April 05, 2020

Farmers scramble to keep up with cows’ needs

BURNHAM — Because of last week’s ice storm, area farmers have been struggling this week with the basics of keeping generators running, cows milked and milk cold.

“It’s hard to believe that with all this ice, we can’t manage to get the milk cold,” said Dr. David Macinkowski of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

Macinkowski said he believed that at least 99 percent of Maine farmers were equipped with generators that enabled them at least to milk their cows. Storing and cooling the milk is something else altogether, he said.

“I would guess that we had some milk dumped because small generators enabled milking to go on, but not enough electricity was being generated to cool the milk,” he said.

But Macinkowski and other state officials said most Maine farmers are well prepared for power outages. “Maine dairy farmers are so dependent on power that they just can’t afford to be without generators,” said Macinkowski.

Rosemary and Phillip Salaoutis in Burnham have become intimately acquainted with their generator this week, which Rosemary Salaoutis has nicknamed “The Juice Nazi.”

The Salaoutis farm lost electricity at 3:05 a.m. last Tuesday. They have the generator, which has provided enough power to milk their 50 cows, “but we are juggling it,” she said. “Our generator is really not big enough to take care of all our needs.” Particularly distressing, she said, is to be standing in the shower, lathered up with a full head of shampoo when the generator decides to quit.

“We are doing everything in increments, especially the milking,” she said. “It is making for some incredibly long days.”

Salaoutis said she knew of no farmer who was attempting to milk by hand.

“That would be near impossible,” said Macinkowski. He explained that dairy cows are bred to have tiny teats, specifically to enable milking machines to function at peak efficiency. “There’s nothing to grab onto, unless you have tweezers,” he said.

At the university in Orono, said Macinkowski, the school’s 17 dairy cows are being milked one at a time.

“We recently built a new barn, but the generator’s wiring hadn’t been hooked up yet,” he said. “So we’re using a smaller generator and milking them one at a time.”

Shelley Falk at the Maine Department of Agriculture said the state’s three dairy inspectors will visit every dairy farm in Maine this week, providing information and advice and checking on the status of individual farms.

“The state vet’s only received one call from a farmer who was unable to milk and didn’t have a generator,” said Falk.

In Kennebec County, a meeting of the USDA emergency board has been called for 8 this morning to assess the damage in central Maine. Guy Piper, chairman of the board, said dozens of farmers in Kennebec County are still without power, and the generators they are using are having a hard time keeping up with daily milking.

“Some of these farmers have been working 20 hours a day,” he said. He said one Mount Vernon farmer who had no generator trucked his cows to another farm, to be housed and milked until electricity returned.

“It’s really farmer helping farmer now,” said Piper.

Piper said Kennebec County has the largest number of dairy farms in the state, with 85 farms milking 7,845 cows, and he is concerned about the long-term effects on milk production.

“Even with generators, the cows aren’t getting fed when they are used to. They aren’t getting water when they’re used to. They aren’t getting milk when they are used to,” said Piper. “This shift in their daily schedule will adversely affect production.”

He said the board, at its meeting this morning, will attempt to document the effect on dairy production in Kennebec County and assess what needs to be done until full power is restored. As he has visited area farms this week, Piper said, he has carried a chain saw in his vehicle to cut his way to the farms.

“This is just awful,” said Piper. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

At the Oakhurst Dairy processing plant in Portland, Stanley Bennett said, “We haven’t missed a beat. In fact, even with schools and many, many stores closed, we sold more milk last week than we did a year ago.”

Bennett said that all of Oakhurst’s farmers without electrical service were using generators. “Unfortunately, the companies that haul our milk have been unable to get through to some farmers,” said Bennett. “Over the weekend, two or three farms, that’s out of 75 farms, had to dump milk.”

Bennett said that getting the processed, packaged milk to stores was “challenging and interesting.”

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