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Dr. Sam Simon knows (and loves) cows. His father Kurt was a cattle dealer and Sam learned long ago how to spot a quality cow. He grew up on a 200 acre dairy farm in Middletown, New York, and upon his father’s death in 1969, kept the family farm going while in medical school, later settling in Poughkeepsie to practice medicine as an orthopedic surgeon. Retiring 22 years later, Sam went back to his love of dairy farming. Based on a handshake, he purchased the 150 acre Plankenhorn Farm in Pleasant Valley in 1995 from his patient, Lester Plankenhorn, the only surviving member of the family, whose father had bought the farm in 1922 after crossing the Hudson River via the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge in a cattle car to keep the cows calm. The farm name remains Plankenhorn out of respect for the previous owners. “Great farmers, outstanding cow people,” says Sam.
Sam has filled those shoes and then some. As co-founder and President of Hudson Valley Fresh, Sam has single handedly set the standard for milk quality in this non-profit and expects others to follow suit.
“Our milk has higher Omega 3’s, lower somatic cell counts, and related nutritional, texture and taste benefits. We, the farmers, deserve to be paid for our efforts,” says Sam.
As Sam will tell you, quality is central to their business model. All Hudson Valley Fresh farmers are required to be members of the Dairy Herd Information Association (DHIA) and each cow in every herd is checked monthly for the quality and quantity of milk she is producing.
Sam is very proud of his cows. Plankenhorn Farm has received DHIA recognition for both the highest quality as well as highest production standards in Dutchess County for many years. He and his wife Gail also breed champion Holsteins. Their herd of 100 registered Sam-Sim Holsteins is ranked in the Top 25 of New York State and Top 200 in the country by the National Holstein Registry, recognized for genetic quality. In 2009, they received an award from the New York Holstein Association for the Best Bred and Owned for their 3 year old Holstein. Twice they have had the Grand Champion at the Dutchess County Fair, and those same cows also stood in 2nd place at the New York State Fair. “One can buy a potentially great cow,” says Sam. “But it is a whole different accomplishment to breed one from home grown genetics.”
A lot of updating had to be done at Plankenhorn to bring this dairy farm into the 21st-century. The barn renovation included the installation of a state of the art water system, and the stalls, which used to hold 60 cows, have been made longer and wider and now only hold 44. Each cow has a recycled rubber mattress to lie down as well. “The cows are bigger now than they were in 1950s, due to genetics and nutrition,” says Sam. “It’s all about cow comfort.”
The fields also needed attention and Sam spent a few years putting the soil back to its proper nutritional value. Today, corn, timothy grass, alfalfa and oats are grown on the 112 tillable acres, 40 of which are rotationally grazed. Sam understands the importance of allowing all cows to graze — milkers, heifers and dry cows alike — from May until October, as fresh grass not only makes the milk taste better but the exercise the cows get from grazing adds to their longevity as it maintains leg muscle.
“I like the challenge of breeding a better animal, growing crops, and feeding those crops to my herd,” says Sam. “You are what you eat.”
Sam says he prefers a tie-stall barn to a freestall barn. “It is more cow-friendly. You can keep them cleaner, and since they each have their own stall, you have much easier visibility of the cow during the day.” The cows are fed lots of hay all year long to supplement the pasture and the farm’s corn sileage. Sam watches his cows like a hawk, even making sure each cows chews her cud 32 times, the standard for proper digestion. The cows’ digestive tract is ideally suited for hay as it encourages them to chew their cud and thereby invigorates their immune system, which can raise the Omega 3s in their milk.
Tom Manning is the farm’s herdsman and is primarily responsible for milking, feeding and tending to the cows. The cows get milked twice a day, 4 at a time, via a milking unit while remaining in their own stalls. Sam and Gail’s children, Heather, Joshua, Kimberly, Kurt and Jonathan, are all grown and have followed different career paths: Heather is associate Dean of Admissions at New York University’s School of Engineering; Josh is an engineer, working in Detroit’s automobile lighting industry; Kimberly is an attorney in Virginia; Kurt is an assistant principal at a grade school in Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island; and their youngest, Jonathan, is a senior in college.
Sam sold Plankerhorn Farm’s dairy cows in October 2011 and now raises and breeds Holstein heifers as replacement animals for other dairy farms. He also continues to raise hay and corn to feed their heifers as well. Sam remains involved in the daily operations of Hudson Valley Fresh and stays in this business not only because he loves cows but because, as he says, “someone needs to be an advocate for these family dairy farmers. Many co-ops treat milk as just a commodity but we take a lot of pride in our product and deserve recognition for that. All milk is not created equal.”