Erica Capp walks through a pasture at Lifeline Farm one September afternoon, talking in a low voice to her cows. She’s the head herdsman at Lifeline Farm, where she manages the farm’s operations. The animals are at ease in her presence. One even naps as she walks past. One peek into this business and it’s clear the animals’ well-being is the number one priority.
“This is one of my favorite cows,” Erica says of one staring at her with soulful eyes. She points out the crotchety one who provides a lot of milk. Another is thirteen years old and still producing – a testament to the high quality of life these cows enjoy.
These are the dry cows on the farm. They rest beneath the beautiful Bitterroot mountains, retired from producing milk. Some of the cows in this field have full udders and bulging sides. Soon they will give birth to calves that will stimulate their milk production and become the next generation of Lifeline livestock.
These cows and their offspring will never leave their homes in the Bitterroot Valley. Their parents also spent their full lives at Lifeline. The farm produces milk, cheese, butter, beef, and pork all raised on the farm in Victor
“They live their entire lives, from birth to death, on the farm,” Erica says. “So you know they’re living their best lives.”
Lifeline Farm makes use of every part of the animals’ life cycle. When a dairy cow gives birth to a male calf, or a female that isn’t cut out for life as a dairy cow, they enter Lifeline’s beef program. The others become the next generation of dairy cows. Water used for cleaning is repurposed and eventually used to irrigate the fields. Behind the barn, piles of manure mixed with other organic refuse from the farm decompose into fertilizer. A tangle of pigs come running when Erica approaches the fence. They know she’s usually bringing delicious treats of milk or whey–a byproduct from the cheese-making process.
“They live their entire lives, from birth to death, on the farm. So you know they’re living their best lives.”
Lifeline Farm has been around for more than 30 years. What started as a herd of 40 dairy cows managed by owner Ernie Harvey has grown to an operation with hundreds of animals. The dairy is certified organic. That designation prescribes certain land stewardship practices, regular inspections, and restrictions on what medicines and food the animals can be given.
Around 5 p.m. cows trot toward the milking parlor. Erica’s cattle dog herds them into place. They crowd together, waiting their turn to be relieved of their milk. The milk is transferred to tanks in the next room, and then transported to the Lifeline Creamery a few miles away. There it’s processed for drinking, or made into cheese or butter. Locals can buy dairy products and meat in the store at the creamery. The rest of the products are distributed to stores around the region.
Down the road a steady stream of customers trickle into the farm store. They walk out with gallons of milk, cooler bags of meat, and blocks of cheese.
Erica points out that the hyper-local nature of the business makes it resilient. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic dairy farmers across the country dumped milk down drains because demand for milk from large corporations was down. Lifeline’s dedicated customer base continued to purchase their products, allowing the business to survive the pandemic.
According to Erica, the biggest challenge the business faces is keeping up with the demand for their products. Over its 30-year history the farm has earned a loyal following. Now, the labor shortage has forced everyone to work overtime on the farm. Lifeline hopes to hire some more help, and can even provide housing for some employees.
Check out Lifeline’s Abundant Montana listing here to learn more about the farm and purchase some cheese, milk, or beef from these happy animals.
Mary Auld (she/her) is a Communications Coordinator for Abundant Montana. She lives in Missoula where she spends her time hiking, floating, and trying to use up all the veggies in her CSA. Her first pets were worms in the compost bin. You can reach her at [email protected]