Valley Bounty: Indian Acres Farm
Carrie Chickering-Sears breeds cattle that win awards.
Chickering-Sears and her husband David Sears own Indian Acres Farm in South Deerfield. The pair currently cares for 31 animals, all Guernsey dairy cattle.
Chickering-Sears has been raising Guernsey cattle ever since her parents bought her a Guernsey calf when she was a child. At the time, her parents bought a Guernsey because the breed was known to be gentler than Holstein cows, the more common breed on production farms. But in the years since, Guernseys have gained popularity on dairy farms. Their milk has a higher fat and protein content than Holstein milk, making it better suited for making cheese.
Many of those Guernseys Chickering-Sears cares for today are the descendants of Pistachio Pie, a World Supreme Champion cow.
Each year, cattle breeders from across the country gather in Madison, Wisconsin for the World Dairy Expo.
“It’s like the Westminster Dog Show,” Chickering-Sears recently explained. “The best of the best come together, then one cow comes out as the Supreme Champion.”
In 2007, Indian Acres Farm had a banner year.
Chickering-Sears’ then-teenage daughter, Ashley Sears Randle, brought her cow Pistachio Pie to the expo.
“Pistachio Pie made history in 2007.” Chickering-Sears said. “My daughter was the first junior to ever win the youth portion and then go on to win as Supreme Champion.”
Ashley Sears Randle’s early success turned out to be a good indication of a promising career in the agriculture world. She is now the Deputy Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture (MDAR).
It’s no simple task to breed a champion show cow.
“You have to follow the genetic lines and pedigrees,” Chickering-Sears said. “You try to make the best mating, but it’s a lot of luck too. Nothing is given.”
The judges at cattle competitions, Chickering-Sears explained, rate cows on several factors.
For animal appearance, “they like a nice straightness of lines in the cow.”
For the cow’s mobility, it’s important to have nice feet and legs, so they’ll be able to move well and stand up over time. “Basically, you want them very stylish looking for moving around the ring.”
For breed character, the judges note whether the animal displays the characteristics that are valued for its given breed.
The mammary system is the most important asset dairy cows are judged on, counting up to 40% of a cow’s score. “They want these fancy, veiny udders,” Chickering-Sears said. “You want a capacious udder that’s going to hold milk. You want it high and wide in the rear, because 60% of the milk comes from the rear udder.”
Chickering-Sears emphasized that she aims to balance all the factors when breeding her cows because eventually, those cows’ genetics will end up on production dairy farms.
“We’re looking to breed dairy animals that can produce a product down the road,” she said. “So I don’t just breed for a single trait. It’s important for our cattle to have strong overall health, that they will live a long life.”
When Chickering-Sears isn’t showing her cows, she focuses on selling their genetics to dairy farmers and other breeders across the country and around the world.
Selling genetics is an important service in the dairy industry because without outside genetics, dairy herds could lose their genetic diversity over generations, leading to the birth of unhealthy animals.
For Chickering-Sears, selling genetics can mean shipping calves to other farmers, who can breed them once they reach adulthood. But she also sells semen from her bulls and embryos from her cows.
Embryos are harvested through a method called ‘flushing. First, the female cow is bred using artificial insemination. Then, those fertilized embryos are ‘flushed’ from the cow’s uterus. Those fertilized embryos can then be transferred into other cows, who serve as surrogate mothers. The surrogate mother eventually gives birth to a calf carrying the genetics of the original cow who was ‘flushed.
“If you buy a live animal and have to ship it across the country, it can cost thousands. So the embryos are the way to go,” Chickering-Sears said. “They’re basically put into a state of limbo in a liquid nitrogen tank during the trip. It’s kind of like science fiction!”
Chickering-Sears says it should be no surprise that cattle breeders like her are using advanced techniques to perfect the genetic lines of their cows.
“People look at farms today and they don’t understand all the technology knowledge you need, the scientific background required to raise animals. It really isn’t just going out and throwing them grain and saying good luck. It takes a lot more than that,” she said.
Although Chickering-Sears had plans to travel to several cattle shows this year, including the Big E and the Harrisburg All-American Dairy Show, the pandemic forced the cancellation of those large events. But fortunately for Chickering-Sears, the industry has found socially distant ways to forge forward.
“People are still purchasing animals,” she said. “It doesn’t seem like COVID has slowed down the market this year. But everything is now sold virtually.”
Indian Acres Farm exclusively sells cattle genetics, so they don’t have products available for the general public to buy. But there are plenty of other dairy farms in the Valley who would be happy to sell you some local cheese, milk, or yogurt. Find a farm near you at buylocalfood.org/farmguide.
Noah Baustin is the Communications Coordinator at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).
A note from the author: I have loved writing this column for the last year and a half, but sadly, this is my last Valley Bounty. I am leaving the Valley to attend journalism school at UC Berkeley. Many thanks to all the farmers who have shared their stories with me, to Claire Morenon at CISA and Ken Heidel at the Gazette for their insightful editing, and to all of you who have taken the time to read the column and sometimes email me to say nice things about it. CISA’s Emma Gwyther will be taking over the column, and I’m sure she will dig up many more great stories from the farm fields of western Mass!