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In the heart of Western New York, where the legacy of farming stretches back 12 generations, Oakfield Corners Dairy stands tall as a testament to agricultural innovation and sustainable practices. In this episode of the Spilled Salt podcast, Maureen Ballatori had the pleasure of speaking with Alicia Lamb, the Marketing and Genetics Manager of Oakfield Corners Dairy, offering insights into the daily operations of this 10,000-cow dairy farm.

Alicia, a Floridian by origin, shared her journey of acclimating to the brisk climate of Western New York, where she, along with her husband Jonathan, manages the farm that has been in his family for generations. 

The Lamb family’s dedication to the well-being of their cows and the sustainable growth of the farm has led Oakfield Corners Dairy to become a prominent player in the national dairy landscape.

The conversation delved into the logistics of managing such a substantial dairy operation. Alicia highlighted the farm’s focus on the health and happiness of their cows, emphasizing that their success is rooted in internal herd growth and a commitment to ethical and sustainable practices. With 10,000 cows across four locations, the farm employs approximately 150 full-time staff, showcasing the scale and complexity of their operations.

One unique aspect of Oakfield Corners Dairy is its genetics program, where they not only show cows but have turned it into a financially successful segment of their business. Alicia, who herself was introduced to the dairy industry through showing cows in her youth, emphasized the importance of this program in promoting the farm’s genetics and engaging the next generation of farmers.

Alicia also addressed misconceptions surrounding dairy farming, particularly regarding large-scale operations. She invited listeners to take a behind-the-scenes look at the farm, debunking myths about cow management and showcasing the meticulous care given to the animals. Alicia emphasized that happy, healthy cows are not only essential for ethical farming but also contribute to the farm’s productivity.

Maureen and Alicia also touched upon the critical role of agricultural education and expressed her passion for introducing young minds to the intricacies of farming. She highlighted the recent introduction of agricultural programs in local schools, emphasizing the need for greater awareness about food production.

Looking ahead, Oakfield Corners Dairy is making a foray into value-added dairy products. The farm recently won the Northeast Dairy Product Innovation Competition, with a focus on producing Mexican-style cheeses to meet the needs of the local Hispanic community. Alicia shared the learning curve of aligning their products with cultural preferences while maintaining the quality that the farm is known for.

Oakfield Corners Dairy plans to continue expanding its genetics program, ensuring the well-being of its cows, and venturing into the world of cheese production. With the introduction of unique and culturally relevant dairy products, the farm is not only addressing market gaps but also fostering inclusivity within their community.

Alicia’s story is one of resilience, adaptability, and a commitment to excellence in dairy farming. As Oakfield Corners Dairy navigates the evolving landscape of agriculture, the Lamb family and their team stand as stewards of sustainable practices, proving that success in farming goes hand in hand with a deep-rooted passion for the well-being of both the land and its inhabitants.

Transcript

This transcript has been edited from its original form to support readability.

Maureen Ballatori: I’m Maureen Ballatori and this is Spilled Salt. It’s a podcast on the thrills and spills from the food, beverage, and agriculture industries. Today’s guest is Alicia Lamb. She is the Marketing and Genetics Manager with Oakfield Corners Dairy. That’s really short-changing Alicia’s efforts and impact on the Oakfield Corners Dairy farm. 

Title aside, Oakfield Corners is a 12th-generation 10,000-cow dairy based in Western New York. They have four locations and today’s conversation today is really focused on what they are doing at Oakfield to how they logistically manage milking 10,000 cows. We also talk about how the media is asking a lot of questions today about what the dairy farming industry is doing to our sustainability and ecosystem. And so Alicia addresses that in the conversation. 

We talk about the education of the next generation of farming advocates and some of the new products that are in the pipeline for Oakfield Corners Dairy. Enjoy the conversation.

Thanks so much for joining me. I’m so excited to have you on the podcast today. I would love for you to start with a little bit of background. Can you tell everyone about who you are and what is Oakfield Corners Dairy?

Alicia: All right, I can do that. I’m Alicia Lamb. My husband, Jonathan, is one of the owners and managers here at Oakfield Corners Dairy. I’m actually originally from Florida, so I am a complete crazy person to be up here in Western New York. I am, right? Yes, but I’ve been up here over half my life now and enjoying it and enjoying working with the cows, love working with the cows, obviously, or I would not be doing it.

My husband Jonathan and his brother are 12th-generation farmers and primarily from Western New York. They’ve been in Western New York for five or six generations now and prior to that and they immigrated from I think it was the UK and to the East Coast. So East Coast – Northeasterners all the way through. 

Maureen: What brought them to Western New York?

Alicia: Honestly, I don’t know the origins of that. I just know as we went back through history. I should know exactly, like five or six generations ago, they moved from Massachusetts to Western New York, whether they were trying to find gold or whatever the case may have been back in the day, I’m not certain, but they settled here in Western New York. 

Maureen: And what does the farm primarily produce?

Alicia: We are a dairy farm. We milk about 10,000 dairy cows in four locations. Well, it was not always that way. I should point that out. 

Back in the 60s, Jonathan’s dad and grandfather were typical dairy farmers milking about 50 cows. And then they’ve always done a tremendous job on managing cows well and keeping cows healthy and keeping them around. 

That allowed them to grow internally to the size that we are now. There’s been some purchases here and there, but it’s mostly been through internal herd growth. So keeping cows alive, keeping them healthy, keeping them happy, if you wanna call it that, on the farm, keeping calves around, just allowing them to grow into the size that we are now, which again, we’re milking just over 10,000 cows.

Maureen: How unique is that? I mean, it sounds pretty unusual. Many of the farms that we meet, especially in New York State, are considerably smaller. So how unique is it to have that many cows in a US dairy farm?

Alicia: In the Northeast, I would say it’s pretty unique. The average dairy farm in New York, I should know this, but I believe it’s around 200 cows. So we are pretty unique here in New York, and especially throughout the Northeast. As you look at the population of dairy farms across the US as a whole, I think there’s like 35,000 farms left in the US, something like that.

Maureen: Oh really? Wow, that’s much smaller than I thought.

Alicia: There’s a lot of really, really large farms through the Midwest and through the Southwest. So   , 10,000 cows sounds like a lot, but if you go visit some farms, say in Texas or New Mexico or something like that, they’re milking 60,000 or so. We’re pretty small by comparison as you look at other areas of the country.

Maureen: Right. And how, what does that look like from a logistics perspective?  How many employees do you have? How much milk are you producing?

Alicia: With 10,000 cows, it’s not that we’re just milking cows and that’s all we do. We really are focusing on caring for these animals so that they are healthy and are productive. If they’re not healthy then they don’t produce milk, right? It takes a lot of people to do that. So between all of our locations, it’s about 150 employees that are full-time.

We do hire out some crop management to help with that, primarily truck drivers and things like that to help get crops harvested.

Maureen: And you mentioned not just milking. So I know that showing the cows is a big thing for Oakfield Corners. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Alicia: It’s a little bit of a unique aspect of what we do is our genetics program here on the farm. I’m from Florida, and Jonathan grew up here in Western New York. And we both showed cows as kids. That’s what got me involved. I didn’t come from a dairy farm. So that’s how I got involved in the dairy industry was through showing through 4-H and FFA. So that’s something that continued into adulthood that we enjoyed.

And we learned that we were able to show cows as a hobby, but we’ve also developed our program into a financially successful portion of our business. We show locally and across the state of New York. We also show nationally. We actually just a week or so ago got back from World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wisconsin, which is like the Super Bowl of dairy shows, right? So it’s THE big one for us.

We had a very successful run out in Madison, we’re very happy with the results and that we had success.

Maureen: And I think we were able to catch up with Alicia and do some sampling, which we’ll talk about a little bit later in this episode at the World Dairy Expo. Talk about the logistics of that a little bit. I mean, we touched on it a bit when we were talking at the Expo, but how many cows do you bring in? What does that look like?

Alicia:   It’s crazy. So back when we started 20-something years ago with our show program, we would just send a cow or two and just send them with somebody else and we’d show up and everything is easy, right? So as our program has evolved, this year we had 26 cattle in our string, our show string. So it takes a lot more effort to pull that together. 

We had about 10 people, about one person for two cows or so. And again, that’s a pretty intense effort to pull those people together, to care for them the way that they need to be cared for out there. I mean, it’s a long drive. It’s like a 13-hour drive.

We had all 26 cattle on one of those big pot trailers, so those double-decker trailers. So getting them out there and getting them cared for preparing feed. We don’t wanna change our diets as they transition to be 13 hours away. So we take feed for them, make sure that their rations stay the same, and all the equipment that goes along with that, milking equipment, beddings, so straw and shavings for bedding and water bowls. 

It’s a huge effort that goes into that. And we’re very fortunate that we’ve got a group of people here on the farm that we trust and in different areas of the country that pull it all together for us.

Maureen: You mentioned that it’s an important part of the business. I’m confident with 10,000 cows and with the scale that you’ve grown that to, that the juice is worth the squeeze, as I like to say. That’s an important unit of measure, right? To bring those cows to the show, to continue to grow the genetics program at Oakfield.

Alicia: It’s fun for us. It’s how I got involved, I mentioned that. But it’s an important part of our business. It’s something that we’re able to market the genetics from those cattle. 

The big thing is I have a seven and a nine-year-old, and they’re starting to get involved a little bit. So my daughter showed a calf out there this year, and to see the excitement that she had, and that some of the young people have from here at our farm as well as through New York and across the country. That’s our future to get involved, to stay involved. And so us having that program allows us to continue that and hopefully keep that next generation involved on the farm as well.

Maureen: I love that. You mentioned that you got involved in 4-H and FFA and showed cows as a kid, but you didn’t grow up on a farm. So how did you get into, what made you wanna get into those programs without having the direct on-farm experience that you grew up on?

Alicia: My father was an ag teacher and introduced the dairy program to his ag students at the time. And I got to see that when I was really young and I was like, oh, that looks like fun. I want to do that. And my parents somehow crazily went along with that idea. 

And here I am, however many years later, working with 10,000 cows. It was just something that looked like a cool thing to do. It grew a spark and interest and here I am. It’s my life, my livelihood now.

Maureen: I think that echoes the importance of bringing agriculture into the schools, right, and kind of helping that next generation get involved with where their food comes from and the ecosystem of agriculture.

Alicia:  It’s huge and we’ve been fortunate here. I was always amazed. 

I came up through FFA and 4-H and I was amazed when I moved to Western New York, because it’s such an agriculturally diverse area, that there was no ag in schools in this area. I was like, what in the world? It’s crazy. 

Over the past four or five years now, both of the local schools in the area have introduced ag programs. And I think that’s so important for young people to know where their food comes from and to know everything that goes into producing food because it’s more than just walking to the grocery store and buying a gallon of milk or a banana or whatever.

Maureen: I think in that vein of understanding, right, seeking understanding about the ag ecosystem and dairy specifically, there’s certainly a lot of discussion in the news about dairy farming in general, and specifically about how large-scale farms treat cows poorly, and dairy farming is bad for the environment. 

Now, I know you’ve spoken a number of times already in this discussion in the last 10 minutes about the health and happiness of the cows, but what’s your opinion on that? I mean, well, how do you respond or when somebody asks in passing, “Oh, you run a dairy farm” and you can see the judgment in their eyes, right? How do you respond?

Alicia: We get a lot of tours here. Most of them are ag-related or so. There’s an understanding and appreciation for what we do. But occasionally, we do get the community tour and you get those questions, or school student tours and you get those questions. 

And I understand where they come from, honestly, because I think what are we? Three generations on average are moved from on from direct farming in this country. So it’s understandable. People just don’t know and don’t understand. 

But the big thing is, I like to take them into the barn and show them how the cows are housed, show them how we’re keeping their stalls, their beds clean and well groomed and well, the bedding that we use is,  , it’s fluffy, it’s comfortable, that we’re feeding them all the time. 

The cows are, I had a friend that used to say, “Man, I just want to be a cow” because they’re making the beds or we’re making the beds for them. And we’re feeding them all the time. They have to work an hour a day, essentially.  , we’re milking our cows three times a day. So it’s about 15 minutes or so that they’re out of their group. So they have to work about an hour a day. And other than that, they’re eating, they’re drinking, they’re hanging with their girlfriends and sleeping. 

So that’s really an important focus for us, as farmers, is to ensure that those cows are, again, they’re happy, they’re healthy, because if they’re not, then they’re not productive.

Maureen: Right. And so two things I want you to elaborate on, and I’ll start with one and then I’ll go back to the other. You just mentioned that they’re not productive, right? So speak to that a little bit because I don’t think that the general public understands what that means.

Alicia: Yes, correct. And thank you for catching that. If they’re not productive, they’re not producing milk. 

And we are a business. We have to look at our farm as much as we love the animals that we work with, and it is our lifestyle, it is our family, for many generations now. We are running a business and we have to look at it in that regard and make business decisions. And so if a cow is not productive, she’s not making enough milk to pay for everything that we’re putting into her. She’s not making up the pay for her food or to pay for the management that goes into that, the labor involved with bedding and things of that nature. 

It is important for us that cows are productive and we know our breakeven costs and where they need to be on a daily basis to achieve that. So, all those things come into play.

Maureen: Ultimately happier cows make for better milk, right? Not only in terms of the quality but also in the production volume.

Alicia: Yes. That’s one thing and I’m glad you mentioned the quality aspect because that’s something that we’re very proud of at all of our locations and something we’ve really focused on. For however many years and generations now, it is not just milk from our cows’ production levels but quality milk. So we’re really focusing on high components such as butter fat and protein which makes butter, cheeses, ice cream, and dairy products like that.

It comes back to the management of our cows, keeping them healthy, that they have a lower somatic cell count. There’s all this discussion, or there used to be about pus and milk, which I hate that term because it’s so gross and disgusting. But healthier cows have healthy and good quality milk. That’s something that we focus on here at the farm as well.

For example, the cooperative that we ship our milk to here in New York is Upstate Niagara. So you see that brand in the stores and then Bison is one of the sub-brands that has the dips, the chip dips, and sour greens and all that. So that’s Upstate Niagara Milk. 

And our cooperative has quality levels and we’re very proud that we’ve met the highest quality level for 17 years now on this farm alone, and at the other farms for about the same amount of time, it’s hugely important to us that we’re putting out quality milk for the consumers to enjoy healthy foods that we produce every day.

Maureen: That’s a great point. So the other thing I wanted to go back to was you mentioned that when you’re showing the farm operation, there’s kind of a new understanding for the community of what is actually involved in a dairy operation, and specifically yours.

I think the other thing about what we see in the media may be a farm problem, right? It may be a problem for a farm that doesn’t have the same values that you do and the kind of goals that you do about high quality, happy cows and that sort of thing.

We at 29, we went on a farm tour of a local farm a couple of summers ago. And one of the things that they mentioned was that the cows build friendships. And so when you say they hang out with their girlfriends, they literally get friend groups that they spend time with, which is so cool. 

Alicia: They do. Yes.

Maureen: You have a pretty significant Instagram following, which also shows that people want to see that kind of behind-the-scenes content. So what kind of things do you typically share on Instagram and what do people typically respond to best?

Alicia: Alot of what I’ve done with our Instagram account is more focused on the genetics, I would say, and the cows that we work with. So that’s what we do is we work with cows. But the big thing is a lot of people do feel that us, as a large operation, people aren’t always going to come to the farm. So trying to give a little bit of a behind-the-scenes look, if you want to call it that once in a while.

There are a lot of misperceptions about how cows are managed. So I’ll use this as an example. We had a tour group, a community group here three weeks ago and showed the group the parlor, the cows are milking. And she’s like, oh, so the cows just go around and around all day in the parlor. And I’m like, no, cows are milked three times a day.

Each turn is a 10-minute turn in our parlor. We have a rotary parlor. It’s almost like a carousel, if you want to call it that. And she was so confused. And I walked around. I said, look, see the cows are loading on. She’s getting off. 

Well, where do they go when they get off? I said, see, there’s the barn over there. And then we walked over to the barn. And she’s like, oh my gosh, I thought these cows just went around all day. I had no idea. And I’m like, oh my gosh, what are we doing as an industry that some of the basics of how we are managing and working with our cows every day are so misconstrued by consumers and by the public. 

That behind-the-scenes look of how we’re doing some different things, how we’re milking the cows, how every once in a while when our team is bedding the cows, what we’re doing to feed the cows or when they’re feeding the cows or mixing the feed or whatever. Just trying to share some of that. I think people appreciate that, I would say, and really improve their understanding and learning of us as an industry.

Maureen: I think that’s important work. And that’s what I try to do here with the podcast is to reveal different segments of the industry and kind of help people understand things that they may not have realized about a particular aspect of agriculture specifically. 

Alicia: The industry has evolved so much over time. Again, my kids are seven and nine, and in school they present farming as still the old man and the pitchfork and overalls in the straw hat, and it’s like, oh my gosh, we are so beyond that. [They’ve no idea of] some of the technology and how we’re managing cows, not just cows, but crops as well.

We need to do better as an industry to promote our foods and what we do.

Maureen: Couldn’t agree more. Speaking of that, I think one of the interesting ways that is happening in our local regional ecosystem that is helping to advocate for and drive awareness of and amplify the work of Northeast Dairy is the Northeast Dairy Product Innovation Competition, which you just recently won. Congratulations.

Alicia: Thank you.

Maureen: And so for a little background for our listeners, that competition supports food innovators in launching value-added dairy products made from ingredients that were produced in the Northeast. So fill everybody in a little bit on what your pitch was and what you’ll be doing since winning that competition.

Alicia: One aspect that we’ve been really wanting to become involved in is producing food here on the farm. 

So whether it was milk, cheese, direct to consumers, I should say. And it’s something that Jonathan, my husband, and I have talked about for years, and we just were so busy with the farm. And now with our family, we just really didn’t have the opportunity to investigate that fully. 

So our intern from last year came on full time and we asked her if she might be interested in pursuing this. She has a little bit of a processing background. And so as we began this journey, if you want to call it that, of food production, we came across Mexican-style cheeses, which seems like in hindsight is 20-20. It’s like, duh. This is such a need for our community and for our area.

There are about 65 million Hispanic people living in the US; I think 20-something percent of the population here in New York State is Hispanic and we have a lot of Hispanic workers that work with us on a daily basis on the farm to care for the cows. And we didn’t really realize the struggles that they go through to find foods that they want to eat. 

It’s been a learning experience for us and something that I think we have a much greater appreciation for some of the cultural differences that some of our Hispanic friends have. So, we are making queso fresco right now and the guys love it, which is a great thing because it’s really important for us to have culturally representative foods that they enjoy.

So queso fresco is our first cheese. We are in the process of developing Oaxaca cheese as a second. And I think our third one is gonna be Chihuahua, which is like a melting quesadilla-style cheese. 

We’re in the process of developing those recipes. We have to, again, get approval from our Hispanic team that it is correct. It is culturally representative of their desires. And we’re gonna start working on distribution here soon as well.

We’re very excited about this process and a little bit nerve-wracking, but it’ll be a good thing for us.

Maureen: I love that it was built out of need, right? You saw the opportunity with this audience is not being well served with high-quality products, which is something that we’re passionate about. 

You found the opportunity with the innovation competition and sort of put two and two together, right? And said this feels like a great opportunity to throw some fuel on the fire to make this happen. 

When I mentioned earlier that we tasted something at the World Dairy Expo, Alisha and Oakfield Corners had some initial samples of the Oaxaca cheese available there. That’s what it was, right? The Oaxaca, the queso fresco. Got it, delicious. I brought some home, it’s in my fridge.

Alicia: That was the Queso Fresco. We’re playing around with that. And I actually have been playing around with a few different recipes with it as well. It’s a good thing.

Maureen: And so talk about that experience a little bit in terms of the cultural awareness, right, of creating something for your Hispanic friends, and, and aligning with the cultural preferences there and kind of doing honor and justice to that, while also fitting in with the kind of the big picture marketing and the pitch that you had to do for the competition. How did you navigate that?

Alicia: I should back up and say we’re very fortunate that, through the competition when we were selected as one of the top 10 finalists, that they paired us with a mentor that helped us with some of this as well, some of our business design and we were paired with Agency 29, as well. So you guys have helped us through this journey with things immensely as well. But the biggest thing for us is that we wanted a product that was unique in the marketplace.

There are, I don’t know how many cheddar cheeses out there, and they’re all great. I love cheese, so no disrespect to anyone. But we really wanted a product that was unique. 

Learning about the challenges that the people we work with every day were facing was the biggest eye-opening experience for us. I think there’s one, if I remember correctly, one plant in all of New York State that is producing Mexican-style cheeses, which is crazy to think of because it’s such a huge population here in New York State. 

Going through that experience, being sensitive to the cultural needs of our Hispanic friends, making sure that we’re navigating that correctly, we’re including them in the process. 

We have a person that’s going to help us as we are working with some of the Mexican grocery stores in the area so that we’re ensuring that we’re getting the product in as they want it, as they want it packaged, as the labeling and all that, making sure that we’ve got it just correct in that regard as well. 

It’s been a very distinct learning curve for us. And I don’t know, I’ve hit a certain age. I didn’t think I could learn too much more, but here I’m learning something every day, which is great. 

Maureen: That’s wonderful. I love that you’re really thinking the full picture, about making sure that you’re launching that in a way that is respectful while also still working for the business, too. So that’s great. What’s next? As we just wrap up here, what’s next for Oakfield? What does the future hold? Is it more cows? Is it more value-added products?  What does the future hold for you?

Alicia:  It’s going to be interesting. So we’re going to continue to focus on our genetics program. That’s a big part of what I do, what our team enjoys doing. So we’re going to do that. Keeping our cows happy, keeping them milking well, always trying to improve that scenario wherever we can, improving barn design as we need to, and keeping up with technology, which is a huge function right now. 

Then, probably the biggest thing on the horizon is our cheese product. We bought a cheese vat. We’re in the process of building a room to start manufacturing cheese here on the farm soon. And looking forward to getting that venture started and hopefully getting that product into some more mainstream stores eventually for all of our friends, the Hispanic friends, of course, but everybody else who just enjoys good quality food.

Maureen:  Fantastic. Well, Alicia, thanks so much for joining me today, for sharing your story, for being open, for any question that I threw your way. Really appreciate you helping to educate folks on what it’s like to be working on a 12th-generation, 10,000-cow dairy farm. So thanks again so much for your time.

Alicia:   No, thank you. Thanks for including me. It’s always a lot of fun and I always love trying to get the good message of dairy out there to everybody.