Mary Chamberlain is a dairy farmer alongside her husband, Jason, and in-laws Warren and Lori, at Dairylain Farms in Vale, Oregon. Mary and Jason have three boys between the ages of one and seven, and she coaches a cross country running team at the local high school. We asked Mary eight questions about her life as a farmer, community volunteer, and a mother.
Why do you farm?
It’s a family tradition that goes back to our great-grandparents. I was raised on a dairy farm, and I married a dairy boy. It only made sense to work on his parent’s dairy and raise our kids to love dairy cows as much as we do. Raising calves, fostering them to cows, and giving them what they need to produce wonderful milk — that is the pretty basic description of what we do. But in reality it’s so much more.
When our first born arrived, I tried to stay home, but the farm needed an extra set of hands. I found myself pushing a stroller along as I fed calves, vaccinated cows, or checked heifers. Now on our third child, we start our mornings by heading to the barn to get milk to feed the calves, and end our day checking on the robots (we added robotic milkers last July). I’m very proud to have my boys working with us every day.
What’s life like for your kids on the farm?
They all have different levels of love for the farm and our way of life. My one-year-old just loves to watch the cows, and of course, sample their food.
My four-year-old plays for hours with his farm toys in the sandbox. Every once in a while we catch bits of his make-believe land, where he is the ‘dad’ and he drives his loader and feeds the cows. We even get hints of a girl he likes as she makes an appearance in this pretend world to feed baby calves. When he isn’t in the sandbox, he loves to follow his dad around or ride along while I check on the heifers.
Our seven-year-old is starting to connect the dots that feeding animals and taking care of them is essential for them to not just survive but to helps us survive. When an animal is born, he is one of the first to let us know, and then help his dad move her to the barn. He helps with every task on the dairy. Some he hates (he thinks feeding calves is too boring) and others he loves (like picking out animals to train for fair).
And you’re also involved in your local schools?
Yes, I’m the local cross country head coach, and I substitute teach when I can (which is a bit rare these days with a one year old). Before my boys, I ran marathons and did triathlons all over the country. These days, it’s important for me to stay fit for my sanity and my health. Coaching running is great way to give back to the community and teach kids a way to deal with their own stress and worries.
With a master’s degree in dairy science and a love for running, I’m a bit of a quirky sub. I encourage getting outside to do work. I believe there is this huge connection to moving and learning that we don’t utilize in the classroom.
How important is nutrition to your family and your cows?
As a three time mom in her 30s who still runs and bikes when she can, what’s in my food and my boys’ food is a concern. We all burn a lot of calories. I don’t want any food around that is just going to give a quick energy high and then leave me with a headache and cranky kids. Protein, carbohydrates, digestible and usable sugars, vitamins and minerals: that’s what I look for in all my food, and I try to balance the levels based on what we need and when we need it.
Good nutrition is also important to our cows. They are sort of like a pro-athlete; they will burnout if they don’t train and eat right. We feed the cows to increase milk supply naturally by giving them the correct amount of energy, protein, vitamins, and minerals (and plenty of water). We have to make sure their nutrition allows them to milk plenty but doesn’t deplete their bones and body.
Do you use antibiotics or hormones?
Out of 375 milking animals, we have only one that’s getting antibiotics right now. We use antibiotics on our dairy according to the label, and no antibiotics are allowed to enter the food supply. If she gets an antibiotic shot, her milk gets dumped.
I think there is a misconception that as dairy farmers we are constantly giving shots for sickness. Really we give very few. My one year old has received more doses of antibiotics for ear infections this winter than we gave the entire milking herd for the same four months. We all work hard to give our animals the best chance to fight colds and viruses on their own. When they can’t, we call the vet and get the medication they need.
As for hormones, cows don’t need additional hormones to make them give more milk, they have enough natural ones.
How do you take care of your cows and calves?
We feed them, ensure they are safe, healthy and comfortable, and we provide clean homes and bedding. We give the calves blankets and warm water in the winter and cold water in the summer. Sometimes when my kids are sick, it’s hard to leave the house to work at the dairy. But the cows and calves need us too.
Cows are not humans, and sometimes they can hurt or neglect their calves. So to the calves, we are their foster parents. They depend on us to understand their language, like a wagging tail and licking tongue means ‘I’m good!’ — droopy eyes and not getting up right away means something doesn’t feel right.
How do you care for the environment?
Improving the land around us is a big priority. Since we grow our own crops for the cows to eat, there is always plenty of land that could use more nutrients. We sample the soil to decide where nutrients are needed and that’s where we spread manure from our pens and barns. It’s natural, organic fertilizer.
We ensure that the water used in our barns for cooling milk is recycled, so the cows can have plenty to drink. We are constantly looking for ways to reduce waste in all forms and recycle what we can. We use solar powered electric fences to keep the heifers in, and solar powered pumps to run our pivots to keep the fields watered and the grass growing.
Are there any parting thoughts that you’d like people to know?
Just as none of us are perfect parents, there are no perfect farmers. But we honestly do the best we can do on this day, and hope for the same or better tomorrow. Every day is another chance to do even better. I trust what we do, what my neighbors do, and what our fellow friends and dairy farmers across the country do. We are proud of the quality foods that we help bring to your table and ours!
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