June is National Dairy Month. I could not think of a better person to celebrate it with than Bob Purington. Purington is the eighth child of the late Herb Purington and his wife Barbara. He is also a member of the seventh generation to tend the Woodslawn Farm, founded in 1784 in Colrain. This 385 acre landscape includes woodlots, fields for corn and hay, and pasturage for about 75 cows, each one with a name. For over 200 years Purington’s family has provided milk for for the community – and beyond.
I visited Purington in early May when the cows were not yet able to go out to pasture. He gave me a tour of the barns. I could see things had changed a lot since I helped feed my Vermont uncle’s cows back in 1950. First of all there is no barn for the milking cows. At least, not as I know barns which included four walls, windows and doors. Woodslawn Farm cows have a free-movement barn. They are not locked in stanchions during the day; they can walk around, snack on their feed, and take a nap on nice bedding. This open air barn is their home summer and winter. Their metabolism and heavy coat keeps them warm enough as long as they are protected from winter winds.
The old barn, the kind I was familiar with, still exists and shelters pregnant cows towards the end of their time, as well as the young calves. It also houses the 5000 bales of hay that will help get the cows through a long winter.
There are no heavy milking cans to lug around in this modern set up. Purington said his progressive father installed a new type of equipment in the 1960. He took me to the milk house which is a large separate room with several milking machines. Six stations make it possible to milk six cows at a time. The cows walk in and take their place at a station, wait patiently for the milking machines to be attached. The milk runs through hoses and is sent to the milk tank. Then the cow strolls off and other cows take her place. Needless to say the farmer is still very busy hooking and un-hooking the cow and making sure the milk is properly being pumped into the tank.
Cows are milked in early morning and early evening. It takes about two hours to feed and milk, and clean up each time. Cows now produce more milk than they did in 1950s due to genetic improvements as well as changes in their diet. We have all seen those large white bundles at the edge of hayfields. This is haylage, made of high moisture grass that is very nutritious, a part the cows diet in season.
I admired the pregnant cows, and the very young calves in the barn. Calving goes on all year long. All cows get the services of a person who performs artificial insemination.
Herb Purington had the help of seven sons and five daughters during his decades of farming, and of course, his wife. Bob Purington has five children, and of course, his wife Joyce at his side. One son lives on the west coast, but two sons and two daughters live nearby, with seven grandchildren. It is his son-in-law, George Gutierrez, married to his daughter Alison, who works everyday with Bob. However, everyone joins in when there is work to do. Farming requires more work than most of us consider when we are buying our gallons of milk.
The day we spoke Bob was busy checking and fixing the fences. The cows are allowed to leave the barn during the day as soon as the grass is tall enough. Purington has about a dozen different pastures for rotational grazing. This means moving the PVC plastic stakes and fencing around. “Our fences along the road are made of wood because that looks nicer, Purington told me. I thought that was sweet gift to those who drove past.
The cows are now out in the fields. Purington said they are so happy to get out onto pasture. They romp and kick up their heels, so happy with fresh feed and more room to roam.
Feeding the cows requires many fields for hay and corn. There is 70 acres manured and given over to corn for silage because those fields are too wet for pasture.
“When we were kids we only got two hay cuttings. Now we get three cuttings and even four on some fields,” Purington said. “We usually plant corn before hay, planting around May 15. We’ve been using a no-till planter for about 15 years. It not only conserves CO2 it doesn’t dig up all the stones. A big improvement over using a moldboard plow. “The harvested corn will turn into silage.
“Once the corn is planted it is time for the first hay cutting which will be completed by July 4. This chopped hay will go into the silo. Then we start all over. The second and third cuttings will go in the square bales and put in the barn. Often there is a fourth growth and we put the cows out to pasture on that field. Cows can often be out on pasture into November,” Purington said.
When I asked Purington what his favorite job on the farm was he hesitated. Finally he said, “I enjoy the work of every season. I enjoy putting up the fences, and putting the cows out in the spring. What is important is keeping this a farm, and keeping the land open.
When I think about the family energy and work input on a farm I think a single celebratory month a year is a modest thank you. I am glad to be reminded of how much we owe our farmers. After all, no farmers, no farm, no future. Thank you, Bob!
Between the Rows June 8, 2019