NEW SHARON — Farmers herded heifers out of one of Triple D Acres’ barns Thursday and into a narrow-gated walkway. The cows were hesitant.
It was the first time they were going out to pasture this spring and it seemed none of them wanted to be first.
John and Marcia Donald watched their three full-time employees: two nephews, Jeff Donald and Frank Donald Jr., and Kyle Gammon herd them.
John Donald, 64, watched as Jeff Donald picked up a clipboard and wrote down identification numbers from ear tags as Gammon called them out. Frank Donald kept the cows moving forward to the cattle trailer.
John Donald picked up the clipboard to record the information as Jeff Donald gave each heifer a vaccine to prevent pinkeye, Marcia Donald said.
“You have to keep track of everything,” she said.
The Donalds started dairy farming on a smaller scale in 1966 in Wilton. They bought the Weeks Mills farm in New Sharon in 1979 mostly for the land. They have since developed their dairy business to an award-winning venture.
It went from a conventional dairy farm to an organic one in 2002, John said. They have a herd of 160 cows, mostly Holsteins, and about 70 of those are being milked currently. The farm produces on average about 1.4 million pounds of milk each year, he said.
The Donalds were awarded the 2009 Award for Outstanding Dairy Farm of the Year by the New England Green Pastures Program. It is the most recent of many awards they have racked up over the years.
Being organic means using no herbicides, no pesticides, no antibiotics. It also means no chemical fertilizers on the field, and the grain the cows eat has to be certified organic.
Everything has to have a paper trail, including where each bale of hay is from, John said.
Organic farming is harder to do, but there is more money on the bottom line, he said.
“You have to live up to a certain quality,” John said. “We switched for financial reasons, and I like the concept of organic.”
Currently Donald gets $30 or better per hundred weight of milk (about 12 gallons), while a conventional dairy farm would get $15 to $16 per hundred weight, he said.
“I’ve got a saying: ‘Keep your milk cold, your water hot and stay out of debt,’” John said of how they are able to sustain the farm. “In order to stay in business, you have to pay attention and make good decisions. One of the key ingredients is the great help I’ve had throughout the years and still have.”
They have heavy equipment, animals, barns and no debt, he said.
“We bought this place in 1979, and everybody was telling me I was crazy to leave (International Paper) and go farming,” John said.
He worked both jobs until he left the paper industry in 1988.
Some said he wouldn’t make it, but he proved them wrong.
“We bought the farm and paid it off in 10 years,” he said.
They chose a rundown farm and built it up.
The Donalds started out with 220 acres and now have about 560 acres.
“You have to know your cows, and the biggest key is to put up good forage,” John said.
It takes 15, 16 hours a day to get the work done.
“It’s hard work but it is very gratifying work to me,” John said. “I don’t consider it work because it’s what I love to do. One of the best days of my life is the day I walked out of IP.”
There have been struggles along the way, he said, but now it is satisfying.
“We’re helping to feed America healthy,” his wife said.