Moo-ing The Good Life
The 550 or so cows that reside at Riverside Farm in North Fryeburg, Maine, are not your typical cows. "We have definite rules concerning the cows," said co-owner of the farm Clara Thurston. "Everyone is told, 'Don't hit the cows, don't yell at the cows, and don't hurry the cows.'"
Clara and husband Harold, who had previously grown cash crops of potatoes and string beans, purchased the farm from Phil Andrews in 1973, planning to combine their crop farming with dairy farming to make a total operation. "Though Harold got his degree in dairying, he never had his heart set on being a dairy farmer," said Clara. "He just knew he wanted to be a big. farmer."
“I took agriculture at school just because I knew I wanted to live in North Fryeburg,” said Harold, “and I was smart enough to know I wouldn’t have much business out here as an engineer."
In addition to some of the best bottom land in the area, a beautiful 13-room, typical New England farmhouse came with the farm. Strangely, it took the Thurstons two years to move from their modern ranch-style home into the roomy farmhouse. "I didn't want to move into the farmhouse at first," said Clara, "because I was terrified of cows and didn't want to be living that close to them."
Necessity helped to change her mind, and Clara now describes dairy farming as the best fun she's ever had. The couple divides the work into a separate but equal load, and a look at their work schedule gives a good indication how much they both like farming and how much Clara enjoys dairying.
Harold is the overall decision maker and coordinates all the field activities--plantings, fertilizing, harvesting, building, and machine maintenance, and is also on call at all hours of the night if there might be a delivery in the barn. Managing the cash crop, dried beans for human consumption, is Harold's responsibility, and half of the farm's acreage is devoted to that endeavor. Beans cannot be planted in the same field year after year, and the combination of businesses provides an ideal rotation crop. "Corn is a good crop to rotate with beans," said Harold. Arising at about 4 a.m. and heading out to work, Harold often stays in the field until dusk, doing the hard work involved in taking care of the 1,000-acre farm.
Clara's job is to oversee the cows. "I basically make all the cow decisions," she explained. "I have to decide how many pounds of feed each 'girl' is going to get, who should be bred, who should be moved. Generally, my job is to take care of the environment and health of the cows."
To accomplish this, Clara starts her day early. "The alarm goes off at 2 a.m. and I usually roll right out," she said. "By 2:30 I'm out going through the barn and checking everything." Admitting that it is a bit difficult to do this in the coldest months of winter, Clara explained that she needed those early hours to gather all the information about the 270 milkers and the remaining 280 cows who are in various stages of growth and development. "I have to look at every cow," she said, "and that takes me until about 5 a.m."
In addition to their computer number, every cow at Riverside Farms has a name, and Clara works hard to remember each cow by name rather than number. Just coming up with that many names is quite a feat--"We ran out of Bossys and Nellies right away," said son Greg--let alone being able to attach the name to the cow. "I know who most of the girls are," Clara said with a laugh, "if you can imagine knowing 270 different black and white cows just to look at them. The ones with distinctive markings are usually easier to remember, but some of them are daughters or granddaughters of favorite cows of mine so I automatically know them, or else they have such nice personalities that no matter what markings they have, everyone remembers them."
Running an operation the magnitude of Riverside Farms, the Thurstons obviously need to have some help. Right now, there are 16 on the payroll, not including Clara and Harold. "They don't get paid,” said Clara's sister, Kay Lusky, jokingly referring to Clara and Harold. Kay is the office manager and does the majority of the farm's bookkeeping as well as keeping charts and tables that would be the envy of a statistician.
More often than not, hiring family is the rule at Riverside Farms, one reason being that the Thurstons are a close-knit family and like it that way. The other may be that since Harold is a descendant of one of the first settlers of Fryeburg, and Clara is a member of a large family, many of the people who live near the farm and work there also happen to be relatives.
Son Greg lives nearby and serves as a jack-of-all-trades on the farm, handling any of the jobs required with the herd, in the fields or in the office. Approximately 40 of the cows in the herd are his, and Greg along with Kay, acts as his parents' back-up when they take a rare vacation. "I've gotten used to a lot of crazy things happening all the time here," said Greg, "but if gets extra exciting when they go away. A tractor burning up becomes minor compared to a barn roof falling in as it did once while they were gone."
Another of Clara's sisters, Jean Bryant, takes care of the large house, does some cooking, and takes care the garden. Brother-in-law Olin Lusky works with Harold, along with numerous other cousins and a few non-relatives. “We've been really lucky with our crew,” said Clara. “One of our milkers, Henry Pollard, has worked at this farm for 29 years and stayed with us after we bought it.”
For the most part, Riverside Farms is a self-contained operation. All of the corn silage, hay and shell corn for the dairy cows’ feed is raised on the premises. It is necessary to buy 600 tons of grain a year to “beef” up the feed and make it the perfect combination for the cows. Carefully analyzed by the labs at the University of New Hampshire, the cows’ feed is the ideal amount for their age, size, and stage of development. “These animals are fed just as well as it is possible to feed an animal,” said Clara of her “pets.”
Although she eats neither beef nor veal after her 10 years’ association with the cows, Clara suspects that her cows, which are sold for beef after about four or five years of milk production, should be quite delicious and lean. "I usually don't like to think about it, though," she said.
Replacement cows for the herd are all from the Thurston's family of cows. Artificially bred with champion bulls (Clara jokingly referred to the man who was performing the breeding as “our bull”), the cows give birth to their first calf when they are almost two, and every year after that until statistics say their milk production will drop. It is completely a scientific endeavor with bulls chosen according to information concerning the size of calf they throw, difficulty of births, quality of legs and hooves of their offspring, and how much milk their progeny produce. The only concession to "romance" is a big chart hanging in the hall leading out of the milking room with pictures of the bulls for the cows to ogle if they so desire.
The cattle at Riverside Farms get personal attention from the time they are born--if, and only if, they are female. All calves are given first colostrum milk, to give them their mother's immunities, but the young bulls are immediately shipped out. Newborn calves are kept in individual stalls in a nursery for a few weeks until strong enough to move into the upstairs nursery. Each stage of development brings a change to new surroundings as they mature and get ready for breeding. At each point there is a special person assigned to the care and feeding of the animal, ensuring they will be friendly and happy when they reach the milking stage.
It is definitely a woman's world in all dairy barns but even more so at Riverside Farms because Clara runs the dairy end of the business. “I love working with all the ‘girls,’ " said Clara affectionately. “They are very loving creatures and very responsive. They seem to recognize that you are trying to do what’s right for them."
Clara instructs her crew to do everything possible to keep the cows happy. “You’ve got to care about what you're doing,” Clara explained. “Our cows are not tied up and never kept in stanchions--everything is free stalled.” Cows are given the choice of resting in their beds, which are kept well-padded and clean with sawdust, roaming around out back in fenced-in areas, or socializing within the barn. Sick cows, or those about to calve, are given a special roomy area of the barn for their very own, and if they don't feel well enough to go to their food, hay and grain will be carried to them. “If I ever come back as a cow,” Clara said, “I hope I come back here.”
Just as there is a pecking order within a hen house, there is a hierarchy in the cow barn. “Our cows are separated into different herds,” explained Clara, “and they really like being in with the other cows but when they are moved around they have to find out what position they are within the herd.” They do this by bumping heads and having a pushing contest. The cow destined to be lowest on the totem pole gives up first. “The top cow in a herd can make any other cow move,” said Clara, “but the bottom one can't make anyone move.”
Cows are milked three times a day--at 4:00 a.m., noon, and 8:00 p.m.--which is the most economical way when you have a large farm. “It's easier on the cows, too,” said Clara, “because they don't have to stand as long with each milking.” It takes approximately four to five hours for all the cows to be milked, including the sick cows, whose milk is kept separate. The Thurstons have a double-eight herringbone parlor which allows one person to milk 16 cows at a time. “The cows know their order pretty well,” said Greg when discussing how they come into the parlor, “and seem to come in the same way week after week. Some like to rush right in to get it over with, and others will always try to be the last one in no matter what.”
The milk is never touched by human hands, and records of each cow’s production is kept by a computerized system that is analyzed daily by Clara. A computer printout gives the cow’s number, the number of minutes she milked, and the pounds of milk she produced each milking session. “I know at a glance what each cow should be producing,” explained Clara, “and the computer readout gives me a little advance warning if something might be wrong."
In this day when family-run dairy farms are becoming a part of history, the Thurstons are starting a new tradition of excellence. The Thurstons’ cows are happy cows, as their milk production and anyone who visits the farm attests. In 1978, only five years after getting into the dairy business, Harold and Clara were chosen Dairy Farmers of the Year for the state of Maine. The two take off on trips about once a year (almost always traveling with farm groups), but spend most of their time, seven days a week, working on their farm.
A good advertisement for the benefits of the farm life, the couple enjoys the old-fashioned hard work. Enthusiastic and happy with their busy lives, Harold and Clara wouldn't want to change anything. “Dairying is not a very good way to make a living,” said Clara, “but it's a really nice way to live if you don't mind working seven days a week.”
“I don't mind the work,” said Harold, “although it's awful nice to get a day off once in a while.”