Prompted by questions pertaining to on-farm energy production, Representative Charlie Kimbell of Woodstock, looked to the Vermont Agency of Agriculture for answers. Deputy Secretary Alyson Eastman helped set up a trip to Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport, one of the first farms in Vermont to have both a methane digester and a 100-kilowatt wind turbine. Representatives Amy Sheldon (Middlebury), Peter Conlon (Cornwall) and Robin Scheu (Middlebury) also attended the tour led by farm owner and operator Marie Audet. The wide-ranging discussion covered everything from digesters to improving water quality with innovative farm agronomic practices.
(Rep. Amy Sheldon, Jeff Carter, UVM Extension, Rep. Peter Conlon, Deputy Secretary Alyson Eastman, Rep. Robin Scheu, Marie Audet, Rep. Charlie Kimbell)
Marie started the tour with the milking parlor, followed by a short visit to the free-stall barn. She pointed out the importance of cow comfort and ventilation, while the cows munched on freshly delivered silage.
The next stop was a visit with the calves, complete with a view toward Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks. Here Marie pointed out how things have changed from the old days.
The hillside of 13 or so acres below the calf hutches used to be pasture, which contained some gullies. With the gullies and the slope, the area was prone to erosion. The Audets converted it to a perennial crop and let the trees grow up in the gully areas, eliminating erosion and ensuring run-off never reaches a steam. In the foreground alfalfa grows. It’s a crop relatively unusual for Vermont. This area of the approximately 4,000 acres which the Audet’s farm happens to contain soils in which alfalfa grows well.
After covering the calves, Marie showed the group the peat-moss-like solids being automatically piled up in a covered area. Solids from the digesters drop from a ceiling-mounted conveyor belt and can be easily loaded into a bedding-spreader type of skid steer or into neighboring farmers’ trucks. The material is used as bedding for cows at Blue Spruce and three other dairy farms.
After seeing the solids and the manure pit, the group looked at the digesters, the new biogas-cleaning tank, and the engine. Having seen all the components of the digester system, Marie explained how much work it all entailed. It turns out that for Blue Spruce Farm, it’s pretty much a full-time job.
The conversation moved to water quality, dairy farming, climate change, digesters, and air quality.
Jeff Carter of UVM Extension talked about cover crops both in terms of water quality improvements and financial benefits, while he and Marie Audet both emphasized the challenges, for example needing the right equipment and getting the timing right.
As climate change causes more severe rain events, cover crops become especially important.At the same time, western dairy regions will face drier, hotter conditions, potentially giving Vermont’s dairies an advantage.
At the end of the day, the group walked away with a better understanding of how Vermont dairy farms are working to become more efficient and more sustainable.