Through the narrow valley of Brookfield along Route 14, there are small fields that wrap along the river’s edge, separated by houses, hills, and barns. Sprague Ranch, a 600-cow dairy run by Keith and Chelsea Sprague, is situated in the valley between Bear Mountain and the Brookfield Town Forest. “We milk 600 cows in a place where people should milk 50,” said Keith. It’s a narrow and rocky valley, so his fields are small and spread far apart.
Keith told a story about one night in 2007—he was anxious because he was still getting his corn in, and should have been on to his first cut of hay. An old friend called him to come listen to some folks from Michigan talk about no-till. Somewhat reluctantly he went, but couldn’t grasp how this guy was going on and on for hours about worms, when all he could think about was how much he had to get done back on the farm. “My head wasn’t there yet,” said Keith.
Something resonated with Keith that winter, because the following spring he decided to plant about 50 acres in no-till corn. He had to make some modifications to his old corn planter; luckily with a degree in mechanical engineering, the change wasn’t a huge barrier. Keith explained, “I was always looking for the answer on how to do it.” A well-known no-till farmer, Richard Hall, told him to just get started. “That first year, I kept getting off the tractor to make sure the seed was planted. Then, half of the seed was killed because it wasn’t round-up ready,” explained Keith. The first year trying no-till was just about as unsuccessful as the first time doing anything can be. Nobody could believe they were planting a field that hadn’t been plowed under, especially Keith’s father. The next year, 100 acres were planted to no-till corn, and the following year, 200 acres. Each year with less mistakes and improved yields; Keith’s herbicide application decreased, and the worms just kept coming.
“Nobody plants or manages 600 acres on their own,” Keith explains, “but anything is possible if people get on board.” While some of the younger generation workers were easier to convince, the older guys needed to see it work for it to make sense to them. “There is a learning curve,” said Chelsea. For so many generations, plowing the field has been a basic and fundamental part of farming, moving away from that isn’t just about management, it’s about culture.
Keith explains, “There is a feeling of walking away from a field that is all tilled up and ready to be planted. Well that same feeling, I have it when I see all the worms in my fields.” The same guy who couldn’t comprehend how people were talking about worms for hours that one night back in 2007, there he was going on and on about worms. Keith will attest to an increase in production yields since transitioning to no-till, an ease of rotating crops, labor savings, improved feed quality, fuel savings, decreased herbicide use, and healthier soil. Keith also mentioned that he doesn’t mind not having to pick rocks out of his fields anymore either. Even his dad has come around and will attest to the benefits of no-till.
It was 2000 when Keith took over the 100-cow dairy farm from his father. There are many farms where the older generation is still in charge of farm operations, but not Sprague Ranch. “One day, he stepped away and let me figure it out,” Keith said, “He still comes down to the farm every day, asks me every day what I want him to do, then he goes and does whatever he wants.”
Now, Keith sits on the advisory board at Vermont Technical College, the Promotion Board for Booth Brothers, and the New England Dairy Commission, all while running the farm alongside Chelsea and raising their two daughters. “Our focus is to do really well with what we have,” said Keith.