Foster Brothers Farms has a long and storied history of innovation, diversification and sustainability on the nearly 2,000 acres it operates near Middlebury, Vt.
The farm dates back to the 1930s, when it was founded by George and Luella Chaffee. After a devastating fire in 1957, their grandsons, Howard, Ben and George and their spouses, built a drive-through single story barn and herringbone parlor. Then, as their sons came back to the farm, they built a freestall barn with a double-eight parlor in 1964 and formed a C Corporation to manage the farm in 1971. Their four sons, Robert, Jim, George Jr. and Theodore (now retired) grew the business, updating the dairy facility in 1972.
The double-eight parlor from that upgrade was run 23 hours every day until March of 2018. That’s when Fosters moved into their 475-cow “Cow Palace” that features eight robotic milkers, freestall water beds, rubber mats and cow brushes that is all climate-controlled with a distinctive ventilation system.
The Fosters were also the first in the state, in the early 1980s, to install and operate a methane digester. And in 1992, they formed Vermont Natural Ag Products Inc. (VNAP) to compost manure and other agricultural residuals to produce some two dozen compost soil products they market to commercial, landscape and home users.
This innovation leadership has led to Foster Farms being named the 2019 Innovative Dairy Farmers of the Year, sponsored by the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) and Dairy Herd Management magazine.
“We are extremely impressed with Foster Farm’s use of technology, innovation and business partnerships to build and maintain a modern, progressive dairy operation,” says Michael Dykes, president and CEO of IDFA. “The ‘Cow Palace’ incorporates the latest in robotic milkers, and the owners use a unique heat recovery system they designed themselves along with Agrilabs Technologies to produce energy and more efficiently compost manure solids in its second business that includes Moo Organic Manure Compost Products.”
“Robert Foster has contributed his valuable leadership over the years to our dairy industry, and he and his family have built a dairy operation that is truly innovative. IDFA is honored to recognize Foster Farms as the 2019 Innovative Dairy Farmer of the Year,” Dykes adds.
The award, says Robert Foster, president of both Foster Farms and VNAP, is humbling. But he says his family’s main goals are to “maintain profitability, be good environmental stewards, produce world-class products and operate our farm for the benefit of our family, employees and community for several generations to come.”
Ed Townley, CEO and president of Cabot Creamery Co-op, who nominated the Fosters for the award, says, “Foster Brothers Farms recognized decades ago that sustainable farming is paramount to survival. The family-run operation understands no one truly owns the land—they just borrow it and pass it on. That is why good stewardship is so critical. As Foster says, ‘If you take care of the land, the land will take care of you.’”
Along with the two still-active brothers and cousin, Foster Farms include Foster’s daughter, Heather Foster-Provencher, who serves as chief financial officer for both the farm and VNAP. George Jr. and his son, Jeremy, head up the farm’s cropping enterprise and also do some of the feeding. Jim Sr.’s son, Mark, heads up the dairy and works with herdsperson Rachel Dubanski. Jim Sr. handles maintenance on the farm and tillage equipment.
In an effort to keep the farm financially viable, the Fosters decided to invest in a new 170'x640' robotic/freestall barn, coming in just under budget last winter. The barn is divided into four quadrants, with two DeLaval robotic milkers dedicated to each quadrant.
The concern for the future availability of labor was one of the main reasons the Fosters decided to use robotic milkers in the facility’s design. “Our next generation of family are already in their 40s and 50s, and you don’t go around milking 400 cows three times a day at my age,” Foster says.
The Fosters have relied on Hispanic milkers in their old facility, and they have been phenomenal employees, Foster says. “But the tight labor market forced us to look at other alternatives,” he says. “The national problem with immigration has made employing more foreign labor far less certain, and the unemployment rate in our area of Vermont is and has been 2% or less.
“But one of our biggest drivers for the new facility was cow comfort,” Foster says. A warm, well-ventilated barn is the next best option.
The barn has plastic, air-inflated curtains on both of its 640' long sides. Each side’s curtains is independently operated, with each side having three separate curtains that can be raised and lowered individually as conditions warrant. Air is drawn into the building by 17 4'x4' chimneys that run from the barn’s flat, insulated ceiling up to the building’s 30' ridge. The chimneys are topped by shuttered cupola ridge vents. There are 60" variable-speed fans at the base of each chimney to both draw air in from the sidewalls then push air up and out through the chimneys. Temperature, humidity and wind speed is all monitored and used to automatically control curtain openings and fans.
The barn is designed to maintain a 46°F temperature in late fall, winter and early spring. This past summer, the system was able to maintain an inside temperature of 85°F when the outside, ambient temperature reached 100°F. “We dropped about 6 lb. of milk during that period of high temperature, but our neighbors with conventional freestall barns were reporting 8- lb., 10-lb. and even 12-lb. drops in production,” Foster says.
Each of the barn’s freestalls is equipped with a water bed over a foam cushion that is lightly bedded with shavings. Manure scrapers run continuously in the barn to clean alleys. All of this is necessary to accommodate robotic milking, where cows come and go as they please to get milked and fed. All cows are never out of all freestalls at once, so managing the stalls has to be done to accommodate those cows still resting.
“The biggest challenge we had was feeding. We went from group feeding where cows come back to fresh feed each milking to robotic milking where cows come back from milking individually,” Foster says.
In the old facility, cows were milked 3X. In the robots, they are choosing to be milked 2.7 to 2.8 times per day, and coming back on their own. The Fosters now feed twice a day and push up feed every couple of hours.
The Fosters chose not to install a robotic feed pusher. The reason: Cows like consistency, and they go to the same location at the feed bunk every time they visit. By manually pushing up feed, Foster says they are able to redistribute feed along the length of the bunk so feed is spread evenly. “We can do that better manually with a skidsteer,” he says.
He acknowledges he and the dairy crew are still learning the intricacies of managing a robotic barn. “There is so much data that is being generated, but once you learn the system, it is easier to monitor cow health and reproduction,” he says.
The good news is milk production has remained steady, at nearly 27,000 lb. per cow on a rolling herd basis. Thanks to the robots, the labor needed to milk the cows has now been reduced to monitoring the eight robotic milkers, going from six milkers per day plus weekend relief milkers to a four-person rotation familiar with the robots.
VERMONT NATURAL AG PRODUCTS, INC.
In 1992, Foster Farms formed VNAP to produce and sell soil amendments from composted manure and other agricultural residuals. The farm had been using manure solids from the methane digester as part of their composting business.
Using manure solids from their dairy, several nearby dairy, egg and poultry farms, and a large horse show along with local food waste, VNAP produces 55,000 cubic yards of finished compost, with 60% packaged as 750,000 bags of multiple products.
Foster and his nephew, Jim Jr., (now deceased) designed a negative pressure system to capture heat from the compost piles. A heat exchanger warms water to 160°F to produce in-floor heat for their compost packaging facility, which reduces fuel costs. The recaptured heat is also used to speed up the composting process, cutting both composting time in half and reducing the number of pile turns by a factor of four.
Products include eight Moo brand compost products approved for organic use, seven Foster Brothers brand products along with custom blends. In an effort to support independent business, Moo organics are sold exclusively through a network of independent resellers located along the East Coast, Foster says.
The compost business has grown to about a $2-million venture. “Right now, given milk prices, it’s nice to have a companion business to the dairy,” he says.
Past Innovative Farmer of the Year award recipients
The following farms have been recognized as Innovative Farmer of the Year award recipients:
Schrack Farm Resources LP, Loganton, Pa.; Jer-Lindy Farms LLC, Brooten, Minn.; Holsum Dairies, Hilbert, Wis.; Hilmar Jerseys, Hilmar, Calif.; Milk Source LLC, Kaukauna, Wis.; McCarty Family Farms, Rexford, Kan.; Sweetwater Valley Farm, Philadelphia, Tenn.; Brubaker Farms, Mount Joy, Pa.; Haubenschild Dairy Farm, Princeton, Minn.; High Plains Dairy, Friona, Texas; KBC Farms, Purdy, Mo.; Joseph Gallo Farms, Atwater, Calif.; KF Dairy, El Centro, Calif.; North Florida Holsteins, Bell, Fla.; C Bar M Dairy, Jerome, Idaho; Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy, Kewaunee, Wis.; Si-Ellen Farms, Jerome, Idaho; Baldwin Dairy/Emerald Dairy, Emerald, Wis.; Clauss Dairy Farms, Hilmar, Calif., and Mason Dixon Farms, Gettysburg, Pa.