February 26, 2010

Getting cozy with cows at Poland's Ferland Farm


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click image to enlarge

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer,Tuesday Dec.22,2009. Reporter Ray Routhier listens to dairy farmer Dennis Ferland explain a milking machine before he milks cows at the Ferland Dairy Farm in Poland.

John Patriquin

click image to enlarge

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer,Tuesday Dec.22,2009. Reporter Ray Routhier milks cows at the Ferland Dairy Farm in Poland.

John Patriquin

Staff Writer

POLAND — When I asked Dennis Ferland if I could milk cows at his dairy farm, I envisioned a quaint stool and wooden stall. The picture also had me sitting on the stool, happily pulling on the underside of a cow as milk squirted into a bucket.

Instead, I got plopped into the middle of a milking parlor, a sort of assembly line for ready-to-milk cows. At any given time, 10 cows would be standing against railings, next to an array of gadgets that included hoses, tanks and a four-pronged suction contraption that actually does the milking.

So I watched carefully as Ferland showed me the steps required for each cow to be milked after she had walked into the parlor and taken her place at an open stall.

First, hose down the hooves with water so they don't kick the milking apparatus with dirty feet, ''and they will kick,'' Ferland told me. Then, use a paper towel to clean off the teats of the cow's udder, which is where the milk comes out. Hold the suction contraption in one hand and one of the four suction hoses in the other, without letting it suck air, then get it onto a teat. Repeat for the other three suction hoses and the other three teats.

Hosing down the hooves was no problem. But when it came to wiping the teats, I couldn't quite find them.

I mean, I knew they were under there, but I didn't want to put my head under there to see. All the cows seemed as big as small cars, and I wasn't about to let one of them crush me.

So I wiped awhile, trying to stay as far away from the cow as possible.

''You left some dirt on there -- you have to wipe better than that,'' Ferland, 59, told me later. ''But we have a filter, so it's OK. And we have nice clean dirt here anyway.''

When it came to the suction gizmo, I had the same problem. I tried to blindly stick the suction hoses onto the udder, hoping they'd find a teat by themselves. But they didn't.

''Put your finger out like this and let that guide you right to it,'' said Ferland, who grabbed the contraption from me to show me how it's done.

Two cows later, I finally did what I was supposed to. I put one hand on the cow to steady her, then wiped her down thoroughly, using my other hand as a guide. Then I successfully attached the suction hoses and felt a little thrill as milk began filling up in the glass tank near my cow. Ferland shouted, ''Hey, we've got milk.''

It was about 2:15 p.m. on a Tuesday, and the afternoon milking at Ferland's dairy farm on Hardscrabble Road in Poland had just began. Over the next two or three hours, all 140 of his milking cows would go through the same procedure in the milking parlor. The other milking session of the day takes place between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. The cows have to be milked every 12 hours, or they begin ''leaking,'' Ferland said.

Before the milking, Ferland was busy feeding his cows. Besides the 140 milkers, he has 130 other cows, some babies, some adolescents.

Here again, I envisioned walking around with a bucket gently tossing handfuls of grain at the cows. Instead, I jumped into the heated cab of a John Deere tractor pulling an automated feed wagon the size of a camping trailer. Ferland had the radio on as he drove up and down the lanes next to his barns and pushed buttons so his feed wagon dropped just the right amount of feed in front of the waiting cows.

''It's a tough job. I push the button and I can steer with one hand, and I've got heat and air conditioning. Plus I learn about all the celebrity gossip on the radio,'' Ferland said. ''I don't want the younger people to think it's a tough job because they won't go into it.''

Later, Ferland and I were riding in a bigger machine, a front end loader, as he mixed a future batch of feed. It was more like digging the cellar hole for a house than mixing feed.

Ferland drove the front loader up to the side of a hill. But it wasn't really a hill -- it was a man-made mountain of fermenting grass from Ferland's 500 acres that he has grown and cut for feed. As he stuck the shovel of the front loader into the grass, I saw steam and could smell something like beer.

''It's the same kind of stuff they use in beer,'' he said of the fermenting grass and hay.

Once his automated scale told him the mixing wagon was full, Ferland stopped and let the feed continue to mix.

Later, he showed me a garage full of vehicles -- dump trucks, loaders, tractors -- that he uses to grow hay and grass for his feed, and to sell. I looked at the trucks and asked him what their value is. Perhaps $1 million or more, I guessed.

''That might be the used price,'' Ferland said.

Ferland also owns a self-storage business just down the road from his farm. The storage business brings in extra income.

''A lot of this I do so I don't have to depend on anyone or the weather,'' Ferland said. ''Some people might not grow their own feed, but then if it rains too much they blame the rain for a poor year. I think you have to be smarter than that.''

Ferland is a third-generation farmer, with his grandfather and father also farming the same land in Poland dating back to the 1920s. He runs the farm with his wife, Cindy, and a few full- and part-time helpers. He and his wife live on the farm as well.

It's really a small city, with a dozen or so buildings on the 500 acres. Ferland has one area where he fixes and maintains trucks, tractors and machines. He also does some of his own doctoring, giving the cows shots when they need them.

He does have to contract with a trucker to take his milk to Hood in Portland. He is also part of the Cabot Creamery Cooperative, which means he's a part owner of the Vermont-based cheese maker.

After talking to Ferland about his dairy farm and seeing what a large business it is, I still looked for the romantic dairy farm angle. As we walked past the black and white cows with their big eyes, including some only a few days old, I asked Ferland if he ever names his cows.

No, he told me, he doesn't.

''We have tags on them that tell us when they were born, and who their mother was, but no names,'' Ferland said.

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:


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