American Milking Devons and the Flack Family Farm
by Drew Conroy of Berwick, ME
Just below the Canadian border in Northern Vermont is the Flack Family Farm. On a sunny early September day I met Doug Flack at his biodynamic and organic farm, just South of Enosburg Falls. Doug has been farming in Vermont since 1976.
For years Doug has assisted others with fencing and grazing techniques for livestock, which go back to his days working in New Zealand. He is also known for being active in numerous organizations related to agriculture in Vermont, hosting interns, and encouraging others to embrace organic and biodynamic techniques on their farms.
Doug greeted me warmly and sat me down for a hearty lunch, before we talked about the cattle and the farm. The meal could not have been more appropriate. It consisted of a Devon beef burger (grass fed), a chunk of Devon cheese, butter on the homemade bread again made from Devon milk, and finally other products from the farm including Sauerkraut grown and fermented on the farm, as well as potatoes and various greens and the only thing not grown on the farm was millet.
The meal was a great way to discuss the many virtues of Devon Cattle. Doug and I spoke at length about subjects ranging from locally grown food, his passion for fermented foods. I was there to talk about Devon Cattle and our discussion about cattle led to tales of both of our travels and work in Africa spanning decades. This included how pastoralists manage their herds and grasslands, and led full circle back to his grazing philosophy and a peek at his daughter Sarah’s upcoming book on grazing management to be published by Chelsea Green Publishing.
Doug admits over the years, the fermentation vegetable products on the farm have really taken off, and seem to take more of his time than other enterprises on the farm. Between running workshops at the farm, teaching people about fermenting foods at places like nearby Sterling College, and Green Mountain College, while also selling 14 tons of products in 30 Vermont Food Coops, small stores and restaurants, it has become a fast growing niche for the farm, and generate far more income than the cattle.
I had visited Doug about ten years earlier, and was frankly quite impressed with the milk production capacity and conformation related to heavy milking that his American Milking Devon cows displayed. His cattle were also some of the more friendly cattle I had interacted with, due in part to his regular handling and milking.
In fact, at the time, I was exploring what bulls farmers had that the American Milking Devon Cattle Association might support in drawing their semen. I knew if I was going to write about Devon cattle, I had to revisit the farm.
Doug began his story with American Milking Devons, saying, “We have had them about 15-16 years. The first ones came from John Wheelock in Colchester, Vermont, including Jewel, whose 15 year old daughter he still has. Other stock came from Trauger Groh in Wilton, NH, where we got a few, including some that have been really good milkers. Finally, we also got two beautiful cows from Dan Holmes when he was at the Meeting House School in New Hampshire.” 1
1) Dan Holmes has since moved to Peterborough, NH where he was selling raw milk, cheese, beef, from his small dairy herd at Sunnyfield Farm a non-profit farm. The herd still includes some American Milking Devons.
During September 2015 Doug had 5 cows, 5 heifer calves, 2 bulls (both purchased to bring in new genetics) and a number of steers from previous calving seasons. His cattle are entirely grass fed, and he is a firm believer that the Devon cattle with their aggressive grazing and adaptability do this very well. He uses management intensive grazing and seasonally milks the herd. “The Devons are super hardy, comfortable in the cold, and adapt well to warmer temperatures as well. Farmers tend to ignore the animals like the Devon that are so well adapted to our environment. I believe we do this at our own peril,” Doug says, referring to the climate change we are facing in the world right now.
Doug admits, “I love the Devons and every product they produce. They are the prime fertility drivers on the farm, but really are sort of break even economically by themselves.” They convert the perennial cool season grasses and legumes that grow so well in this region, to manure that is composted and added to the fields where he grows cabbages, and other cold season crops to ferment. The fermentation products we produce generate more money on the farm than the cattle.
Doug says, “we do make cheese and butter, but for home consumption only, as Vermont law prevents us from selling processed milk products unless we build an expensive licensed facility. However, the demand for raw milk is huge. I have been selling raw milk for 15 years, people come to the farm with their own container and we fill it.” A refrigerator is in the small milk room, where customers come by and pick up their milk.
Doug raises most of his steers for beef. “A very gifted meat cutter in nearby Fairfield, Cole Ward, said he was really impressed by our grass-fed Devons,” which are processed locally and then sold by the 50 lb. box for $400. He did admit, he sold his first pair of matched bull calves recently to a youngster who wanted to make a pair of steers.
“My Devons never ever get any grain in their life,” Doug proudly states. “The cattle produce milk during the grazing season, with cows calving in April or May. Given that the cattle are not lactating in the winter, they put on fat. The Devons have an exceptional ability to carry fat through the winter, almost like a moose. The ultimate test on their ability to get by on grass alone was 5-6 years ago, when every hay field seemed to get rained on. The hay was really poor quality,” and Doug admitted, “I was worried that the calves would be most affected, but it just didn’t happen.”
The cows calve on pasture and nurse the cows. The calves stay with the cows for 7-10 months. He locks the calves up at night and milks the cows in the morning, but this depends on the availability of labor, as he often has interns working at the farm. Since the cows run with the calves, Doug says, “I only milk once per day, drying the cows off in November or December.” He does not have any parasite issues, and does not deworm. He feels like the Devons are not affected by parasites. He has never had a calf with any sickness or parasite issues.
The cows Doug was milking when I visited were substantially older than the typical dairy cow found on nearby farms. They averaged 13 years old. Blossom was 15 years old, born on the farm in 2000. The other two cows were 12 and 13. Due to the age of the cows, he weaned three calves early this year, to raise as replacements for his aging milking herd. “It was a noisy affair pulling the cows off their mothers, but I wanted to be able to interact with the calves.”
In the milk room Doug has notes of each cow’s production. He weighs their milk after every milking. Doug points out, “This year the youngest cow we are milking, Rose, produced the most milk, averaging 24-27 lbs/day with once a day milking. Blossom had dropped a bit this year, but produced an average of about 20 lbs per day. Finally, Roxie, who milks well into the 20 lb range in summer, dropped to 10 lbs per day.” Doug has two other cows, but they are in another pasture, and they nurse their calves, and are not milked.