transitioning again: Last December, they installed a Lely robotic milking machine that they purchased from Paul Godin, in Enosburg Falls, Vt.

Like other upcoming farmers of their generation, the Meyer brothers invested in the Lely to keep their time more flexible and manageable.

“So we’re not sure we can make it 11 years in a row,” Nick Meyer said. “Ten became kind of a goal after a while. But 11? We’re not so sure. We’ll see.”

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