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This school is right on the farm
Family invests in their own Discovery Dairy Center and Kindergarten through college curriculum

Brian Chittenden passes around a bucket of feed, allowing students to touch and smell, while Beth talks about cow diets and feed efficiency on the farm. Photo by Sherry Bunting

By SHERRY BUNTING
Special for Farmshine

SCHODACK LANDING, N.Y. – “Our goal is to meet the needs and nutritional requirements of every single animal every single day,” said Beth Chittenden each time the group of advanced placement (AP) high school seniors in the SUNY-based New Visions Scientific Research and World Health program encountered a different class of cattle during their field trip on Friday, October 18, here at Dutch Hollow Farms.

Three generations of the Chittenden family farm in the Catskills region of Upstate New York's Hudson Valley. Their Dutch Hollow Farms is home to one of the nation’s highest producing registered Jersey herds of 650 milking cows and a similar number of calf and heifer replacements.

Brian’s wife Beth takes charge of the educational outreach here, and they built the Discovery Dairy Center this past spring after operating the curriculum from a tent since 2011. An animal science graduate of Cornell, who spent 10 years in nutrition consulting before getting her master’s degree in education and teaching sixth grade science for another 10 years, dairywoman Beth Chittenden has written curriculum for all ages -- from Kindergarten through college -- teaching about agriculture and the dairy while meeting the science, social studies and math standards of the New York educational system.

On Thursday she hosted dozens of Kindergarteners and their parents, and then immediately shifted gears Friday morning for the accelerated high school seniors from the New Visions program, which is like a university for high school students. AP students from several high schools come together for the collection of science courses and receive 15 college credits through the State University of New York (SUNY).

“These students are future scientists -- doctors, pharmacists, chemists,” said professor Ruth Russell. “We study global health, and the effect of biotechnology. We made this field trip to Dutch Hollow part of the curriculum because it’s important for these students to not only see and know where food comes from, but also the ways in which scientific advances affect food production. There is a lot of science involved here.”

Before spending the entire morning at Dutch Hollow, and the students watched a video about biotechnology, which was provided by the American Farm Bureau, and they are reading “The Jungle,” a 1906 novel written by the American journalist and novelist Upton Sinclair about the poverty and hopelessness prevalent among the immigrants and the working class at the turn of the 20th century.

Against that backdrop of coursework, Beth and husband Brian talked about food production and led the group of a dozen students and Professor Russell through all phases of the dairy -- from calves to cows and from crops and feeding to milking, housing and manure management -- before bringing them to the on-farm Discover Dairy Center.

Before Beth and Brian focused on how the crops are grown and how the cows are fed, Brian’s brother Alan showed students the milking parlor and talked about animal reproduction and physiology and brother Nathan had the opportunity to show off his calves.

“We want calves to grow fast – gaining 2.9 pounds per day – to calve into the milking herd at 22 months of age making 60 pounds of high component milk per day,” he said. “What we’ve learned is we can provide nutrition for lean tissue growth so calves can grow fast and healthy.”

The students learned how farmers like the Chittendens strive to grow more homegrown feeds with more efficient use of land resources, and that it is not only more efficient, but more economical to grow more feed and buy less grain.

“We balance the cow diets right down to the specific amino acids, and we supplement what we know our soils are lacking in,” said Beth, adding that they farm 2000 acres of owned and rented ground to grow 90% of the feed for their animals.

Students learned about the fermentation process in making silage and how the cows’ rations are 50% corn silage and haylage. They had the opportunity to feel, smell, even taste ration ingredients, like soymeal, and learned how all of the ration ingredients grown on the farm are lab tested to know precisely what they contribute to the diet.

The students also received a window into the economics of the dairy farm. “It costs us $4 per day to feed a cow,” Beth related. “Now multiply that by 650. Everything is weighed and tested to match the needs of the animal being fed.”

They also learned how farmers are the ultimate recyclers as Beth and Brian explained that one of the six places their milk goes is Beechers Handmade Cheese in New York City (through Agrimark) and that they feed the whey byproduct that returns to the farm as a protein source in the ration.

“We are always fine-tuning the ration to get a little more milk all the time, and to achieve that, our cows must be comfortable,” Beth explained.

Just like the nutrients in the feed are balanced, so are the nutrients in the manure. “We know where the manure, and those nutrients, go every single day all the time,” Brian said. “We write down and record how much and to what field. We also incorporate the manure after spreading it.”

Brian reported there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing an adult’s viewpoint change once they’ve been to the farm. This is something he’s seen firsthand with mainstream media reporters and parents of young children visiting the farm.

“Once they see the reality of what we are doing here, and how we are regulated, we tend to see a change in attitude by the time they leave,” he explained.

Beth goes one step further in her analysis. “Nothing brings it home like actually being on the farm and seeing it firsthand,” she says. “You can do in-class curriculum, or digital virtual tours, but the experience of seeing the farm, seeing the cows, seeing the people… you can’t replace that impact. That’s why we built the Discovery Dairy Center and started taking more tours and more students.”

The Chittendens also do an open house every summer for 700 attendees from the local community and they do a quarterly newsletter that goes to 900 households in a three to five mile radius of the farm.

“We created this building because there are three things that will keep us sustainable here in the region upstate from New York City. We must be 1) Economically viable; 2) Environmentally friendly; and 3) Socially acceptable,” she explained. “Number three is so important because so many people do not understand the practices we use.”

Communication goes beyond words, Brian explains: “We think it’s important for students to smell the soy and for us to speak near the cows. The non-verbal communication is as, if not more, important than the verbal communication.”

The Chittendens bring their students from the quality feeds, quality water, quality comfort and quality milk right into the discovery center where they learn more about farming practices, breeding, genomics, and ultimate plant genetics and the topic of GMO’s.

While the cows at Dutch Hollow never receive rbST, Beth touches on the topic as an example of a scientific impact that farms that gave them 10% more milk. “But we can’t use it in our region because you, the consumer, decided you didn’t want us to produce milk that way.”

Students asked if there are any examples of harm done by bovine growth hormone or rbST, to which the answer is “no.” Beth went on to explain that it is a protein hormone -- not a steroid -- that helps the cow convert more feed into milk so she is more efficient with earth’s resources.

“Agriculture did a very poor job of explaining that to consumers. Now, our loss of this technology is based purely on assumption,” Beth explains. “If you, the consumer, demand something different, that affects us for the long term. Now we are facing more challenges in the crop area because people don’t understand the practice. You accept computers in our barns because you all have computers and you understand them. In the same way you need to understand our other practices even though they aren’t something you have in your life every day.”

During the discussion of genomics in cattle breeding, the students learn that these DNA tests allow farmers to identify traits and make decisions, earlier, about genetic merit. “We get information better and quicker so we can more selectively mate to make the next generation a little better,” Beth explains.

“This technology also allows advanced genetics to be achieved faster in third world nations.” She adds.

From there, she segways into GMO crops. “This is a hot topic, especially here in the Hudson Valley,” Beth explains. “New York City is deciding the trends for food, and there is a tremendous amount of misinformation out there. So far, farmers have done a horrible job explaining it. Here in our county, we have landowners saying ‘don’t grow GMO crops on my land’ when in reality 90% of the corn and 93% of the soybeans are GMO.”

Just like having all the numbers on the cows is important, farmers also get to choose seed from companies where they can look at a list of genetic traits to find what matches their needs for digestibility as a cattle feed, and by soil type and climate.

“But somehow the consumer is led to believe the GMO crops receive more pesticides, insecticides and herbicides. They think Roundup Ready means the Roundup is in the plant and we’re adding more as a chemical. The truth is we are not putting chemicals in seeds. Roundup is a very safe product. It kills weeds without residue in the soil. It’s environmentally friendly. It’s based on a naturally-occurring element found in a plant that is weed resistant,” she explains.

Likewise a plant that is resistant to Roundup had its traits identified. That DNA strand is put into the cell of the corn plant. Corn will naturally form a weed deterring canopy, but until it grows tall enough to form that canopy, “we used to cultivate between the rows so the grass and weeds would not compete with the corn,” Beth pointed out.

“We can’t ‘weed or cultivate’ 700 acres of corn and cultivation causes erosion, so we use pre-emergents to discourage weed growth. Then, if we have a spring like this one that delays plant growth, we may need to spray Roundup. We know our corn will be resistant to it if we need to use it. But in reality, we use less herbicides than in the past.”

As for insecticides. “We don’t use any anymore,” Brian said emphatically. “The GMO rootworm trait merely changed the flavor of the corn roots to not be so tasty to the corn rootworm so they leave it alone.” In this way, this GMO trait reduces the need for insecticides or pesticides.

“It costs us $500 to plant one acre of corn and we plant 700 acres of corn,” he added. “Just think of that investment. Think of what that means if the worms eat all the corn roots. It would be devastating. We would have no feed for our cows, and our farm would be financially ruined. There are reasons why we use science in agriculture and why farmers use GMO crops.

“In the old days, they stirred the dirt three ways. Today, we use no-till practices and we drill the seed with no disturbance of the topsoil. This way we prevent the topsoil from leaving the farm. We also use fewer applications of chemicals than in the past,” said Brian.

“The reality is that I’m a different farmer than my dad and my granddad.”

The farm charges $6 per person for tours and educational field trips, but in reality, Beth donates so much of her time at the on-farm Discovery Dairy Center -- along with doing career days at various high schools and middle schools as well as educational efforts through Farm Bureau. “More of us need to be doing this,” she says. “People don’t get the true meaning of our message until they are actually here -- on the farm.

“I love doing this and I believe that if we don’t do it, we won’t be here in the future. We have children -- a next generation -- that wants to farm. We need to make sure they can.”