June 23, 2011

Built: On an Organic Dairy Farm



Last year I began an occasional series on the built environment – see posts on small cottages, a covered bridge, barn cupolas, a little bridge in the woods– so when I was out photographing farm machinery for my paintings on a beautiful Sunday, I thought I'd write a post on the architecture of one of my favorite farms in northern Vermont. The dominant structure on the farm is a large round barn, dramatic and beautiful. It is always startling to see a building of a shape other than rectangular, and there are several wonderful examples in Vermont. These buildings were popular in the late 19th to early 20th centuries and were seen as labor saving designs: feed was more easily distributed from the center of the building, and waste removed. I am guessing that with more and larger machinery, rectangular barns with central aisles became more efficient, so the round barns were no longer favored.




This is the more usual barn shape, and you can get a glimpse of stanchions for the cows in the dim interior. The French Canadian ancestry of the farmer is shown in the strong green and white design painted on the barn doors. This part of Vermont is very close to Québec, where farm buildings are often painted in vivid blues and greens.




The most modern structure on the farm is a quonset style building, probably inexpensive to erect. It is easy to get in and out of; it stores sand, which is used as bedding for cows. I can think of it as beautiful in its simplicity, and in the way the corrugated metal captures and reflects light.




The very large dark blue silos, Harvestores, can be seen projecting their upright mass on farms around the US, but here in Vermont, they are relics of a recent past and are rarely used because expensive to run. These days most farms use concrete bunkers or huge plastic bags to store silage (chopped corn) or haylage (chopped hay), cheaper and easier to use.




When I saw the farmer bringing the cows in from pasture at midday, I asked him why he was milking at such a strange time; most farms milk twice a day in very early morning and evening, twelve hours apart. Oh, he said, he's not milking, but because his farm had become organic, the cows were required to be on pasture for a certain number of hours a day. Most large dairy farms, and this one is large with 200 milking cows, now keep the animals indoors all day in a freestall barn, a lot less work than pasturing them. I was pleased to learn he'd become organic, a long and difficult process, but worth it for the higher price he gets for bulk organic milk. It's a plus for the farmer, for the land, and for the consumer.

7 comments:

  1. great pictures of those structures Altoon, esp that round red barn. I know zilch about building but I wonder if rounds are more difficult to build than rectangles....

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  2. rappel, you should check out the "round barn" link above which is to a wikipedia entry that says that round structures are actually less expensive and easier to construct than rectangular ones. It's all a matter of efficiency; when human labor was primary on the farm, the round barn made sense, but with tractors it no longer did, which is why we no longer see new ones.

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  3. It is not only a plus for the farmer, land and consumer but also for the cows. I believe with at least some (maybe most?) of the nonorganic farms, the cows are in indoor stalls for most of their lives--can anyone confirm this? For me, one of the major reasons for buying organic milk, even though it is considerably more expensive, is knowing I am supporting a kinder way of life for the cows. susan w

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  4. susan, I certainly should have included the cows in my list. As I mentioned in the last paragraph above: "Most large dairy farms, and this one is large with 200 milking cows, now keep the animals indoors all day in a freestall barn, a lot less work than pasturing them."

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  5. Yes, I did read what you wrote--I'm just wondering if the cows on the big nonorganic farms stay in their stalls all of the time--do they ever leave their stalls for exercise or fresh air? I am constantly promoting organic milk to friends largely on the basis of a better, healthier life for the cows (hopefully also resulting in a better, healthier product), but does anyone know the facts or know of anywhere I could read up on dairy farm conditions? I believe that on the organic farms, the cows must be on pasture 6 months of the year--but this is the only fact I know. susan w

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  6. susan, I believe that on large farms cows that are "working" – being milked – are indoors. They are kept in freestall barns, which are designed so the cows can move around in them, and for maximum circulation of air. The cows are not tethered in one spot at all. Cows we see outdoors on these large farms are generally either young heifers, or cows that are pregnant and about to have their calves.
    I guess you can just do some googling to find out more, or stop at a local dairy farm and have a chat with a farmer; they are usually very friendly and happy to have a conversation, even give a little tour. They all love their work, their land and their cows, even if they are farming conventionally.

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  7. Enjoy taking this farm tour with you.

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