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.
Doug points out that he did at one time milk twice a day, and bottle fed the calves. “Blossom and Ruby back then would average about 33 lbs/day, and on no grain, they still maintained their body condition, and bred right back.” Doug feels strongly that his Devons have been extremely fertile and has never had any problem getting cows bred back.
As Doug walks and speak to me about his cattle and how they fit into the ecology of his farm, it is obvious he is not only passionate but also educated. He asks if I know about the difference between cattle that carry the A1 versus A2 gene for beta casein. I have to admit I do not, but went home and looked it up.
There is a company in New Zealand that started marketing A2 milk, from cattle that have been selected for this gene. The company has trademarked the name, and it has Brand websites in the USA, Great Britain, Australia, where it states it is “The Milk That Might Change Everything.” It is said to be easier to digest for people who have problems with milk from cows carrying the A1 gene for the protein beta casein. Doug points out that his high producer Blossom has A1A2, based on testing he did on his cattle. He really feels like Devon breeders ought to be selecting bulls to pass on the A2 gene.
Seeing the calves in the pen in a large pole barn, I asked if I could go in. All of the calves were lying down chewing their cud, and did not get up when we approached them and petted each one of them. They were a great looking group of heifers that any breeder would have been proud of.
Doug guesses he will keep 3-5 cows in the future, with the respective heifers and steers that he will raise. He keeps the steers through their 3rd summer, grazing them together with one of the bulls he was not using for breeding. “They have a very high yield, but being that some of the animals slaughtered are over 30 months old, the USDA requires that the spine be removed, which reduces the salable pounds of product per animal, when marketing for example boneless T-Bone steaks. The carcass weights vary a bit, but range from 560 to 700 lbs.” He has the animals processed in nearby North Troy, Vermont, at Brault’s Market and Slaughterhouse, where they hang the carcasses for two weeks. “We just have a wonderful product that customers are really happy with.”
The bulls Doug has had have come from as far away as Colonial Williamsburg, in Virginia, The Bunten Farm in Orford, NH and many others. His favorite over the years was a bull named Flack Farm Cosmos (10488 in the AMDCA registry) originally bred by Trauger Groh of Wilton, NH. The bull was a wonderful example of an animal that could produce growth calves to be raised for beef, or heifers that could later be milked.
Doug is an American Milking Devon breeder with some of the best uddered and well behaved animals I have seen in the breed. The animals are beautifully integrated into his small and diversified farm. His system of management seems to bring out the best in the animals and his enthusiasm for Devon cattle is contagious.
In June 2015, a great video about the Milking Devon breed featuring Doug Flack and others was produced by the University of Vermont Extension, on their program Across the Fence. This can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hAckr4wnzt0
Drew Conroy, Ph.D. is a professor at the University of New Hampshire where he teaches Applied Animal Science and Integrated Agriculture. He is a past president of the American Milking Devon Cattle Association (AMDCA), a former Vice Chair of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. He has a small farm in Berwick, Maine, where he and his family raise cattle, sheep, and poultry. Drew is best known for his work with oxen, having authored 3 books and over 100 articles on the use and training of oxen, with American Milking Devons having been his favorites.