A feature article in our Fall 2021 issue, written by Kathleen O’Keefe.
One of the most engaging dynamics to discover when doing a feature on a multi-generation farm family is learning who has a passion for what in the operation. Some family members love the fieldwork, some love fixing equipment and maintenance, some love the daily chores with the cows, and some love planning and mating the future herd. When you have a big operation and a big family like the Hills of Bristol, Vermont, everyone can find a place to shine!
Four Hills Farm, located south of Burlington in the rolling landscape of north-central Vermont, was established in its Bristol location in 1973 by Robert and Jeanette Hill after their original operation in Williston, Vermont burned in 1971. Robert moved to Bristol with 50 grade Holsteins. He loved showing in 4-H, so when he bought cows to fill up the barn, he focused on buying registered stock his young kids could show. The original herd grew slowly to about 200 Holsteins and saw moderate growth over the years until a new double-24 herringbone parlor and a new free-stall barn was built in 1996, which allowed the herd to grow to over 1000 cows. In time, three more free-stall barns were constructed and in 2017, a new double-37 parallel parlor saw the cow numbers make another big jump to over 1700 cows and now up to 2,300 cows today (2200 Holsteins, 70 Jerseys, and 30 Ayrshires).
When Robert & Jeanette retired, the four Hill siblings (the source of the farm name) – Ron, Brian, Joanne, and Kevin – purchased the operation. With over 5,700 acres of rented and owned land and a big herd of cows to manage, the responsibilities needed to be divvied up between the second-generation partners. Ron leads the dairy division and the maintenance of the dairy facilities; Joanne is the calf manager; Brian oversees the cropping; and Kevin handles the mechanical maintenance, some of the crops, and takes a special interest in the show cattle.
And now the third-generation of Hills are finding their positions on the farm. Both Ron and Brian each have three children that have active roles at Four Hills. Ron’s daughter, Megan (23), is a manager at the dairy, and also manages the show string and business related to that. Ron’s son, Johnny (20), is a crop manager and handles some of the mechanical maintenance; and his other daughter, Sarah (16), is a senior in high school, and helps wherever needed on the farm, while also focusing on the show heifers. Brian’s daughter Elizabeth (27) helps with the office work, while Britney (25) is a dairy, young stock and business manager. His son, Bradley (21), is a mechanical manager and helps with the cropping.
The family has always enjoyed taking cattle to the shows, and had a significant amount of success, but it was viewed more as a hobby than as a possible income stream. That’s beginning to change under the management of Megan. “In the past our family may not have been eager to sell anything. I’m trying to change that in order to make some income off of our breeding efforts,” comments Megan. She returned to the farm after earning her Agricultural Business degree at SUNY-Cobleskill.
In 2013, the family completed a big goal they had set for themselves – to breed a milking class winner in each breed that they exhibit at World Dairy Expo. It began in 2005 with a Holstein winning the Milking Yearling class – Four-Hills Luci Cassi EX-91 – All-American Milking Yearling. Then in the Ayrshire breed, Four-Hills Tdent Snoopy 2634 EX-94, who won her class as a Junior 2-Year-old & Junior 3-Year-Old in 2011 & 2012, and All-American both years. Four-Hills Adv Kalie EX-93 was 1st place Milking Yearling in the Red & White Show in 2011; and Four-Hills 1st Blue VG-89% was the winning Senior 2-Year-Old in the Jersey Show in 2013.
“These four cows hold a special place in all our hearts because of our breeding program goals they accomplished. All four cows have had descendants do well in the show ring. Currently, an Unstopabull December great-great granddaughter of Cassie won the winter calf class at the Northeast Spring All-Breeds Holstein Open and Junior Shows.
“Pedigree plays a big role in buying decisions. My goal is to make Four-Hills a ‘breeder herd’, so in order to do that, I’ve invested into some of the most elite families currently in the show world. I also think the animal needs to match her pedigree. She needs to be nice enough that she can carry on the family legacy and breeding potential. Sire stack also plays a big role – being as large as we are, we definitely are able to form opinions on bulls based on daughters we are milking – either good or bad!” -Megan Hill
It’s gratifying to see a legacy made over 15 years ago carry on,” smiles Megan.
With four breeds to work with, there are a few herd favorites that come to mind for Megan:
- Four-Hills Abush Sammy EX-94 (Ayrshire), a daughter of Snoopy who also won at World Dairy Expo and was nominated All-American for multiple years.
- Kellogg-Bay Amedeo Gladys EX-93%(Jersey), the foundation to most of the Jersey herd today. She herself was a three-time top 10 finisher at Expo. She has two daughters making the trip to Madison this year, along with one granddaughter (Four-Hills Velocity Glorianna) and two great granddaughters. Gladys has proved to be a tremendous brood cow who has put the Four-Hills Jersey program on the map!
- Four-Hills Velocity Glorianna EX-92%(Jersey), Grand Champion of the International Junior Jersey Show in 2019. She not only accomplished my lifelong dream of walking in the Supreme Champion pageant at Expo but also is following in her grandmother’s footsteps by proving to be an awesome brood cow. Her first milking daughter is owned by Vierra Dairy and has been undefeated in the summer junior 2-year-old class this year! Her fall calf by Kid Rock will be on the trip to Expo and looks really good!
- Ainger Advent Jessa EX-94 (Red & White), was Britney’s junior career show cow, and was named Grand Champion of the International Red & White Junior Show and nominated both open and junior All-American in multiple years. Her daughters have done very well in the show ring, and lots of her descendants are herd favorites.
- Petitclerc Doorman Sapphire EX-94 (Holstein), is the first Holstein cow we’ve gotten excited about in a long time, and we think her story is just beginning! Her personality is second to none – she’s such a fun cow to work with. Her first daughters were born in June and look like carbon copies to her, so we are eager to get them in the show ring next year.
“Registered cows will always have a place on our farm and in the dairy industry because of those of us that get up everyday with a passion and purpose of breeding and developing elite cattle. As long as I’ve been in the show world, it seems like anytime one “big player” leaves another arrives, so there will always be a market for the top end genetics, and offering those kind of cattle will help us be a successful operation in the future!” -Megan Hill
When it comes to marketing, Megan is using traditional venues. “Currently almost everything is getting sold either in consignment sales or at shows. I think the world of mouth will come into play once people start to see that we are selling, and willing to let go of our best now – a bit different than we did in the past.”
Even with the new emphasis on merchandising, the Hills are always keeping an eye out to add a good individual to the herd, though they are fairly exacting in their standards. “Pedigree plays a big role in buying decisions. My goal is to make Four-Hills a “breeder herd”, so in order to do that, I’ve invested into some of the most elite families currently in the show world,” notes Megan. “I also think the animal needs to match her pedigree. She needs to be nice enough that she can carry on the family legacy and breeding potential. Sire stack also plays a big role – being as large as we are, we definitely are able to form opinions on bulls based on daughters we are milking – either good or bad!”
The Hills have always been willing to change system or to innovate in order to stay profitable with changing market conditions and best sustainability practices. Since 2012, the Hills have produced about twice the electricity needed to run the farm on a given summer day through their enrollment in Green Mountain Power’s Cow Power program. In the program, the Hills use methane from cow manure seasoned in the digester to turn a turbine and create electricity; Green Mountain Power buys the electricity and sells it to general customers, thus giving farmers an incentive to operate digesters.
They’ve also adapted no-till farming practices for much of their acreage, along with soil-stabilizing cover cropping. As a result, they’ve won conservation awards and strive to be a ‘good citizen’ in their rural area. The Hills believe strongly in educating the community about farming, and have been a popular stop on the Tour de Farms, a Vermont cycling event that connects consumers with local food producers and farmers each fall.
As everywhere, the situation for dairy producers keeps evolving in Vermont. “Last year we got a “quota” imposed on us, which is very scary because it’s nothing we ever expected or planned for. In the past the farm’s philosophy has always been to expand to allow new family members to come back and have the farm stay profitable. Now we need to explore other ways to make income on the farm and become more efficient. This is a challenge that my generation is ready to take on and become better farmers,” asserts Megan.
She maintains a solid faith in her love for purebred cattle to help them stay successful. “Registered cows will always have a place on our farm and in the dairy industry because of those of us that get up everyday with a passion and purpose of breeding and developing elite cattle. As long as I’ve been in the show world, it seems like anytime one “big player” leaves another arrives, so there will always be a market for the top end genetics, and offering those kind of cattle will help us be a successful operation in the future!”