Happy Cows = Happy Farmers at Donegan Farm
In the nine years that Joe and Emily Donegan have been dairy farming both their business and family has grown, and there hasn’t always been time to slow down for one or the other. “I applied for [a Viability Program Business Plan Implementation Grant] when I had a two-week old baby. I’m pretty proud of that,” Emily told us. Finding a balance between family life and farm work is a challenge for many farmers with young children (the Donegans have three kids under age six), so time-saving improvements go a long way.
The Donegans, who milk 30 cows and ship their 100% grass-fed milk through Organic Valley, started renting property they now own on the Charlotte in the fall of 2009. They enrolled in VHCB’s Vermont Farm & Forest Viability Program in 2012 because “we wanted to take advantage of all the resources we could. The thing that was most helpful about it was for Joe to have a time and a place to flesh out some of his own ideas and to have support to do that,” Emily explained. Their participation in the program made them eligible to apply for a Business Plan Implementation Grant. Having already identified its need in their business plan, the Donegans developed a project to build a solar hoop barn for housing their cows and heifers during the winter. Through the competitive Implementation Grant process, their project was approved and they received matching funds for their solar hoop barn project early last year.
The project was also funded through NRCS and took time to perfect. Emily told us, “We spent a lot of time thinking very critically about the barn […] and I actually feel like all that hemming and hawing was worth it because we’re very happy with the barn, we’re very happy with the location and the size, it’s really working great for us.”
The Donegans have seen huge improvements in terms of quality of life and animal welfare. Their previous set up was an old hip-roof barn with tie-stalls. In winters past, it required Joe to cut open wrapped round bales with a chainsaw and fork out chunks of hay into a wheel barrow in order to feed their animals. The process was time consuming and the hay needed to be pushed up every few hours, so the Donegans could rarely leave the farm during the day. The tie-stall arrangement also meant that the cows stepped on their teats and developed mastitis, which is uncomfortable for the cows and decreased the quantity and quality of their milk.
Since building the solar hoop barn, “it’s all open inside and we just feed [the cows] round bales in rings. We can feed them a couple days feed at a time and it takes an hour or so to do that. We also bed with round bales. The cows are happier, healthier, making a lot more milk. Chores are easier, pleasant, more streamlined, more predictable,” says Emily. “It’s made our business more efficient. Less money spent on cow problems and cows are operating at their maximum efficiency, instead of cows that aren’t as healthy and aren’t producing as much milk. Quality of life is huge to us, and plays into the efficiency of our operation in a big way. The better we feel and the more we feel like we can still be normal people and still have a family life and have a life outside of work, the more energy we have for the work we do.”