Going with the flow

At an Orange County organic dairy farm, milk production is an all-day affair

All photos by Rammelkamp Foto

The sun hasn’t risen when the workday begins at Marshall Farms, an organic dairy farm about 40 miles northeast of Charlottesville near the tiny Orange County community of Unionville. By 4:30am, the herd has made its way in from the verdant rolling pastures and the first eager bovine has entered the milking line. Over the next four hours, thousands of gallons of fresh milk will be collected before the 450 cows are returned to pasture after chowing down on supplemental organic feed. They’re back again at 4:30pm to repeat the process.

The milking’s been going on like clockwork since the farm was founded in 1979 by Jay Marshall, a longtime milk hauler, and his two sons Keith and Chris. Marshall Farms went organic in 2008, a rigorous process that requires frequent inspections by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and mounds of paperwork on top of the endless day-to-day work of caring for animals, and growing organic crops to feed them.

“It’s 24/7. You’re always on call,” says Deanne Marshall, who is married to Keith and serves as the farm’s bookkeeper.

Exhausting as the work may be, Marshall says she and her family have no desire to get out of the business. “To work with animals and the land is such a great feeling,” she says. “And it’s rewarding to create a product that’s so essential.”

Even before the 350-acre dairy operation was certified organic in 2008, the Marshalls’ cows were grass-fed. “It makes them much healthier,” says Deanne Marshall. “They’re exercising, they’re out to pasture. Honestly, in Europe, that’s what they’ve always done—they’ve always had cows out on grass. We’re just going back to how it should be.”

Farm employee Mike Thompson offers freshly milked cows a supplemental diet of alfalfa, hay, roasted beans and other organic feed before they return to pasture.

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Laura Williams, one of the farm’s 12 employees, milks and helps move the cows, as well as cleaning up after them—a never-ending task.

Convincing the cows to come in for milking isn’t too hard. “We’ll ride out on a four-wheeler, and round them up,” says Deanne Marshall, who operates the farm with her husband Keith Marshall and his brother. “The boss cow will start walking up—they want to be milked.”

Cows are milked by machine twice a day, and it takes approximately four hours to milk all 450 cows. Each cow gives about five gallons of milk per day, says Keith Marshall.

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  • Farm Manager Carlos Hernandez walks in front of the milk tank, which holds thousands of gallons. Every other day, the fresh milk is trucked to Hunter Farms in North Carolina, where it’s pasteurized and then bottled to be sold in stores including Harris Teeter.

The farm has another 400 head of cattle including bulls and calves pastured on additional rented pastureland.

Dairy cows give birth once a year, and they usually birth their first calf at around age 2, says Deanne Marshall. Regular milking keeps the milk flowing.

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  • Now 90 and retired, Jay Marshall had worked for years as a milk hauler when he founded Marshall Farms in 1979 with his two sons. He’s still a regular fixture on the farm and at the Marshall Farms deli, which serves breakfast and lunch six days a week.

  • Border Collies Odis and Cooper play in a pasture behind the Marshalls’ house where young bulls are kept. The dogs are vigilant, even if there’s not much need for their herding services. “They think they’re guarding the bulls,” laughs Deanne.