Farming is in Kies Orr’s blood.
The 24-year-old is the third generation to work at Fort Hill Farms, in Thompson. The dairy farm was started by her grandfather, Ernie O’Leary, 70 years ago. Now, Fort Hill Farms is riding a wave of technological breakthroughs that promises increased dairy production, more comfort for the cows, and sustainability well into the future. With a degree in agricultural business and dairy management from the State University of New York at Cobleskill, Orr brings a modern take on an age-old business.
“They’re big into social media,” she said. To that end, she keeps up with the farm’s website and Facebook page. She manages Twitter and Instagram accounts. Five hundred cows make their home at Fort Hill Farms. The youngest live in individual hutches until they reach two months of age. The practice ensures a calf’s safety while her immune system matures. From two months to when a heifer gives birth and starts milking (about two years), animals are moved from one hutch to another, from one barn to another. The practice allows their caretakers to adjust diets accordingly and to breed them at the appropriate time. The cows are milked twice a day, at 1 p.m. and 1 a.m. Eight cows at a time make their way to stanchions in the milking parlor. Their teats are dipped in iodine, wiped off, and teat cups attached. Each stanchion has a digital read-out of the milk each cow produces. The farm ships 17,000 pounds (2,000 gallons) a day. It’s a labor intensive occupation, even with automatic milking systems. The cows need to be fed and watered daily. Heifer calves need to be bottle fed. Cows who are due to calve need to be monitored. Food stuffs need to be grown, harvested, and stored. Loads of brewers grain and potato cake need to be received. Breedings need to be done. Sick animals need to be cared for.
“I don’t have a normal day,” Orr said. But the owners of Fort Hill Farms are embarking on a plan to make it better for future generations and the people who depend on the farm. While Orr and Jared LaVack oversee the daily operations of the farm, Peter Orr, Kies’ father, is dealing with big picture plans. The Orrs are reclaiming agricultural land. They’re building a new barn and cow care facility for up to 500 milking cows. The facility will have a robotic milking system where cows can be milked up to three times a day – when they want to be milked, not when it’s convenient for the farmer.
“It’s the ultimate cow care model,” Peter Orr said. “The happier the cows, the more they produce.”
He’d like to see an anaerobic digester built on site that would turn manure and food waste into electricity. The byproduct could be used as plant food. Fort Hill Farms has more than 1,000 acres of agricultural land in production. It rents even more land to keep up with the care and feeding of cows. Dairy farms need a sizable land base to survive, but Orr said it benefits the community by providing open space and wildlife habitat. There are clean water benefits because the land isn’t paved over. And it’s a good way to keep land out of development, he said.
“This is working land,” Peter Orr said. “This is a sustainability story. Farming will only survive as a business if we accept innovation moving forward.” Sustainability includes public relations campaigns to educate consumers, introduce new products, and advertise special agricultural events. Kies Orr posts information regularly about harvesting chores and a host of events sponsored by the AgriMark-Cabot Cooperative and The Farmer’s Cow, a cooperative of six Connecticut dairy farms. Fort Hill Farms is a member of both. Farmer’s Cow owners meet regularly to discuss product development and business plans. And consumers have been brought into the loop with contests to name ice cream and other product flavors. Currently, there are summer and fall beverages, a range of milk products, including root beer and honey vanilla flavored milk, ice cream, eggs, coffee, and merchandise. In the meantime, there’s cows to feed, milking to be done, corn to harvest, and silage to pack and cover.
“The best part is working with these cows,” Kies Orr said. “Each has her own personality. They make me laugh. They keep me going.”