Keeping a farm in the family

Corse family using grazing to maintain 152-year legacy

By Martha Hoffman
Whitingham, Vermont
— For the past 152 years the Corse family has milked cows in south central Vermont.

Today, Leon Corse, his wife, Linda, and their adult daughter, Abbie, are doing their best to continue that legacy with organic-certified management tailored to their farm. And they’re helping others begin their own legacies through participation in the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship, a program aiming to bring new dairy farmers into the industry.

Leon’s great-great grandparents, Charles and Julia Corse, bought the farm in May 1868, and members of the Corse family have lived here ever since.

Today Leon and Linda own the 300-acre home farm, which includes 200 acres of woods and 100 acres of open land. “I don’t call it tillable land, because we haven’t plowed in 35 years,” Leon notes.

The family manages about 370 acres in total, which includes land leased from 26 out-of-state landlords. Some of this ground has been rented from the same landlord families since the 1930s and ‘40s.

While most of the farm isn’t too steep, the soils present unique challenges.

“We have heavy, wet land,” Leon says. “Which is good in some ways and a challenge in others.” The ground is also very stony, and Leon describes the New England trademark stone walls:

“For every stone that’s in the walls, it has multiple relatives that are still out in the field. So one of the reasons we gave up plowing is because if you leave them alone, they bother you less.”

The other reason Leon stopped plowing is that he’s discovered the unique management that works for this piece of ground, even if it’s different than what his professors directed when he was getting his plant and soil science degree from the University of Vermont.

The “unlearning curve”
“I spent the first 10 years when I came back here learning that I needed to farm this farm the way it needed to be farmed, as opposed to the way my professors would have directed me to do it,” Leon explains. “Sort of an ‘unlearning curve’, I guess you could call it.”

Decades of experience running the farm have given him a broader perspective. “I have come to the conclusion that the older you get, the less you know,” Leon says. “If you’re willing, life is an ongoing education.”

Leon grew up helping his father with a form of rotational grazing starting in the 1960s, laboriously making daily fencing changes with wood posts and steel wire. Leon and a sibling would keep the cows back from the fence as their father moved it.

“When I think back to that, compared to how I can move a fence now with step-in posts and polywire, there’s just no comparison,” he says.

Between 30 and 54 cows are milked depending on the time of year, with the milk shipped through CROPP/Organic Valley. Calving is mostly on sod from May to the end of October, which has worked well for many years.

“The low point in the production cycle is typically in June, which is also our busiest cropping month, so that fits together well,” Leon says. The growing season can be as short as 90 days at 2,000 feet elevation in New England, so there’s a big push here to put up enough forage.

Fertility is supplied primarily by farm-generated manure. Barn manure is mixed with barn wastewater and collected in a 600,000-gallon concrete storage pit built in 1992. This is spread on fields in April, May, late June and October.

“Some ‘expensive’ organic fertilizer supplements the manure according to soil tests taken every three years on a rotating basis,” Leon says.

The milking herd can access about 30 of the 104 permanent pasture acres, with dry cows and heifers grazing the rest. After one or two forage harvests, an additional 69 acres are added to the rotation (generally in June and August), with 62 of those acres allocated to the milking herd.

Two-thirds of the harvested forage goes to haylage using an owned Ag-Bag machine. Some goes into five-foot round bales that are mostly for horse hay customers, with the rest kept to be fed in the mornings. This dry, long-stem hay is fed all year. They’ve started making four-foot baleage bales with second cutting, as wetter weather has made it harder to dry late-summer hay.

Grazing cows
Clover-heavy pastures work well in Vermont’s high country. Photo by Abbie Corse.

Lots of clover
The pastures and hay ground are 50-60% grass, with the rest clover — about 60-70% white and 30-40% red.

The large clover populations started to appear when they made the transition to organic and stopped using commercial nitrogen, giving clover a better chance to compete with the grass. Leon says this forage mix does well on their heavy, wet land.

The only field maintenance is an occasional frost seeding of clover, usually in November because most winters see snow measured in feet rather than inches. Melting from the ground up makes late-winter frost seeding difficult with no freeze/thaw cycles by the time the snow melts.

In paddocks with extreme concentrations of clover, Leon either leaves the cows in the barn a bit longer to eat dry hay before turning them out to the fresh pasture, or brings them home a bit early from the paddock.

When he does find a bloating cow, he has found a stick of frozen butter in the cow’s rumen does a good job of breaking up the bubbles.

Cows are rotated twice a day after each milking. Rest periods start at 20-25 days in spring and stretch longer as the growing season progresses, finishing at 60 days or more in the final October grazing.

Pumping water
NRCS-EQIP provided cost-share dollars for a solar pump and thousands of feet of water lines to paddocks, so there’s water at almost every paddock the milk cows use and most of the heifer paddocks.

The pump is located in a spring developed 12 years ago in a wet area, and through one-inch pipe it sends water 300 feet with a 60-70 foot rise to a 1,000-gallon storage tank at the highest point in the pasture.

Water is then fed by gravity to eight, 100-gallon tanks, each of which provide water to multiple paddocks as well as a 300-gallon tank in the barnyard.

“I am considering adding a tank at the end of the barn this year as the cows seem to prefer the spring water to the artesian well water we have in the barn,” Leon says.

Even in this relatively cool climate Leon likes having water in the paddocks. “Before we had this system the cows went back to the barnyard for water and if one went they all went and drained the 300-gallon tank and wouldn’t go back out to the pasture for an hour or two, sometimes not at all unless someone chased them back,” he explains.

They’re working on another development of water lines and a second spring with a solar pump to get water to more of the heifer paddocks.

The Corses run three different grazing groups: milking cows, breeding age/bred heifers, and yearlings. Since calves aren’t born before May, the youngsters go out to their own small pasture starting in August to learn about fences and get used to grazing.

Yearling heifers consume about 2 lbs. of pelleted grain each day, the same low-protein (less than 12%) mix fed to the milking herd.

The milk cows get their grain in the parlor, with feeding targeted by production and ranging from 2 to 14 lbs., with an annual average of about 8 lbs./cow. The double-3 herringbone parlor has individual weigh jars, and DHIA testing tracks production to determine how much grain each cow gets.

Average dry matter percentage from pasture is generally over 50% during the grazing season.

The herd is about half Black and White Holstein, 20% Red and White Holstein, and 30% Jersey.

Production has varied greatly in the past few years with drier and wetter seasons impacting the averages. Since they started shipping with OV in 2008, the average has generally been 13,500 lbs. per cow, with fat currently at 4.0-4.1% and protein at 2.9-3.1%.

The herd was doing 20,000 lbs. per cow on conventional feed, so Leon says they have the genetic potential for more milk.

For 43 years they’ve bred artificially. Selection is moving toward A2/A2 genetics, as Leon thinks it will have value in the future. In the past six or seven years he also started selecting for a completely polled herd. Only a small number of bulls fit both criteria.

Abbie would like a higher percentage of Jerseys. When she takes over more of the milking responsibilities in the future, Leon says he’ll be fine with that shift. Abbie’s mornings are busy with her six and nine-year old sons, so right now she works with other facets of the farm more than milking.

Coming back
Abbie didn’t plan to come back to the farm, working in journalism for a few years after college before finding she was an outdoor person and didn’t like living in a cubicle. She decided to come back to the farm 12 years ago.

DGA a good fit
It was she who encouraged her father to become certified as a DGA Master Dairy Grazier so he could host an apprentice. Leon says the program has been a great asset to the farm.

“For us the benefits of an apprentice are an engaged young person who wants to be here doing what he is doing, which makes him a better employee and at less cost than we could hire a normal employee for,” Leon says.

They created an apartment for the apprentice in their spacious old farmhouse that includes free heat, electricity and telephone. The Corses also provide milk and meat, which reduces the cash cost of wages.

“Part of his compensation is the education he gets, both formal and from living day-to-day right alongside of us,” Leon says. “We are required to spend the time to explain not only what we do, but also the reasoning behind it. I find that easy when you have someone who is interested and enthusiastic to be here and learn.”

In addition to hands-on work, apprentices take classes, mostly online, and the hosts are to help out as requested by the apprentice.

Apprentice candidates post their profiles on a portion of DGA’s website available only to Master Graziers. Before taking an apprentice, the Corses do an extensive interview process to make sure the prospective apprentice is a good fit.

“We have come up with a list of about 30 questions to send apprentice candidates that interest us, to learn more about them and their life goals,” Leon says. “These are not simple yes or no questions but require some time and thought. We have found this sorts out the serious ones from those who posted a profile just to see what would happen.”

They also conduct a telephone or in-person interview with a promising candidate, and require references.

Their second apprentice, MacKenzie Wallace, is in about the sixth month of his scheduled two-year stay. Leon has been very satisfied with the relationship, and feels their apprentice is part of the family.

“The biggest challenge is to get a grasp at the beginning of the apprenticeship as to how best to interact with an apprentice to be sure you click with them right away and they feel included, and can see right away that they are headed into a positive, happy, productive experience for the next two years,” Leon explains.

“The benefits are an engaged, excited employee, and the great feeling that you are helping to address the problem of our aging farmers in this country by training a younger one!”

As chair of DGA’s National Apprenticeship Training Committee, Leon has seen progress in streamlining the process of approving Master Graziers and is working on how to screen potential apprentices to ensure they’re really serious about joining the program.

“The program is growing and expanding to more states, so I think it has a lot of potential to help address the issue of the graying of American dairy farmers,” Leon says.

The outlook is for Abbie to milk 45 cows when Leon isn’t able to be actively involved anymore. (Abbie’s husband runs a construction business and is not involved in the farm.)

“She will in effect be farming on her own unless one of her sons decides he wants to be involved,” Leon says.

As for a milk market, Leon has an ongoing positive view. “As long as OV keeps needing milk in New England, I think we’re in good shape in terms of a milk market,” he explains. The Corses’ milk usually goes to OV customer Stonyfield.

Market confidence
In the long-term, Leon thinks the large concentration of consumers on the Atlantic seaboard provides an enduring market.

“I think as transportation becomes more and more of an issue cost-wise, pollution-wise, having a dairy supply close to where consumers are is going to only become more and more important, assuming that enough of us can survive to maintain the infrastructure that we have to have,” he offers.

Leon remembers when there were 12 dairy farms in the Whitingham area, but now there’s just three. He would like to see the family heritage endure. “We do hope that we will be able to keep going for the next generation at least.”

Martha Hoffman is Graze contributing editor based in Earlville, IL.