The Lowell Family Farm is a perfect example of how no two dairy farms are alike. Each operates based on a number of factors – interests and skill sets of the farmers and employees, available land and facilities, agricultural philosophies, even the chosen breed of cattle for that farm, to name a few.
“It didn’t take us long to see that we wanted to focus on cow comfort and quality forage,” said Dana Lowell who started dairy farming with his wife Seri in 2007. “It’s a synergy that translates into high-component milk and efficient cows.” Favorable components in milk are protein and butterfat.
The Lowells are doing it their way on farmland in Buckfield that has been in his family since the 1950s and has gone through several different agricultural uses. Dana and Seri moved their dairy operation there in 2010. Their cows are housed in what was once a riding arena and is now a composting bedded pack; they raise crops for their animals using the no-till method; they breed for smaller Jerseys; they have milked as many as 100 cows but found that keeping at about 50 was optimal for their labor force. They do what works for them and their farm. And it has worked so well that Lowell Family Farm was recently chosen as the 2020 New England Green Pastures Award winner for Maine. A recipient from each New England state was honored during a virtual banquet on Sept. 18 in which Commissioner Amanda Beal of Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry commended the Lowells for not only their commitment to the care of their animals but the care of the land as well. “We are so proud to have dairy farmers like you call our state home,” she said.
Rick Kersbergen, Sustainable Dairy and Forage Systems specialist for UMaine Cooperative Extension, was part of the selection committee. “I have always said if I was a cow, I would want to live at the Lowells’,” he said, adding that all the Green Pasture nominees in Maine were top notch. “But it was really their forage quality that stood out to us. That really is the key to producing quality and efficient milk.”
The quality of the Lowell’s grass and hay is especially impressive when you consider what rough shape the fields were in when they took over in 2010. “The farm didn’t have a single acre that wasn’t run out when we started,” said Dana. The 200 acres of hay fields were covered in weeds, but with some love and attention the Lowells are able to harvest four nutrient-dense cuttings of hay and baleage (grass that is baled before it is dry and wrapped to promote fermentation to a product the cows love to eat).
“Our farming philosophy revolves around environmental stewardship, because soil is the basis of everything we do,” Dana said. “We love living in the country, we love open ground, we love seeing green fields. Everything we like to do and everything we like to see in the world comes back to how the ground gets treated.”
Like an increasing number of farmers, the Lowells have adopted no-till methods to grow their corn, meaning they do not turn up the earth each year to plant their corn but use a corn planter that disturbs a minimal amount of soil. They also plant a cover crop after harvesting their fields to protect them from nutrient loss and to add nutrients to the soil.
“By using no till, by disturbing the soil as little as possible, you’re leaving the carbon in the soil,” Dana explains. “Another thing that you call that carbon is ‘organic matter’, and the more organic matter you have in that soil, the better for the soil, the better for the plant, AND the better for the environment because it mitigates nutrient run-off, run-off erosion, plus that organic matter that is working day and night for the farmer is also keeping carbon out of the air.
“Everything we do as a farming community to make farming play an integral role in mitigating environmental damage and climate change, benefits us all.”
Dana grew up hand milking four or five cows, and his dad shipped milk for a short time, but his family’s focus shifted to logging and a lumber mill. He sees the fact that he and Seri don’t have generations of dairy farming knowledge and experience to rely upon as a positive for them. There’s no doing it one way just because that’s how we’ve always done it.
“We’re open to anything,” he said.
“We read the research and try to think how it applies to us,” added Seri. “Some of it isn’t that relevant to us, but some of it is really relevant, and we try to apply it.”
They learned about composting bedded packs (their’s was one of the first in Maine) and also about wide swathing (leaving the mowed grass spread out behind the mower rather than in a windrow) to harvest more quickly and optimize nutrient content. They also researched the pros and cons of no-till, which requires herbicide spraying since grass and weeds aren’t turned into the soil.
“The trade off is between spraying herbicides, which we really don’t like the idea of, versus burning more fossil fuels in tillage, which we also really don’t like,” Seri said. “We really had to weigh that on the no-till.”
And flexibility is key to their success with forages. While they like wide-swathing for baleage, it’s not always the best option. Just because they usually make dry hay on a certain field at a certain time of year, it’s not set in stone that they have to do it that way. “If we get a weather window and the crop is at its peak, we’ll put it into baleage” Seri said. “We just do what we have to do to preserve the nutrients.”
All the research and work comes down to doing what’s best for the land AND the cows. “We work really hard to give them what they want,” Dana says of their Jerseys.
They have always milked this “small, hardworking” breed, and Dana said they appreciate that “all the wildness hasn’t been bred out of them. They keep you on your toes.” But it’s really their efficiency that impresses him the most. Except for a small amount of grain that is fed to the cows, the Lowells are able to grow all the feed for their cows while still being able to sell a large amount to other farms. For what they put into the cows, the Lowells feel they get a great deal in return.
The only tilling that does happen on the farm is in the composting bedded pack, which is tilled twice a day to incorporate manure and then covered in clean bedding – sawdust from the family sawmill down the road. This allows the manure to compost underneath the cows. The composting bedding and manure heats up, killing any pathogens, leaving it ready to spread on the fields when the barn is cleaned out. The cows have a comfortable, clean area to lounge in that keeps them warm in the winter. During the warmer months, misters and fans keep the bedded pack cool for the cows.
The Lowells are quick to point out that they don’t run the farm all on their own. They rely on their children Maren and Wheeler who help out whenever they can; Maren recently graduated from UMaine in Farmington, where her brother is working towards his degree in biology. They have one full time employee- Josh Fournier, who is considered family and has been with the Lowells since they first started shipping milk.
They also give a great deal of credit for their success to those who provide their services to the farm regularly – their veterinarian, the cow nutritionist, their breeder and their Dairy Herd Improvement technician. Lowell Family Farm belongs to the Agri-Mark Cooperative, which owns Cabot Cheese. Their milk is trucked to the HPHood plant in Portland and bottled.