Something different: My public comment on milk marketing rules

My great grandmother grew up milking cows in East Berlin, Adams County, Pennsylvania, not far from the battle of Gettysburg. She loved to cook. She always smiled. She was seldom cross, but you knew she meant business when she said: “Now, mind!” She was practical and daring. She wore pants before it was fashionable for ladies to do so and pierced her ears when the younger generations were still wearing clip-ons.

Growing up, I heard Sadie Phillips say more than once: “Trust your gut and Be bold!” Today, I have decided to do just that. I am using my blog to carry the public comments I will submit to USDA on the due date Monday, April 13 regarding the FEDERAL MILK MARKETING ORDERS and how they are (or are not) fulfilling their purpose and the effect on small businesses (A Section 610 Review). I’ll get knocked around for this in some circles, I am quite sure. And this is certainly very long for anyone to read. But here it is. Have at it. Or, if you are so inclined after reading it, shoot me a message, note, or thumbs up if you want your name added before I submit officially to USDA on Monday. 

April 11, 2015    

RE: Comments on the Federal Milk Marketing Order Program

Dear Mr. Rex A. Barnes, Associate Administrator of Agricultural Marketing Service: 

As a freelance ag journalist and market reporter for the past 30-plus years — as well as having as clients multiple small businesses and dairy farmer organizations for whom I do writing and photography — I get around the country and see firsthand what is happening to milk movement and dairy markets and the effects on dairy farm small businesses — as well as the small businesses that serve the dairy farms and the combination of jobs and revenue they provide to sustain rural economies.

Small businesses in the dairy industry — from the farm, to the service and supplies, to the processing, to the retailing — are in trouble. National Big-Business retailers and processors as well as national Big-Business cooperatives employ stables of milk accountants, attorneys and others in a centralized management model to re-shape the grid of milk movement within and between Federal Milk Marketing Orders (FMMO). Why would any small-business want to innovate in the fluid milk category when the two national Big-Business cooperatives (who work together through regional “marketing arms”) can come in and swoop the earnings away using FMMO rules to do so?

Yes, it has become increasingly difficult for the Northeast and Southeast milksheds to hold on to their Class I utilization in their respective blend prices. It is becoming more difficult to supply local milk beverage needs with a local supply of farm milk as the FMMO program of marketwide pooling actually facilitates the move to centralized models that displace milk from the local small businesses, local farms, local communities.

In effect, national Big-Business cooperatives are locking up regional balancing assets. By owning or controlling with full supply contracts most, if not all, of the dairy manufacturing in a region, independent bottlers and small co-ops find fewer options for selling extra loads to self-balance their local-to-local fluid market.

As a result, we are seeing individuals and small co-ops lose longstanding contracts with local bottlers in pockets all over the Northeast — especially in western Pennsylvania and central New York. In some cases, farms have been forced to sell their cows because they are now without a market at all.

These devastating effects have played out in other regions where small co-ops lost their markets to the Big-Business bottler and national Big-Business cooperative, and now this same effect is playing out in the Northeast — this time facilitated in part by complex FMMO rules.

The current FMMOs provide a needed structure and accountability in the buying and selling of milk. They also have the purpose of stabilizing prices through marketwide pooling. But opinions and analyses differ on whether the classification system — as it exists today — is stabilizing or instead contributes to price volatility. It also seems to detract from a competitive value being paid for manufacturing milk.

None of the above points are the actual defined purpose of the FMMOs. According to USDA, here are the 3 purposes of the FMMOs:

  • To provide for orderly marketing
  • To assure reasonable prices to both dairy farmers and to consumers
  • To assure an adequate supply of wholesome beverage milk to consumers

These 3 purposes (above) are not being realized in the current FMMO system.

  • A signal of DIS-orderly marketing is the fact that dairy farms within the Eastern markets are losing their access to milk marketing.

Milk produced in Georgia — that used to go to Florida — is moving North, while milk from Texas moves into Florida. Milk in Pennsylvania and New York is being displaced from its own milkshed by milk from Michigan. Milk from Illinois moves into Order 5 while milk from Kentucky has recently been trucked all the way to Texas, and vice versa. Truckers talk (more than tongue-in-cheek) about loads passing each other on the highways.

Both the Northeast and the Southeast are being chastised for having dared to increase their production. Farmers in Pennsylvania and New York are blamed for creating their own bottlenecks of surplus milk forcing tankerloads of milk to be dumped. Those ‘bad boy’ Eastern producers should not be growing their dairies. After all, that growth is throwing a monkey wrench into the planning of other regions to grow rapidly with eyes on filling the Eastern milk market deficit, using Class 1 sales in the East to sweeten the blend price paid to dairies that locate or relocate near huge dairy manufacturing plants in the West so those plants can enjoy the cheaper price paid for the milk they use to make dairy products.

  • The fight is on for the shrinking Class I piece of the milk market pie, when in reality other manufacturing uses have more value! In the process, consumers pay MORE for their beverage milk and farmers receive LESS. Farmers receive a shrinking percentage of the consumer retail dollar and a shrinking percentage of Class 1 sales. And yet…. the milk is all the same standard whether it goes in a bottle, in a cheese vat, a butter churn or a yogurt process. It’s all the same quality grade of milk!

As for current milk production growth. The truth is that the Northeast milkshed and the Southeast milkshed are not out-growing the needs of their areas. They are located in close proximity to consumer population growth, and their own milk production growth reflects an attempt to merely gain back some of their own formerly lost production that has weakened their infrastructure over the past 14 years for the farms that remain.

  • The Northeast milkshed and the Southeast milkshed are both deficit if just the milk within their borders is considered. My home state of Pennsylvania, for example, has lost 55,000 cows since 2002 and 100 million pounds of production.

Furthermore, leaders of states in the Northeast and Southeast milksheds — Pennsylvania, New York, Georgia, Kentucky for example — have implemented programs and incentives aimed at GROWING their respective states’ dairy small businesses.

The Governors and State Assemblies in these states have — in effect — said: “Our ag infrastructure of small businesses can’t stay in business here providing local jobs and revenue if you the local small business dairy farms don’t grow back to where you were!”

Now, the very dairy farms these incentives were implemented to uphold are cast aside as the milk is displaced from elsewhere.

The implementation of the Federal Orders has become short-sighted in the quest to simply “Assure an adequate supply of milk to consumers.” But what about the future when the small-business farms and infrastructure here in the East are so diminished they implode?

And look at the cost! Fluid milk consumption is down and we keep jacking up the price with all of these maneuverings. Maybe if a more localized model was respected and cMilkTruck#1onsidered, farmers and consumers would both benefit.

The purpose of the Federal Orders needs to be more considerate of the long term. It should not be declaring the winners and losers, but instead provide a level playing field where the real costs of transportation are factored into the value of local milk to local markets.

The large and powerful market movers take over the grid and push regional suppliers — mainly small businesses that are central to their own communities — to the side. These entities bring milk into the community and then drain local dollars out of the community.

As a result, small dairy businesses are going out of business at an alarming rate. Independent dairy farmers, small and mid-sized, as well as small cooperatives, are getting notices that they are being dropped by local bottlers in my home state of Pennsylvania and north into New York and in Ohio. Young Plain-Sect farmers are finding out in the Southeast they can’t just start milking cows like their fathers did before them. There is no market, they are told, even though the Southeast is a milk deficit area. The Northeast is as well.

The small regional bottlers are being squeezed by the large national co-ops who own or control the balancing assets (through both ownership and contracts) within the Northeast, and Southeast.

So, when milk from members of the national Big-Business co-op is produced in the rapid (double-digit) growth areas of Michigan and Texas, for example, that milk takes precedence at the national co-op-owned and controlled balancing assets in the Northeast and Southeast — effectively pushing the local small business independent shippers and small regional co-ops out of the bottling plants and into situations where they don’t have a market for their milk.

The Walmartization of food retailing has infiltrated its way to the farm-level because local small businesses have limited access to the dairy product processing plants where they once sold extra loads at a discount in order to balance the fluctuations of the fluid milk market. The set make allowance that is built into the manufacturing class milk prices also encourages large single-product plants versus a market-savvy and nimble processing class that makes for the market.

In Pennsylvania, some bottlers are working together with local food banks to balance the ups and downs of the fluid market so they can keep their longtime shippers instead of giving them up to the national Big-Business co-ops who in turn broker the milk back to the plants it went to in the first place.

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What do the Federal Orders bring to this mix or — should I say — mess?

First, It is currently too easy to move milk and get paid more for moving it the farthest!

As a result, dairy manufacturing plants are being built where there are not many cows. “If you build it, they will come.” But then they will also send their milk back East to get that juicy Class I utilization to boost their blend price and keep the cost of milk down for the large new manufacturing plants.

The small businesses of the eastern region need a method by which to have the local-ness of their milk count for something in this equation!! If the government is going to be so involved, then it needs to look at the big picture.

Currently, not enough incentive is built into the FMMO structure to give local-supply-arrangements and advantage in the fresh fluid milk beverage market based on the fact that milk flows in smaller circles and does not have to move so far.

While I am not an expert on how all of the pieces of the FMMO came to be, I do know that some of the fixes have created new and worsening problems.

My ask of the USDA AMS — as a small business and as a consumer — is 3-fold:

1) Please extend the comment period to allow for more time to comment. Dairy producers are waking up to some disturbing activity in the Eastern markets. More is becoming known about the current failures of the Federal Orders to uphold their intended purpose! Dairy farms — in increments of half-dozen to a dozen at a time — are getting notices RIGHT NOW that they must find another market or sell out their cows, their investment, their vocation, their family-living, their heritage.

More and more of these producers losing their markets are the highest quality milk producers! Their only fault is they are small businesses (40 to 1000 cows) or part of a small co-op (8 to 12 producers). A large iron fist is coming down in the eastern markets and blaming the bloodbath of farms forced to shut down, dump milk, and go out of business on “too much milk” in the East.

All the while, milk from Michigan in the north and Texas in the south is displacing local eastern milk in the balancing assets of the two large national-and-centralized co-ops that work together. Members first, locals last.

2) Before considering the addition of California to the current FMMO system, please hold national hearings to first evaluate and devise a new pricing formula. Consider basing it on 2-classes of milk: fluid and manufacturing as well as component values based on an array of products — and evaluate removal of the “set” make allowance. This could facilitate competition among various entities buying milk for a variety of manufacturing uses — instead of declaring the winners and losers via set make allowances that encourage large single-product plants that are not nimble nor responsive to changing market conditions.

This could also cut down on some of the gaming we see among balancing assets and lead to more actual marketing of dairy milk products rather than large output of products the market may or may not want because the set make-allowance assures a margin where pure scale is the key to profit and efficiency.

An example of this is the difference between skim milk powder – a uniform product with a standardized protein content – vs. nonfat dry milk (on which the make allowance for powder is based) which is a lower quality product and not uniform in that the protein percentage falls into a 4-point range. If the market wants SMP for its repeatability in a recipe but the make allowance is based on NFDM, the response in a downtrending market is to make more of the latter because the margin is guaranteed by a set make allowance, which further depresses the market.

3) Re-evaluate the purpose, relationship and actual function of transportation credits, touch-base provisions, diversions and other aspects of how milk is supplied so that a premium resides wherever local milk supplies local markets and wherever the regional infrastructure of dairy farms and businesses is upheld in the movement of milk within a Federal Order. Perhaps instead of using such credits and rules to facilitate the bringing of milk from far away, the fund would be better used to get local milk to local markets.

Local small businesses are being forced out of business rapidly. The Department needs to move quickly to establish a fund where processors pay in what would have been spent to bring the distant milk so those dollars are used in the local community or within the Order to offset the balancing cost of keeping local dairy farms on the rolls.

In short, perhaps it is time to use the Federal Orders for their intended purpose and break up the centralized stranglehold of the two national Big-Business cooperatives working together (even sharing attorney and milk accountant assets) by forcing them to stop painting their milk movements with a centralized broad brush – forcing them to more aptly consider local to local, regional to regional.

It is also worth mentioning here that some shifts in the gap between the USDA “all-milk” price and the “mailbox” price released months later are becoming apparent as the national mailbox price has been higher than the all-milk price while the Southeast, Appalachia, Pennsylvania, and New York mailbox prices are falling further and further behind the all-milk price than ever before. This may have something to do with the 6% reduction in Class I utilization in the Southeast in 2014 and the 4% reduction in Class I utilization in the Northeast in 2014. The national reduction in Class I utilization is 3% by comparison.

This reflects not only the raw milk movement but also the infiltration of packaged milk coming from outside of the Northeast and Southeast milksheds directly onto the shelves of large buyers like Costco and Walmart.

On a personal note — as a former milking employee, 34-year veteran ag journalist in dairy and beef, and an eater of dairy products and drinker of dairy milk in the Northeast — I have this to say about “free markets”…

Some are calling for the abolition of the “archaic Federal Orders.” I would be on that bandwagon in a heartbeat — favoring open markets over the continued use and misuse of rules and structure to supress a region’s own supply of dairy farms, small businesses and infrastructure — if I didn’t think the Federal Orders still have a purpose of accountability and to be a running record for what is happening.

However, if the current problems are not fixed to give local milk, supplied by small businesses a fighting chance, then perhaps the FMMO system should go. We have seen the loss of too many small business in the dairy industry where nationalized Big Business processors and co-ops used FMMO rules to their advantage to take over markets. Without a change in FMMO rules, this will continue and accelerate, and we will see more losses of small dairy businesses that sustain rural communities.

If the current problems are not fixed, small businesses may find they are better off in a totally free market, unencumbered by the structure and rules that are increasingly designed by the national Big Business operators to effectively put them out of business as they increase their own centralized national footprint.

Please do not add California until after the current issues with the FMMOs are fixed to a point where local is rewarded in the formula and small business is respected. Once California is added, it will be much harder to make new changes that benefit local small businesses fighting for survival in the East. Thus, the current areas controlled by FMMOs should have a chance to improve the rules before adding the state that has wanted to be state-regulated for decades and represents almost one-fourth of the total milk production in the U.S.

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Thank you for your consideration,

 

Sincerely,

Sherry A. Bunting

 

To file your own comments with USDA, click here

Taste-testing some innovative milk during an innovative dairy open house!

It came hopping in — for the first time ever — a month before Easter, and has been more popular than Prairie Farms could have imagined. The first run sold out immediately and away they went. Sold only in quart cartons and made with 2% fat milk, the Peeps-flavored milk even has its own hashtag on Twitter: #peepsmilk!

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While touring Finke Farm’s totally automated dairy — with its Galaxy Astrea 20.20 milking robot and its Trioliet automatic feeder near Nashville, Illinois on March 21 — I tasted all three Peeps-milk flavors. Craig Finke (right) ships his milk to Prairie Farms and when he heard of my interest in trying the spring holiday milk, he made sure to have some on hand. He is pictured with Carbondale area Prairie Farms’ field rep Jim Donahue (left).
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My taste test gave all three flavors a thumbs up — my favorite being the actual Peeps flavored milk that tasted a bit like a sweet, but creamy, marshmallow. Chocolate marshmallow was like the ice cream by the same name, with just the right amount of sweetness for a milk. The Easter eggnog was pretty much just another chance to enjoy that super-rich beverage.
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Local FFA students poured samples for hundreds of open house attendees, many of whom said the flavors were more enjoyable than they had imagined.

Kudos to Farmer-owned Prairie Farms — a cooperative that covers portions of the Midwest and Midsouth — for thinking outside the box and drawing consumers to milk via flavor curiosity. The Peeps Milk is available seasonally through spring and only in the Midwest markets.

Now… about the automation at Finke Farm…

FINKE FARM has been in the family at least 5 generations, with Craig and Tricia’s two children Natalie and Hayden being the sixth generation to live here.

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Today, the dairy business complements the 1300-acre crop business as Craig is able to operate both on a skeleton crew with the automation of the milking and feeding routines. Robotic milking and feeding also free Craig from the rigid milking schedule.

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Integrated sensor technologies throughout the facility — and as part of the milking and feeding systems — provide the needed information to manage the herd. The herd expanded from 80 cows in the parlor to now 117 cows currently milked by the robot — and capacity for up to 130.

Cows milk an average 2.7 times per day giving an average 85 lbs/cow/day. The Finke herd moved into the new robot barn Nov. 18, 2013.

First, Craig introduced the cows to the new barn and started up the feeding system. He walked the cows through the automatic milking system, without milking them, to get them used to the environment. A couple days later, the automatic milking system was started and has milked the herd ever since.

Before Thanksgiving 2013, a neighbor lost facilities in a devastating tornado. Craig offered his empty barn and parlor while they rebuilt. This delayed calf modernization. Calves here will eventually be group-housed with Urban CalfMom automated calf-feeders.

 

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The total project stemmed from needing to install a new manure handling system. Craig opted for a flush system, which launched the idea for a new freestall barn and feeding system. His family has worked with Unverfehrt Farm Supply for over 35 years. They introduced him to the Trioliet Triomatic Automatic Feeding System.

After looking at all robotic milking systems, Craig found he liked best the Galaxy Astrea 20.20 Automatic Milking System (AMS).

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“Galaxy Astrea’s 1/arm, 2-box milking system made the most sense,” he said, seeing in Holland how well the Milking and Feeding Robots complement each other. “The adapting of the cows has been seamless. Surprisingly, they were not the least bit scared of the Triomatic feeder on that first night. They took right to it,” says Craig, describing the Triomatic T30 as “an extremely accurate and consistent, flexible, fully programmable twin screw mixer on a track that feeds the milk cows 7x/day, dry cows and bred heifers 4x/day and the calving pen once a day.”

The T30 mixes and delivers TMR after gathering from 4 bunkers containing corn silage, straw, alfalfa hay, corn gluten and either of 2 stainless steel mineral bins (one for milk cows and one for dry cows/bred heifers) and a bulk bin outside for the base grain ration and a programmable water station to adjust TMR dry matters. When it comes to the milking, Craig says the Astrea 20.20 is cow- and user-friendly.

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He notes its reliability and lower maintenance costs: “We maintain 1 robot arm, 1 camera, 1 laser, and we are spreading the lower cost milking twice as many cows with 2 boxes.”

Focused on comfort, Craig likes the air quality and openness of the Clear Span building and the comfort of the sand-bedded GreenStalls. “It’s amazing how relaxed the cows are,” he says. “They are so much calmer with the flush system because it doesn’t interrupt them doing their thing.”

As for the robots, Craig says he “absolutely loves both systems: The most important difference today is the ability to be more proactive rather than reactive. There is a plethora of information to be gleaned from Galaxy’s Saturnus software. It can tell me a potential problem exists with a cow before I am able to see it,” he says.

“With Galaxy Astrea 20.20 AMS, consistency of the milking routine is much improved. Triomatic T30 Automatic Feeding has enhanced my ability to deliver a consistent ration to the cows day after day. And the PLC-based system that operates the rest of the building’s functions (lights, fans, curtains, flush, garage doors, etc.) and the camera system allows me to respond to changing weather, low feed levels in bunkers and other situations with a click of the mouse or smartphone without having to be present on the farm,” Craig explains. “This has allowed me to be more flexible with my time.”

Breaking winter’s stillness. Better late than never.

 

Breaking winter’s stillness with a cacophony of sound, a sea of white emerges over the hill, nearly blending with the remnant snow, as 75,000 (and counting) snow geese arrived March 10 -13, 2015 to the frozen tundra that is usually the lake at Middle Creek. Pushed from their normal roost on the lake by 15 inches of frozen cover on which ice-fishing continued this week, the annual harbingers of spring moved inland to the fields in various stages of snowmelt —  like waves to a beach.

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Typically they arrive in mid-February and stay through March 10 to 20 to refuel for the rest of their long trip.

This year and last, the longer and colder winters here delayed their arrival, and it will undoubtedly be brief.

These are the scenes of flocks arriving from points south in the afternoons of March 12 and March 13.

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So glad I was to hear them, see them, feel them with my husband and our grandchildren before heading south and west, myself, for a 2-week business migration to farms and dairies.

 

As a child of March, the tundra swan and snow geese connect me to a new year through this annual rite of the not-yet-spring.

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These migrations are another intangible benefactor of Growing the Land…

 

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In the deep rural countryside and fringelands of urban development, farmers and ranchers sustain the land that sustains these beautiful migrating birds with open space and nourishment before the new crop season begins.

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Wildlife management areas, alone, are not enough. Working farms and ranches provide the interconnectedness of the migration — growing the land these flocks require to heed anew the age-old call of the changing season.

 

Photos by Sherry Bunting

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Community out ‘full force’ helping farmers rescue cattle

By Sherry Bunting, from March 6, 2015 Farmshine

Accumulated snow on rooftops soaked up Tuesday’s icy rain like a sponge. This heavy, wet snow, that turns to ice and doesn’t move, was blamed Wednesday (March 4) for a string of dairy barn roof collapses in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region, ahead of the Nor’easter that followed to hit the region Thursday. At least two such collapses, one in Pennsylvania and the other in New York, trapped large numbers of cattle and resulted in animal losses, but thankfully no people were injured. Communities worked with farmers to rescue trapped cattle and veterinarians worked tirelessly to treat and evaluate the injured.

  IN PENNSYLVANIA: Colpetzers at Xanadu Jerseys thankful for ‘full force’ of community help rescuing cattle

GREENVILLE, Pa. — The Colpetzer family was 15 minutes from chore-time, when the roof collapsed on their 9-year-old drive-through bedded-pack barn housing 150 young heifers, bred heifers and dry cows at Xanadu Jerseys around 5:00 p.m. Tuesday evening (March 4).

“The kids heard the loud boom,” Amy Colpetzer said in a Farmshine phone interview Wednesday. “We have employees who live in the house at the heifer barn. They called and told us the roof had collapsed.”

By 5:30, rescue teams from over a half dozen Mercer County emergency departments were arriving, including a structure-collapse team whose role it was to secure the building for the rescue of cattle trapped inside as more than half of the barn roof had collapsed. Meanwhile rescue crews — along with volunteers, friends and neighbors — worked through the night to reach cows that were trapped in the debris. Cows were methodically led out of the other half of the building as well, to protect them from further collapse.

Photo courtesy of WFMJ - 21 news

Photo courtesy of WFMJ – 21 news

“All that weight on a tin structure, that we’re looking at, would definitely weigh it down,” said Sheakleyville Fire Department representative Jim Tuchek, according to the local reporting of 21-WFMJ news on Tuesday night. “We have probably 20 Amish men in there shoveling snow off of the tin that fell, which has all the snow on top of it, and all the trusses are also involved.”

By 9:30 p.m., most of the animals had been removed, but there are still areas under the snow topped roof debris that have not been cleared as of Wednesday late afternoon.

Photo courtesy of WFMJ - 21 news

Photo courtesy of WFMJ – 21 news

The family reported Wednesday that 10 cattle had perished, and another 14 were “in a hospital state,” including four that are still down. One that was due to calve 10 weeks from now began calving early.

As of Wednesday afternoon, cattle were still being evaluated and the building is estimated to be a near-total loss. “That’s the way it is. We are still facing decision time on some of these cattle,” said Amy, explaining that they were still working on relocating the cows that were transported to Mercer Livestock Tuesday night.

How are Amy and Tom and children Sam, Angela and George Colpetzer coping?

“The community,” said Amy, and after a long pause: “The community came out in full force. People came here from two to three hours away last night. Our veterinarian Dr. Vanessa Philson Uber and her assistant were wonderful. I have never seen anyone in action like that tiny woman. You got out of her way and she was going to save whatever she could. She was here until 1:30 a.m. and she’s back again this afternoon re-dressing wounds.”

Amy noted that over 100 people with 20 to 30 cattle trailers moved animals as they were removed from the debris and triaged by the veterinarian. “The folks from Mercer Livestock came and said ‘our barn is your barn,’ so we moved cattle there so they could have a dry bedded pen, a roof over their heads and hay to eat.”

The Colpetzers prepared for some of those cattle to come back home Thursday, while relocating other animals to another farm.

“We can’t thank everyone enough for everything being done,” Amy said, noting that a woman she’d met only once stopped Wednesday with 40 bagged lunches for the family and volunteers.

Of the cattle that perished, one was a special cow “Diva,” which George, Sam and Angela had invested in. Another was the first offspring of their own homebred bull that had sired a top placing senior in milk at Louisville last fall. And they lost “a recently purchased dry cow the kids were pretty excited about,” Amy said.

She is thankful for her children. “Last night George hugged me and said: ‘We’re going to make this mom. Don’t ask me for the details yet, but we’re going to make it,’” Amy related.

George also posted a special note on Facebook in response to the outpouring of friends. Expressing the family’s gratitude for those who responded in a time of need, he wrote: “It was a humbling experience to see the numerous folks, firemen and truckers, who came to our aid. Above all let us thank Dr. Vanessa Philson Uber. This lady is dedicated to her job and assisted in helping with cows and making decisions at a time when they are so crucial.

“The thought now is where do we go from here, what do we do now?” he asked. “We are trying to recuperate, clean up, and see how many cattle made it and did not. Some of our better cows are gone, but many are still here at this hour. To the cows that are gone, thanks for what you have done for us, it was a great pleasure to work with you. To those that made it, we are optimistic that this will enable us to envision our future and what it contains. Optimism is hard to have right now, it is not a picnic by any means, but we must make a plan on how to move forward with Providence’s guidance. Thank you for the support and God bless.”

Asked what folks can do to help, Amy said simply: “Pray. We are thankful no one was hurt. I’ve got my kids here and my husband here. Just pray for the strength to keep on trucking.”

IN NEW YORK, community rallies to help Whey Street Dairy 

CUYLER, N.Y. —  A second dairy barn roof collapse in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region was at Whey Street Dairy in Central New York’s Cortland County — also resulting in animal losses, but no people were hurt.

Roof collapses are not common on Pennsylvania and New York dairy farms, but the past few winters of continual snow followed by rain followed by snow — along with volatile temperature extremes creating moist air and freezing surfaces — have led to seeing more of them.

At Whey Street Dairy, 25 miles south of Syracuse, five animals perished and at least 10 more were injured when a third of the roof over their freestall barn partially collapsed, trapping 75 to 100 of the 500 cattle inside.

According to local news reports Wednesday at Syracuse.com, eight fire departments from three counties arrived at the dairy, but Marty said “it was his friends and neighbors who came to lend support that overwhelmed him.”

After the firefighters left, the local community kept working as a dozen of friends, neighbors and fellow farmers were still at the farm Wednesday afternoon clearing debris and heavy, wet snow.

Marty told local news outlets that he learned of the roof collapse when an employee came down the road to his house after midnight. He had just finished milking in the separate parlor and was thankfully not in the freestall barn at the time of the collapse.

In some parts of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region, snow has not been able to thaw since Christmas, so the problem of roof snowloads increases. The Syracuse news report indicated that the region has seen almost a dozen roof collapse incidents this winter.

Back to back years of increased risk… Last winter, a similar stretch of volatile winter temperatures coupled with the frequent snow / ice / rain events resulted in a major barn roof collapse at Ar-Joy Farms, Cochranville, Chester County, Pa. The Hershey family lost more than two dozen cows among the 600 in that barn and spoke of their profound gratitude for the get’r done spirit of fellow farmers and a supportive community. no roof

No ‘snow days’ on the farm

cows6781By Sherry Bunting, columnist, Register-Star, Feb. 21, 2015

There are no ‘snow days’ on the farm. “When it is this cold, the simple every day protocols become enduring days of work,” notes Cody Williams of Wil-Roc Dairy, Kinderhook, where some of the 1500 Holstein dairy cows are housed in new and modern barns, while others are exposed a bit more to the elements in older facilities.

“We change our teat dip when it’s this cold, for extra moisturizing to the skin,” Cody explains. “We also adjust the cow diets to keep our cows in a positive energy balance as they burn more energy to maintain themselves during weather extremes.”

Operating a dairy or livestock farm in the extreme cold is not for the faint of heart. Veteran beef producer Phil Trowbridge of Ghent observes: “We know how to take care of ourselves. We dress in layers and give each other breaks.”

Frozen pipes, pumps, waterers, and manure — as well as difficulty in starting equipment — are commonly reported concerns when the snow piles up and the temperatures plummet, and, of course, concerns about keeping rooftops clear of a too-heavy burden.

Last week the mercury hit -14 at Trowbridge Angus Farm, where it is calving season January through March. The family, and their over 300 beef breeding cows, are navigating two to three feet of snow cover.

Twenty miles away near Schodack Landing, temps of -11 went virtually unnoticed by the over 700 Jersey dairy cows at Dutch Hollow Farm. They are tucked away in their barns with retractable sidewall curtains that stay open more often than not for natural light and ventilation but remain closed when the wind chills get this low.

Cattle are cold weather animals, but they do not like wind or drafts. The difference between beef and dairy breeds is the way their centuries-old partnership with man has adapted through specialized breeding and care.

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Beef breed cattle are kept outside pretty much year-round, coming into the barn only at calving time. Dairy cattle, on the other hand, are typically housed in barns year-round. While beef breed cattle spend more time foraging for their food and seeking the natural and provided windbreaks to lay down, dairy cattle in freestall barns will amble short distances inside from feedbunks and waterers to the deep-bedded stalls that are groomed for them two or three times a day while they are milking.

Dairy cows are accustomed to constant human handling from the time they are calves. 10986660_10206244497857081_5937924373439440151_oThey have a different temperament about the whole calving deal.They aren’t worried about predators and trust the humans they work beside day in and day out to care for them and their offspring.

Beef breeding cows, on the other hand, are more self-sufficient and protective of their young. They raise their offspring for the more hands-off life as a non-milking breeding animal or to spend 80% of their life foraging on pasture with the last 20% of their life in the beef fattening phase.

One thing in common: Both beef and dairy producers focus on the newborns immediately at birth to make sure each calf gets a warm start and enough colostrum for the passive transfer of immunity from its dam.

“When we get real cold weather like we have seen this winter, we spend more time in the calving barn at night. We pretty much sleep here with them when it’s this cold,” says beef producer Phil Trowbridge, who has had 50 calves born since January 1. “The main thing is to get those calves dried off and warmed up as soon as they are born, and to make sure they get enough colostrum. In two or three days, they’re old enough and strong enough to go outside.”

Not only are they prepared for cold weather, they frolic in it. “I took a video with my cell phone of the calves the other day when it was minus-11. We were putting out bedding for the cows, and saw those calves were feeling so good, they were just running through the snow,” Phil relates. “I like seeing that.”

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Stockpiled pasture grasses make a nice winter forage as cattle can push off a few inches or a foot of snow to graze it, and they do well getting around in the snow outdoors. But with over two feet of snow cover this winter, the Trowbridge family cuts trails to help the cattle conserve energy. They also put down extra bedding, more often, in the areas with windbreaks and feed more outdoor hay and supplement.

Meanwhile, on a dairy farm, the cows calve year-round. Calving pens are watched through video monitoring or by walk-throughs. The immediate newborn calf care continues

Tricia Adams pictures one of the heated boxes for newborn calves at Hoffman Farms

Tricia Adams pictures one of the heated boxes for newborn calves at Hoffman Farms

through the first few weeks of life in the calf nursery or individual hutches. Newborns often get time in a heat box or wear calf jackets and sometimes earmuffs when it’s this cold, and they are fed more often for increased energy to maintain their temperature and to grow.

“Taking care of the animals is pretty much routine. The feeding is very consistent day to day, and the freestalls are bedded twice a week,” says Paul Chittenden of Dutch Hollow
Farm. “Clean and dry and plenty to eat are what we focus on — regardless of the weather. Cows always have dry sawdust with extra sawdust stored in the front of the stalls. This allows for plenty of dry bedding to stir around each time we groom the stalls when the cows go to the parlor for milking.”

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Water is critical for drinking and cleaning, so lines are buried underground and drinking tubs are equipped with heaters.

“Cold weather management is really not too complicated,” explains bovine veterinarian and dairy farmer Dr. Tom Troxel. “Cows need to have plenty of feed and water, be out of the wind, and have a dry place to lay down. If they have these things, they can survive an awful lot.”

“No matter the weather, we have our jobs to do here,” notes Cody of Wil-Roc Dairy. “That is itself the reward. Getting our everyday tasks done and looking to see how the stressors of weather and other events can affect our system… That is how we keep improving how we do things all year long.”

Sherry Bunting is a member of North American Agriculture Journalists and has been covering beef and dairy production for over 30 years. Before that, she milked cows and graded beef cattle for market reports. She can be reached at agrite@ptd.net

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Dairy and beef cattle are adapted differently, but they all depend on their people for great care during the weather extremes we have seen here this winter. Farming is not for the faint of heart. Everyday tasks take longer to complete but it sure is rewarding to see cows thrive and calves frolic after a good start – regardless of the weather! Photos by Sherry Bunting, Beth Chittenden and Evelyn Troutman.

‘Work hard. Save money. Be careful. Love the job.’

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Hector Jimenez (right) and his uncle Arturo Rodriguez have been working together since the late 1970s. Two decades of saving as they worked on dairies in California led to them starting their own dairy near Dublin, Texas in 2004. In an interview last May at their R&J Dairy, they reflected on a decade of dairying on their own in Central Texas. Photo by Sherry Bunting

By Sherry Bunting, originally published in Farmshine and Texas Dairy & Ag Review during the summer of 2014

DUBLIN, Tex – The decade of 2004 to 2014 has been a volatile one for anyone starting out in the dairy business. For these two producers it took more than two decades of
work on other dairies in California to pave the way to be living their dream today in Central Texas. Hard work, disciplined saving, and hands-on management are the three keys Hector Jimenez and his uncle Arturo Rodriguez say brought them through 20-plus years of working for others and 10 years dairying on their own – including the 2009-13 era of tight to negative margins.webR&J-536

“We worked together since 1979 and always talked about one day having our own dairy,” Hector recalls. That day came in 2004 when Hector and Arturo bought a dairy near Dublin that had been vacant for a number of years after its previous owner moved west to where the dairy industry was expanding in the Panhandle.

They moved here from California with nothing, bought 110 cows and milked three months on a rented dairy, then partnered in their own R&J Dairy. They bought another 150 cows and took their time raising their own replacements to expand steadily through internal herd growth.

“WwebR&J-165e started with No. 1 and this calf, here, is No. 2869,” Hector smiles, pointing out a newborn heifer. Today their herd of 850 milking cows is 95% homebred. They produce an average of 75 pounds/cow/day and have achieve somatic cell counts at or below 200,000.

They are satisfied with the current size of their dairy as they build back their numbers after a few years of heavier culling rates while milk margins and feed costs were tight to negative. The recent memory of 2009-13 brings daily reminders of the importance of saving, working, and being cautious.

“We culled heavily because we needed that money to pay bills,” Hector relates. Today, the herd is 30% first-calf 2-year-olds.

Asked how they made it through those tough years, Hector’s wife Fabiola said: “We prayed.”

“And worked hard,” added Hector.

He and Arturo are hands-on managers. “My uncle is out here feeding cows at 4 a.m. and I start at 5 a.m.,” says Hector, who does all of the breeding. His day starts with cleaning the milk tank and the parlor, checking fresh cows, and starting the day’s breeding lineup.

“My husband is in love with what he does. He never complains. He and Arturo are always here – rain or shine, good or bad — that’s how we made it this far,” Fabiola adds.

She and Arturo’s wife Sylvia — and more recently Arturo’s daughter Christian — take care of all the calves at R&J Dairy.

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Hector and Fabiola Jimenez (left) and Arturo Rodriguez (right) with his daughter Christian. Missing from photo are Hector and Fabiola’s grown children Clemente, Abel and Joann and Arturo’s wife Sylvia and son Arturo Stephen. Photo by Sherry Bunting

They employ 10 people, mainly milkers. They feel a sense of satisfaction in coming to the U.S. from Mexico in the mid-to-late 1970s, working hard, starting a new life here, including their own dairy business, raising children who are either interested in the dairy or working good jobs in the community, and now providing jobs for others in the community.

Halfway through their first decade in business together, Hector and Arturo hit the 2009 milk market train wreck followed by years of drought and surging feed prices. Cutting expenses was a big part of that picture from 2009-12, and the partners aren’t so fast to spend money now that dairy margins are good.

They have 220 acres and rent some additional property for growing coastal hay. That, and working with their nutritionist in feeding commodities like corn gluten, canola and cottonseed along with purchased corn silage — helps them manage feed costs.

They feed a dry cow ration and move the close-up cows and first calvewebR&J-125xxrs close to the house for observation. They also use Udder Comfort after each milking for a few days post-calving to reduce edema and improve recovery time.

The breeding program involves synchronization, but only for those cattle that are not showing heats. Hector and Arturo pick the bulls. “We look for high components – fat and protein – as well as calving ease,” Hector explains.

High components and high milk quality are two keys to making the most of their milk check in both high and low market times.

“The dairy business can be a tough business,” Arturo observes. “You have to enjoy it. I enjoy everything about it, getting up early, being out here. It’s all I’ve known since 1975.”

For the next generation of dairy producers dreaming of having their own dairies, Arturo has this advice: “Work hard, and sooner or later you will be rewarded,” he says. “Save money and invest in cows, but above all work hard. If it is work that you love, that won’t be hard.”

Those two-plus decades of hard work for other dairies have rewarded Hector and Arturo with more of the work they love, but now they do the work for their own dairy investment.

As these two partners have experienced over the past 10 years dairying on their own – “Even when you have your own business, the work doesn’t stop and in some ways you work even harder. You have to be here, work here, live here,” Arturo explains.

Hector agrees. “Even when I’m at the house, I’m thinking about the cows and wanting to see that they are okay. You have to like this job to do it well, and you have to like it even when you are losing money.”webR&J-151

It can be done, they say, “but you have to be careful. We had to spend money carefully,” Arturo noted. “We started this dairy during the good times in 2004. We’re still here, I think, because we were careful in the good times and the bad times. We watch every day how we feed, and when the times are tough, we cut out what is too expensive. When the going gets really tough, we shift our focus into survival mode, not to how much milk we can make.”

Cost of production at R&J Dairy runs almost $20.00/cwt at the moment (spring 2014), which includes all costs — everything. “It gets scary when milk prices fall to $16,” Arturo relates. “In 2009, the price fell below $12, and our cost of production at that time was $18. At one point we were losing $2000 per day here and borrowing to pay bills.”

He explains that they were fortunate to have built up some equity they could borrow on, and he estimates that another three months of milk prices as high as April’s may finally pay back what they lost in 2009.

“We try to stay ready for the next downturn,” the two men agree.

Arturo sees the new Margin Protection Program in the Farm Bill as something that will help dairy producers during future downturns. “It’s better insurance, better than the MILC program. When it gets tough in the dairy business, any help is nice to have.”

As for forward contracting, Hector and Arturo prefer to take on the risk. They believe that while the new insurance program will help and some folks have benefitted with forward contracting… nothing substitutes for hard work, saving during the good times, and close management and caution all the time.

The two partners worked day and night through the worst of 2009-10, and believe that is webR&J-572what got them through it. “We looked for those small daily victories,” Arturo reflects. “That’s what kept us going. We just kept thinking we would be okay — that if we worked hard, we would be rewarded for the years of suffering, and I guess we are seeing that right now.”

Moving forward… ‘We take care of their families and they take care of ours’

By Sherry Bunting, reprinted from Farmshine, November 21, 2014

NEW LONDON, Wis. — November is a many-faced month for agriculture. It’s the month we recognize women in agriculture. It’s the month we bring the sewebTank7962ason’s harvest to a close. It’s the month we are reminded to be thankful for God’s blessings.

In September, I met a truly inspirational dairywoman who is quietly and methodically moving forward in the face of difficult odds. She and her two daughters exemplify a thankful heart as they care for their cows, which in turn care for them.

It was a downright cold, rainy central Wisconsin day as I was visiting farms ahead of the World Dairy Expo at the end of September. My lastwebTank8066 stop of the day was Milk-Flo Holsteins, New London, where Cathy Tank still does the 3 a.m. milking of her 150-cow dairy herd, and then works off the farm until supper time; so the appointed time to meet was toward evening. Her daughters were home from school and the hired man was busy pushing up feed for the cows.

What started as a typical family farm interview, soon turned into much more. By the time I left a few hours later, it was dark and one of the two ladies employed to milk the other two of the 3x milkings had arrived as Cathy’s daughters fed the chickens befowebTank8046re heading inside to do homework.

A former dairy queen of Wayne County, Wisconsin, Cathy Tank is a woman who not only works hard, she believes in working smart and using the right tool for a job.

She and her daughters Elizabeth, 15, and Rebecca, 11, love the dairy farm they are keeping going — and progressing — after losing husband and father Bob Tank to melanoma in 2009. It has been a journey, to say the least, and Cathy is quick to point out the way communities and extended family work together during harvest and in times of need.

“That’s what makes farm folk different,” she says. “A farmer can be having the worst day, ever, and would still stop and help pull another out of the ditch.”

“I am fortunate to have good help,” she adds. Working smart, means picking the jobs she can and can’t do. While she harvests her own haylage and works the ground to get it ready for planting, Cathy uses custom manure hauling and custom choppers for the corn silage harvest.

“They can do in a few hours what would take me weeks,” she says, adding that her brother helps her do most of the planting. That is something her father, Keith Knapp, helped her with over the past few years, but this spring she lost her Dad, too, in an accident.

Getting on the tractor is therapeutic, she says matter-of-factly. “It is refreshing work, and it reminds me to be thankful. I think about all of the things my Dad taught me how to do.”

While fieldwork is refreshing, what Cathy really loves is the cows. The dairy herd was her domain until six years ago. One year before Bob’s illness, they decided she would take a job off the farm. Today, she continues onward with both the job and the farm, and she’s set some pretty high goals for her cows with the focus on paying down debt. She would like to see her cows get over that 90 lbs/cow/day mark into 100-lb territory. “That’s a hard goal,” she says. But she’s already reached a few toughies.

She started 3x milking in February, and over the past two years, she made a focused effort to reduce somatic cell counts. Today, the herd averages 87 pounds/cow/day with 3.5 fat and 3.9 protein and SCC ranging 100 to 150,000.

The herd cleared $1 million in milk sales last year, which was a goal, reached, and Cathy says she has been able to reduce the farm’s debt by almost half. The milk from Milk-Flo goes to a cheese plant, and so the premiums for reducing SCC have really helped the bottom line.

While shifting the farm from pasture-based to more conventional in order to increase production and pay down debt, Cathy muses that maybe one day in the future, it webTank8077could return to more of a pasture-based system. She has already diversified a bit, adding pastured poultry and home-raised pork, beef and chicken. She and the girls sell their eggs at a local farmers’ market. The few steers on the farm are fed refusals from the milking herd and the chickens help keep some of the lawn areas mowed.

“We do what we can to not waste anything here. We are learning how to be more self-sufficient. You learn to be resourceful when you are on your own,” she says.

“We also try to do as much as we can without antibiotics,” explains Cathy, who grew up milking cows and has an Ag Education degree from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. “We don’t sell the milk at the farmers’ market, but people who buy our eggs know we have cows, and we get those questions. We are trying to pay attention and be more preventive in how we manage the cows, so we don’t have as much need for treatments during lactation. This approach has helped us qualify for quality premiums and have a healthier herd.”

Cows are milked in a step-up parlor and housed in an open-front barn in freestalls. The farm includes 310 acres of forages for the 150-cow milking herd and young stock. Dry cows and older heifers are on pasture.

“I like color and variety,” says Cathy about the composition of the herd today, which is mainly Holstein but includes Brown Swiss crosses, Red & Whites, Linebacks,webTank8013 and Ayrshire crosses. She has hired a breeder but picks the bulls. The two biggest things she looks at are feet-and-legs and protein.

After two years in a row of poor forage in parts of the Upper Midwest, Cathy is thankful for this year’s good hay crop and the “jumbo corn” crop yielding over 23 tons of corn silage per acre, much of which was still ‘ripening’ in the field as the calendar headed into October.

She has put some thought into positioning the farm for alternate plans should the need arise. A few years ago, she installed a scrape alley and simple manure storage for the parlor holding area. This and the open-faced barn make the property suited to substantial heifer-raising if milking cows would ever get to be too much.

Elizabeth and Rebecca are the fourth generation on the farm. Cathy explained that Bob’s family has farmed here 100 years as of 2008, which was the year before he died.

“I’m just a steward,” she said. “I’m pretty interested in staying in this industry. I can’t imagine the farm without the cows.”

While she focuses on the areas of the farm where her efforts are most productive, she still enjoys the 3 a.m. milking. “I like getting up when it’s calm and you can see the stars,” she says as she looks around at the herd, noting her oldest cow is 15 years old. “It’s a good feeling to have dams, grand-dams and daughters in the barn here. We take care of their families and they take care of ours.”webTank8005

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