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Building trust in dairy with a modern farmer using modern farming practices

Jean Kummer for Progressive Dairy Published on 11 June 2021

“It was an unwritten rule in our famliy that you had to work away from the farm after college, and you had to bring something back that added value to the farm when you did return,” says Emilie Mulligan, owner and herd manager of Mulligan Farm in Avon, New York.

Knowing she ultimately wanted to return to the family farm, but needing to expand her knowledge and vision, Emilie took advantage of several internships at different-sized dairies and with Alta Genetics while studying animal science at Cornell University. After graduation, she worked at a large dairy in Florida and also at nearby Oakfield Corners Dairy, in Oakfield, New York, to continue learning different management styles – of cows and people – before going home.

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Now the fourth generation on Mulligan Farm, Emilie works side by side with her parents, Jeff and Lesa, and cousin, Forrest Watson. Her great-grandfather started milking Guernseys in 1920 on 600 acres, and when Jeff came home to the farm in 1981, he switched to Holsteins. The team of four meets weekly to ensure they’re all on the same page with all farm decisions, which they share with their 18 employees. Emilie and Lesa are the only women working on the farm.

The Mulligans are now milking 1,400 registered Holsteins three times a day in a double-20 parallel parlor with a rolling herd average of 31,000 pounds. Two tanker loads, about 16,000 gallons of milk per day, goes to Craigs Creamery, and along with the milk from seven other New York farms, it is processed into cheese under the Craigs Creamery label. Each week, the Mulligans also ship up to five tanker loads of kosher milk, which is approved by an on-staff rabbinical supervisor.

Aside from bred heifers, all youngstock is raised at the farm. On average, they feed 150 calves in hutches and a calf barn three times a day using pastuerized waste milk. After calves are weaned at eight weeks, they’re moved into groups of 10 for a month, then into groups of 20 before going to a 650-freestall barn designed just for heifers.

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The milking cows are housed in two large freestall barns with automatic fans and sprinklers for evaporative cooling during the summer months. The Mulligans recycle sand bedding through a separator and reuse it to bed the stalls.

Since returning to the farm, Emilie has made it a priority to revamp their heifer reproduction program, with the goal of calving all heifers at 22 months. Emilie’s twin sister, Claire, who is a genetic consultant for ABS, helps manage the breeding program, which in turn helps manage heifer inventory to avoid overcrowding. They breed many of the low-end cows and first-calf heifers to beef bulls to help manage numbers, as well. They have a steady market for crossbred calves, so they’re able to concentrate on the registered heifers.

Mulligan Farm consists of 2,600 acres, 1,800 of which are secured for perpetuity through the New York Farmland Protection Program. They grow their own feed, which covers 60% of feed needed for the whole herd. Forrest manages all the cropping and manure managment decisions and mantains the on-farm shop and farm equipment.

Building trust in the dairy industry is part of Emilie’s daily considerations as she oversees the responsibility of more than 2,700 head of cattle and helps manage the farm’s employees. She is dedicated to being transparent about what happens on the farm by hosting in-person and virtual farm tours for students of all ages.

“I think it’s important that kids know where their food comes from and that they learn about the science and technology that go into producing the dairy products they enjoy,” said Emilie. “I also think that putting a face to the dairy industry helps them make a personal connection to us on the farm.”

Emilie has partnered with dairy checkoff’s American Dairy Association North East (ADA North East) to help build that connection on several occasions. She hosted ADA North East’s spring 2021 Virtual Farm Tour for high school students that garnered 860 live viewers. During the tour, which was broadcast live from the farm, Emilie was able to answer students’ questions in real time, thanks to ADA North East’s technology.

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Last fall, Emilie was part of a virtual farm-to-table dairy tour hosted by ADA North East for 13 influential social-media food bloggers with an estimated 1.3 million followers. The bloggers learned firsthand about dairy farmers’ cow care and innovative sustainability practices from Emilie and three other New York farmers. These influencer tours are not a one-off tactic to explain modern dairy farming – participants continue to advocate for dairy long after the tour takes place because of relationships developed through the tours – whether in-person or virtual.

“It’s good to let people see everyday farm life, so they have a better understanding of what comes into and goes out of the farm business to produce milk,” Emilie added.

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In addition to supporting dairy checkoff initiatives, Emilie is supporting her local Livingston County Farm Bureau by participating in Ag in the Classroom Dairy Days held this spring at all the primary schools in the county. She often mans one of the learning stations and offers to bring a calf from the farm for the students to enjoy.

The Mulligans also opened their farm to the 2019 Farm Bureau Farmfest, a rotating community event that brought more than 3,000 people to their farm to learn about the dairy industry. It’s also common for Emilie to regularly host school tours on the farm, allowing students firsthand experience.

While Emilie usually leads the tours, along with her faithful border collie, Declan, she says it’s a group effort at Mulligan Farm with all the family and employees committed to keeping the farm in top shape for visitors. “I feel really lucky that we have a nice place to be able to share with consumers, knowing that we can present a positive image for our industry.”  end mark

PHOTO 1: Emilie Mulligan of Mulligan Farm in Avon, New York, hosted a virtual farm tour for high school students for ADA North East, on May 12, 2021.

PHOTO 2: Emilie typically leads tours accompanied by her faithful border collie, Declan.

PHOTO 3: At Mulligan Farm, they, on average, feed 150 calves in hutches and a calf barn three times a day using pastuerized waste milk.

PHOTO 4: Mulligan hosted ADA North East’s spring 2021 Virtual Farm Tour for high school students that garnered 860 live viewers.

PHOTO 5: Mulligan also participated in a virtual Farm-to-Table dairy tour hosted by ADA North East for 13 influential social-media food bloggers with an estimated 1.3 million followers. Photos courtesy American Dairy Association North East.

Jean Kummer is an industry communications specialist with American Dairy Association North East.

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