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Happy cows make happy customers at Contoocook Creamery

  • Nate Robertson gets a hug from Princess Meredith, a brown Swiss cow, at Contoocook Creamery at Bohanan Farm in Contoocook. The family has run the farm for five generations. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Nate Robertson with Princess Meredith, a brown swiss cow, at Contoocook Creamery at Bohanan Farm in Contoocook. The family has run the farm for five generations. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Nate Robertson in the barn for the young cows of their Contoocook Creamery at Bohanan Farm in Contoocook. The family has run the farm for five generations. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Nate Robertson greets one of the calves – it hasn’t been named yet –at Contoocook Creamery. The cattle are named with the same first intial as their family lineage.

  • Si Robertson runs the tractor that picks up the hay while Nate drives the truck that collects it in a field off of Upper Straw Road in Hopkinton that the family leases. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Two of the four dogs that have the run of the farm at Contoocook Cremery. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Nate Robertson with Princess Meredith, a brown swiss cow, at Contoocook Creamery at Bohanan Farm in Contoocook. The family has run the farm for five generations. She is calm enought that Nate can get up on her back. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Nate Robertson (left) and his brother Siin at their Contoocook Creamery at Bohanan Farm in Contoocook. The family has run the farm for five generations. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Nate Robertson in the milking room of their Contoocook Creamery at Bohanan Farm in Contoocook. The family has run the farm for five generations. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • One of the dairy cows at the Contoocook Creamery at Bohanan Farm. The Robertson brothers have named just about every cow on the farm. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Nate Robertson with Princess Meredith, a brown swiss cow, at Contoocook Creamery at Bohanan Farm in Contoocook. The family has run the farm for five generations. She is calm enought that Nate can get up on her back. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Si Robertson at Contoocook Creamery at Bohanan Farm in Contoocook. The family has run the farm for five generations. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Si Robertson looks out over the bottling line at Contoocook Creamery at Bohanan Farm in Contoocook. The farm has recently added plastic bottles in addition to glass, which are more expensive.

  • Nate Robertson with Princess Meredith, a brown Swiss cow, at Contoocook Creamery. She is calm enough that Nate can get up on her back. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Nate Robertson in the milking room of their Contoocook Creamery at Bohanan Farm in Contoocook. The family has run the farm for five generations. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 6/21/2021 5:31:47 PM

On Bohanan Farm, Princess Leia is a local celebrity. Princess Meredith is like royalty. They are two of the 100 cows who are the stars of the show at Contoocook Creamery, a family-run dairy farm in Hopkinton.

“Our business is only as good as our cows are,” said Si Robertson, one of three brothers managing the farm.

In 1907, Lester Bohanan purchased a plot of land along the Contoocook River. From world wars, depressions, recessions and pandemics, the farm has endured a century of obstacles.

While business doors shuttered throughout the coronavirus pandemic, the barn stables have remained open. This revived success comes off the heels of a decade of challenges.

When the milk market crashed in 2009, Bohanan Farm, along with dairy farms across the state, was in danger. In 1970, 829 commercial dairy farms operated in New Hampshire. Today, that number has shrunk to 95, according to the Granite State Dairy Promotion, a non-profit organization that promotes the sale and use of milk products throughout the state.

To save and maintain their business, the Robertsons returned to their roots: relying on family production. They re-envisioned operations by creating the Contoocook Creamery brand, with a new focus on selling finished dairy products locally throughout New Hampshire and parts of Massachusetts.

Si, along with Nate and Bram, are the fifth generation of their family to work for the business. Their parents, Heather and Jamie, own the farm.

In March of this year, they fully left the wholesale milk market. Now the family manages all aspects of their dairy production, from cow breeding to bottling to milk distribution.

Five days a week trucks leave the farm, loaded with Contoocook Creamery dairy products headed for their 108 distribution stores. The trucks have no set routes, making the driver all that more important, as they need to keep track of where they last delivered and what stores may be due for a restock, all on their own judgment.

The pumping, bottling and distribution of milk is a well-oiled machine.

On a large conveyor belt, plastic bottles file through the assembly line. First, they are loaded on the machine. Next, filled with milk. Then capped and labeled with a Contoocook Creamery sticker, all ready for transportation.

Using plastic milk bottles is one of a few new changes for the farm, and one of the only things outsourced from a distributor in Maine. Although glass bottles are more sustainable and a symbol of a quintessential local dairy farm, they are also expensive.

Each bottle holds a deposit, so when customers do not return the jar, profitability suffers.

“It sucks to have the milk you want to bottle and no bottles,” said Nate.

Visitors welcome

Down an nondescript dirt road stands a blue wooden structure. A visitors entrance sign lies above the door. Inside, stands a small shop stocked with milk, eggs, cheese and meat. With an open cash register and a list of prices, the shop operates on an honor system.

In addition to their own dairy products, the business has expanded to sell a range of items. When beef processors began to close last April due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Roberston family saw a steady stream of customers through their little shop, looking to purchase local food.

They supply just that. The eggs come from their plumber, who is an aspiring chicken farmer as a side gig. They also carry prepared meals from a local chef and Echo Farm Puddings.

Along shop walls, glass windows peer into the bottling production line. With white lab coats and blue hair nets, Lester’s great-grand daughter, Heather, is among the production line bottling milk.

In a room off of the bottling site, a walk-in fridge holds the bottled milk. Stacked floor to ceiling, that create their own milk maze.

“It would have been a lot better to make this twice as big,” joked Nate, as crates are continuously stacked for future distribution.

Nearby, in a brown barn with high stable ceilings and two pens along a central walkway, live some of the hundred-plus cows on the farm. These older cows are either milked twice a day in the adjacent parlor, or they’re on “vacation” – pregnant and about to have a calf.

The cows are talked about as if they were people. Each is named, with an identifiable family tree.

Some, even have defining personalities.

Stars of the show

Princess Meredith, a brown Swiss cow, is calmer than most. So much so, with one swift jump, Nate was able to sit on her back.

“You gotta have someone the kids can walk up and pet,” he joked from atop the cow.

However, balancing the fun and games, the brothers employ a strict methodology to their madness with cow production and breeding.

Just from the mating pairs alone, Si and Nate can predict how much milk a cow will make. Some cows are bred strictly as beef cows, meaning they will later be sold to the local slaughterhouse.

Each cow is named with the same letter as its mother to create a family tree. They can track the “S” lineage back to the 1960s.

This is in part due to the health of their cows, a priority of the farm’s operations. The cows see a nutritionist frequently, adjusting their diets. They each are registered and scored by a classifier, who ranks the animal out of 100 based on their physical appearance and milk production.

Sometimes the productivity and genetics of a cow lends to tough decisions.

The family recently downsized their production to cut costs, size and maximize their market. This meant selling cows to other farms, reducing the cattle number from 180-200 to 100-120.

“We need to be able to sell more before we milk more,” said Si.

The marriage between the production and cows takes place in a 10 foot by 10-foot room – the parlor – center stage for milk production.

With 10 stalls on each side of the parlor, a control center in the middle, cows file in. Some cows, like Doodlebug, gravitate to the same side every time.

The parlor operates with an automatic machine used to milk the cows. Once the cow is hooked up, it takes five to ten minutes to milk each cow.

With each cow producing 70 pounds, or nine gallons of milk, 870 gallons come out of the parlor each day.

On any given day, the Robertson family can be found on the production line, in the stables or managing cows in the parlor. Even Grandfather Glenn starts his morning on his red Massey Ferguson tractor – mowing the 40-acres of grass field the farm leases for the cow’s feed on Upper Straw Road.

And the public is welcome to come see them at work.

That, is what differentiates them from other farms, they think.

“We’ve gone the route that we want people to come out and see that we care about these animals,” said Si.




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