High plains fires take lives, spark spirit

Convoys of trucks bringing hay to the areas affected by March wildfires have come from central Texas, southwest Oklahoma, central Kansas and from Nebraska, South Dakota, Michigan, Ohio and now funds for fuel are being raised to bring 1000 round bales from western Pennsylvania to southwest Kansas… as farmers and ranchers across the country pull together in amazing ways to help their peers with forage for cattle after wildfires decimated grasslands and stored hay in the High Plains. Derrick Carlisle of Claysville, Pennsylvania reports that nearly 1000 round bales of hay have been donated from farms in Greene and Washington counties, and a trucking company has agreed to transport the hay to Ashland, Kansas “at fuel cost.” Now, funds are being raised quickly to buy fuel to transport the hay. Individuals and businesses wanting to help provide funds for fuel, should contact Washington County Cattlemen’s Association president Brian Hrutkay at 724-323-5815.

To help with the ongoing relief efforts for ranchers affected by the wildfires, visit http://www.beefusa.org/firereliefresources.aspx to see various contacts for ways to help listed by the states affected as well as coordinated efforts in other states like Kentucky and Minnesota that are planning deliveries.

 Trent Loos at Rural Route Radio is helping to organize a rebuilding effort through means of raising cash. Various auctions are already set and the idea can be replicated. For information about how to participate in this, contact Trent Loos at 515.418.8185 or check out his Rural Route radio
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“There is so much appreciation in this community for the outpouring of love and compassion.”

Recap reprinted from Farmshine, March 17, 2017

ASHLAND, Kan. — High Plains ranchers are always on guard for the combination of March winds and wildfires. When the two conspire together, the result can rapidly turn devastating and deadly. That was the situation last week in southwest Kansas, the Texas-Oklahoma Panhandle and eastern Colorado.

All told, the wildfires on March 6 consumed around 1.7 million acres of grassland, 33 homes, over 200 farm structures, an estimated 7,000 to 9,000 adult cows along with untold numbers of calves, horses and wildlife. In Texas and Oklahoma, over 5000 hogs perished in separate facilities.

Tragically, some of the affected ranching families in the Panhandle suffered the ultimate loss of loved ones. Seven people lost their lives, at least five while trying to herd cattle to safety before becoming trapped in the rapidly moving fire when the high winds changed direction.

The livestock losses are particularly heavy in southwest Kansas, where a local veterinarian estimates 3000 to 6000 beef cattle have perished; however, an accurate assessment is still weeks away. In the Panhandle, Texas A&M Agrilife extension reports preliminary loss estimates of 2500 adult cows, plus additional calves.

Two consecutive years of above average moisture provided the good grass growth that ended up fueling multiple fires in early March. The previous 60 days had turned it tinder-dry, together with the high winds of up to 60-70 mph, creating the perfect storm. The rapidly moving ‘Starbuck’ fire in northeast Oklahoma and southwest Kansas will go down as the largest and most devastating single fire in Kansas state history. In the Panhandle, the March 6 fire is being called the third worst in Texas history.

While there are some dairies in these areas, extension agents and veterinarians report that no dairy cattle were impacted. But dairy producers and calf ranch operators are among the ag community throughout the region, and beyond, responding to the immediate needs of the region’s ranchers.

Occurring at a vulnerable time, the fires have orphaned many newborn calves. In fact, one purebred Angus operation in Ashland, Kansas described the confluence of emotion – simultaneously dealing with the grisly task of locating and putting-down hundreds of adult cows while gathering to the corrals over 100 survivors for further monitoring and evaluation – 30 of them having their calves in the days immediately following the fire.

Many of the ranchers have lost much of their stored hay supply, and the region’s unburned grasslands are a good 60 days away from greenup — provided they get rain. Surviving cattle are being pulled onto wheat pasture and into corrals — making the immediate priority that of acquiring the hay necessary to feed a good 15,000 surviving livestock in southwest Kansas and over 10,000 in the Panhandle.

With fences to build and repair, feed to secure, cows still calving and long term plans and decisions to make, there’s no time to bottle and bucket feed calves two and three times a day, particularly those ranchers who have also lost their homes.

OrphanCalves01(K-State)County 4-H clubs put the word out early, that youth members would take-in bucket calves to help the ranchers who have so many other things to do in the recovery. (Follow them on Facebook at Orphaned Calf Relief of SW Kansas)

Veterinarians are reaching out to colleagues in the hard-hit areas. Dr. Randy Spare at Ashland Veterinary Center has been organizing some of the needs. He received a call late last week from Dr. Tera Barnhardt.

The 2014 K-State graduate operates a solo bovine practice for dairies and feedlots two hours north of Ashland. While doing preg checks at Deerfield Calf Feeders — where dairy replacement heifers are raised near Johnson, Kansas – Dr. Barnhardt and the general manager Cary Wimmer came up with the idea of offering temporary homes and care in the calf ranch hutches for orphaned calves from Ashland.

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Many ag companies have donated milk replacer, feed, pharmaceuticals and other animal care products — and along with hay donations from other ranches — have come personal items for the families who have lost their homes and belongings.

“Our hearts go out to the ranchers,” said Dr. Barnhardt. “I’m just glad we could help connect some dots and take something off their plate.”

Some of the orphaned Angus calves now at Deerfield are from the Giles Ranch, Ashland, where three family members lost their homes and where they had significant cow losses. At Deerfield, as with the 4-Hers who have volunteered calf care, these baby calves will get the individual care and supervision they need while their owners deal with the recovery process.

“All aspects of this industry are coming together,” said Barnhardt. “It has been impressive. Even the workers at the calf ranch are inspired and proud to take care of these babies.”

As the immediate hustle to triage cattle and secure feed and care for survivors shifts to a longer term plan for coordinating the ongoing relief efforts, those close to the situation are encouraging people who want to help to consider monetary donations needed to cover trucking costs to get donated hay and materials to the affected ranches.

“We don’t want to turn down hay because some of our ranchers are just coming to grips with what their losses are and what their needs will be,” said Dr. Spare. The biggest issue with hay donations right now is the trucking bottleneck. In the short term, the tangibles have been necessary because it takes time for the various foundations to pool monetary donations and get resources to the ranchers.

“Farmers have called from as far away as Vermont and Wisconsin wanting to donate hay, and right now we have 800 bales available nearby in Waco, Texas if we could find the trucking,” said Spare.

Convoys of trucks — semiloads and pickups hauling flatbed trailers — brought an estimated 3000 round bales to the fire-affected regions over the weekend. With more hay available in central Texas and nearby Nebraska, the biggest need at the moment is more trucks or funds to help pay the fuel costs to transport the donated hay.

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(above) Convoys of trucks with hay headed to the wildfire-affected areas over the weekend. This one was organized by Mike and Conner Franetovich of southwest Oklahoma carrying 260 round bales to the ranchers in northwest Oklahoma. Photo by LaQuita Massee/Images By LQ

“When the hay trucks rolled in, it was like the cavalry arrived,” said Greg Gardiner of Gardiner Angus, Ashland. The well-known Angus breeder lost over 500 adult cows, mainly donor cows and spring calvers. They have over 1500 survivors but lost all of their hay — over 5000 round bales and their horse hay as well.

Greg’s brother Mark and his wife Eva lost their home, three of their horses and their dogs to the fire, despite their efforts to free them as the fire changed direction. He was behind them with the horse trailer when the black smoke descended making it impossible to see. He spent a half hour not knowing if they made it out.

“This thing is of biblical proportions, but it all seems small to me. My brother is alive,” said Gardiner. He described the landscape that burned from one end of the ranch to the other as an “apocalyptic wasteland” that will eventually come back stronger with enough rain.

“We’re praying for rain,” said Spare, describing dirty skies as the wind lifts the gray sand over charred soils.

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While prayers are most coveted, those who want to help are urged to contact organizers in the various affected states (see below) to see what the needs are as community leaders develop an ongoing relief plan.

“We are still contacting ranchers,” said Spare. “Some are saying they don’t need hay and feel embarrassed to take it, but the grass is all gone, and we are 60 days from good grass (in unburned areas) if it rains, so we are trying to help people understand as they make their plans, that they will need to have something to feed.”

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Make no mistake, this will be a long recovery for ranchers who have lost 50 to 90% of their herds and multiple years of income, as well as their stockpiled forage and grasslands.

“I told CNN that we as ranchers are stewards of the grasslands, and that the only way we have something to sell for an income is to sell grass through the cows that are eating it. We are working to take care of that and start all over again,” said Dr. Spare, who had significant losses among his own cow herd and was relieved when his son showed up in the driveway Tuesday morning, taking time away from vet school before spring exams to take care of the home front while he worked with other ranchers and their cattle.

As the reality sinks in…

“There is so much appreciation in this community for the outpouring of love and compassion, from the people who come alongside with prayers and help,” said Spare. “Many don’t know how they’ll get through this, but we know we will get through it.”

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Ode to long days, warm sunshine… see you next spring.

Ode to copious doses of vitamin D, long days, warm sunshine and rural life.

Growing the Land

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As I sort photos for a newspaper story… flipping past those randomly shot from the road, it seems a good time to share a collection of random thoughts recorded while driving through America’s Heartland from deadline to deadline the last few summers. Much of it, the things I see, but don’t have time to stop for as I’m always running late for the next deadline. Enjoy this ode to copious does of Vitamin D, long days, warm sunshine, and rural life… 

Birds of flight soar between tufts of congregating clouds. Snowy white egrets glow sunset silver above crystal blue lakes… Appearing out of nowhere, they punctuate the landscape and reflect the vivid sky.

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Working metal parked by barns take on the rust red hue.

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Birds dance atop fields of corn … a burst of orange Tanager, brilliant Blue Bird, the acrobatic, ever-present Swallows, A woodpecker’s crisp white-wing slices  the air…

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and swallow-like … the sweeps and turns of the yellow crop-duster —…

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Thanking the Milkshake Man for his heart of gold

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Waiting in the wings so as not to spoil the surprise, Dave Smith’s family was on hand to celebrate the ‘milkshake man’s passion, dedication and commitment to Pennsylvania’s dairy farmers and the next generation, which earned him the unanimous appreciation of his peers in the form a special Golden Milkshake award. Not only have the milkshake sales helped get fresh milk into the hands less fortunate but also helped the Dairymen’s Assn give $1 million in grants over the last 15 years for programs geared for the next generation of dairy farmers. Dave and wife Sharon are flanked by son Joel (left) and daughter Erin and her husband Aaron Wachter. 

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, February 17, 2017

LANCASTER, Pa. — Leaders of the Center for Dairy Excellence (CDE), Pennsylvania Dairymen’s Association and Professional Dairy Managers of Pennsylvania (PDMP) pulled off a surprise honorary service award during the 2017 Pennsylvania Dairy Summit here at the Lancaster Marriott last Wednesday evening, February 8.

Dave Smith, known practically everywhere as ‘the milkshake man’ was presented a special Golden Milkshake award for his dedication and commitment to Pennsylvania’s dairy industry.

Not only has Dave been the driving force behind the ubiquitous Pennsylvania Dairymen’s milkshake sales, and more recently fried mozzarella cubes, at the Pennsylvania Farm Show and other venues, he was instrumental in the launch of the Fill a Glass with Hope campaign — facilitating dairy relationships with Central Pennsylvania Food Bank and Feeding Pennsylvania to raise money to put fresh milk in food banks across the state.

dave-smith6637A surprised and humbled Dave Smith was speechless at first, but quickly took the podium to say:

“You dairy farmers are truly the reason for the success of the milkshakes.

“This is your product. You work hard to make a quality product. Consumers want what you have.”

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Dave (left) was lauded by his peers Don Risser (second left), president of the CDE Foundation, Doug Harbach (right), president of PDMP and Reid Hoover (second right), president of the Pa. Dairymen’s Association for his continual focus on improving the state’s dairy industry for future generations through promotion and combining this with avenues for getting dairy into the hands of those less fortunate.

In addition to serving as the Pennsylvania Dairymen’s Association executive director since 1995 and serving on the board for six additional years, Dave has been active in leadership with Young Farmer’s, 4-H dairy club and 4-H dairy judging as well as being an active member of Lebanon County Farm Bureau and the Pennsylvania Guernsey Breeders’ Association.

“Dave has given tirelessly to our organization and its mission for the past 22 years,” said Hoover, who credited his oversight with the Association’s success in selling milkshakes and dairy foods at the Farm Show. “Dave is continually looking ahead to find new markets for fluid milk and to put milk in the hands of those who need it most.”

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Dave shows the mozzarella blocks bought and cut into cubes for Farm Show fried cheese cubes. In 2014, Dave estimated the Dairymen’s Assn moved 3 tons of mozzarella in 8 days in this delicious Farm Show treat that is only growing in popularity at Farm Show since then.

Through expansion and new product introduction, gross sales have been increased approximately 500% in 15 years, allowing for $1 million in grants to be distributed to dairy and agriculture programs focusing on next generation development.

“We appreciate Dave’s active promotion and advocacy for dairy youth,” said Risser. “We are incredibly grateful for his efforts that bring success to these programs.”

Recently, Dave has been working out the details for the Calving Corner, a cow birthing center that will be part of the 2018 Pennsylvania Farm Show.

The fourth generation of his dairy farm family, Dave grew up raising and caring for the Guernsey herd in Annville, received his B.S. in Dairy Science from Virginia Tech and co-managed the farm with his father for a number of years, including the former dairy store where Ja-Mar Dairy’s milk was processed, bagged and sold until the late 1980s.

Today, the milk cows are gone, but Dave and his son Joel raise 140 head of cattle and farm 400 acres of ground.

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Fire extinguished. Help, hope ignited.

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2013 Photo: Chuck and Vanessa Worden

By Sherry Bunting, Reprinted from Farmshine, Jan. 20, 2017

CASSVILLE, N.Y. — On Saturday evening, January 14, the entire Worden family was together at the dining room table celebrating Chuck and Vanessa’s birthdays, including daughter Lindsey who was home visiting from Vermont.

By daybreak Sunday, the family was facing an uncertain future, but was lifted forward by friends and neighbors showing up when news spread quickly of the fire at Wormont Dairy, Cassville, New York.

“I had just walked through the cows and done a little clipping that night, so proud of how the whole herd looked and how well they were responding to the changes we had been making in the ration and fresh cow protocols,” Lindsey Worden reflected. “Less than four hours later, I was calling 911.”

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Photo from Kate Worden

Wayne and Mark Worden, who live off the farm but nearby, were throwing on clothes to come down and join their father Chuck and brother Eric in rescuing calves and heifers penned in the box stall barn adjoining their parlor/holding area and office, which was totally engulfed in flames.

Their mother Vanessa had gotten up in the middle of the night and saw the flames from the window.

“Just as Eric was carrying out the last calf, the fire trucks arrived and the barn was totally filled with smoke and starting to catch fire as well,” Lindsey reported. “Volunteer firefighters, friends and neighbors were pouring in. We managed to wrangle all the baby calves and young heifers into a bay of our machine shed, and got the older show heifers into our heifer freestall, while dad and the boys were helping the firefighters.”

Amazingly, the wind was blowing in the opposite direction of its usual course – sparing the main freestall barn and Wormont Dairy’s 270 milking cows from damage.

By 4:00 a.m. Sunday morning, “It was quiet,” Lindsey shares. “At daybreak we met to try and figure out a game plan for how to get 275 cows milked on a farm with no milking equipment.”

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Photo provided by Lindsey Worden

Not one person or animal was harmed, and the family was so thankful, but reality was sinking in. Now what?

“It was amazing,” said Vanessa. “There are no words for the way people just showed up and lifted us up.”

Chuck said a neighbor started the ball rolling to place the cows, and people came with trucks and trailers lining the farm lane. “I didn’t make one call, people just came,” he said.

As Wayne and Mark noted, “It was humbling.”

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Photo provided by Lindsey Worden

Before long, with the help of some awesome neighbors, the Wordens had figured out two farms that could take the majority of their milking cows (heifers and dry cows are staying), and a short while later, cattle trailers started showing up, as did more friends and neighbors to help get them loaded.

“At one point, we had at least 10 cattle trailers lined up out the driveway, and we got animals relocated more efficiently than I would have ever imagined possible,” Lindsey reflects. “We are so thankful to the friends and first responders who showed up at 1:00 a.m. on Sunday morning to help get our immediate emergency under control.”

Friends and neighbors came from near and far – bringing trailers, helping to get cattle loaded and moved, helping to get scared cows milked off site.

“People brought enough food to feed an army for a week,” said Vanessa.

“At 7 a.m., my first thought is that we were probably just have to sell everything, but then as neighbors showed up, and connections were made, and trucks started moving cows, you start to feel how hope can change the whole outlook,” said Vanessa. “By 3:00 p.m., our friends and neighbors had given us hope that we can do this. I was actually happy yesterday. There is no way I could be sad after all that everyone has done, after all the hope they have given us.”

Each member of the family has so much gratitude for the dairies that opened their barns and took in cows. The 270 cows were moved to three locations by 3 p.m. Sunday.

“What an incredibly humbling day,” Wayne shared Sunday evening. “There are no words to describe the support we received and are still receiving with the cows. Thank you is not enough to say about what we were all able to accomplish today. What an incredible community the dairy industry is.”

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2013 photo Wayne, Mark, Eric and Chuck Worden

Electricians worked all day Sunday to restore power – light, heat and water. “And companies worked with us quickly to help us with things like restoring our DairyComp records on a new computer, getting basic medical and breeding supplies and all those little things that we need to keep the wheels on the bus this week,” Lindsey observes. “It is a really strange feeling to literally have none of those everyday supplies like calf bottles, navel dip, ear tags, IV kits, etc.

Everyone who reached out with suggestions for help or just kind words, prayers and encouragement, by call, text message, email, and facebook, or dropping by in person. We are so very grateful.”

Eric shared how “truly overwhelmed” he was by the amount of support received from farmers across the state following the fire. “Thank you for making the day go easier,” he said. “This is a tough blow for my family, but we will come back stronger than ever.”

Adds Lindsey, “By some miracle, not a single animal was lost, not even our lone barn cat!”

While there is no question, “we’ve got a tough road to hoe to get back on our feet over the next several months,” said Lindsey, “with some luck and the attitude everyone in the family has maintained over the last two days, I have no question we will come out on the other side.”

“Words cannot express how thankful we are,” Vanessa said. “The way people reached out to us in those early hours gave us hope. Hope is an important thing. It’s what we give each other, and it is amazing.”

As the family meets with insurance adjusters, lenders, builders, equipment specialists and others to chart a course for moving forward, the ready support of others in the darkest hour serves as a continual reminder of what the dairy community is made of – people who keep putting one foot in front of the other and helping their fellow producers get through times like this.

Even more importantly, the family notes that this dairy community is quick to give each other hope — that they’re not alone when confronted with a life-changing event — that when it seems everything is coming to a halt, it is the hope brought by others that carries everyone forward.

Crews from six fire departments responded to the fire at Wormont in the wee hours of Sunday morning, January 15, with others on standby.

Cleanup continues as the family pulls together to make decisions for the future – a future that they say reinforces how special the dairy industry is and how humbled they are to be part of it.

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Aug. 2016 Eric, Lindsey and Chuck at county fair

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2013 photo Wormont Dairy

Navigating Obamacare in Rural America

Some tips, no easy answers: Experiences vary by age, income, zipcode, family size

The flip has flopped: How ACA has produced a new class of ‘uninsured’ and ‘under-insured’ – The middle-aged, middle-incomed, middle-America who have paid in all their lives now have trouble accessing health insurance and affordable care.

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Reprinted from Farmshine, Dec. 30, 2016

BROWNSTOWN, Pa. — From discussions in person and by posts to Facebook and Twitter, farmers and small business owners — deemed self-employed in Pennsylvania and across the country — were finding a rude awakening ahead of the December 15 deadline to enroll for January 1, 2017 health care insurance coverage.

In addition, those who had a plan in 2016, were automatically enrolled in new plans with premiums that increased by 30 to 60%, for which they have already received bills and were not permitted to cancel (until after December 21) – without first working with a marketplace administrator to replace the automatic plan with something else “from the market.”

From personal experience, I can say this was a cruel joke.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) marketplace exchange — otherwise known as “the marketplace” at healthcare.gov — conducts open enrollment only once a year from Nov. 1 through Jan. 31. The first of the deadlines, Dec. 15 for Jan. 1 coverage, was extended to Dec. 19. Those enrolling between Dec. 20 and Jan. 15 could start coverage Feb. 1, and those enrolling Jan. 16 to 31, could start coverage March 1. After Jan. 31, the whole deal closes – until next year.

Thoughts on the marketplace coverage vary depending on one’s age, zipcode, income and the number of family dependents.

From firsthand experience, the 50-something empty-nesters, like my husband and I, have found that in our zipcode of 17519, the lowest plan available was $1609 per month with a $12,000 deductible. In fact it was the only “bronze plan” available. The gold and silver options were upwards of $2200/month.

While families with multiple dependents have a higher income threshold for getting a government subsidy to pay part of the premium, couples of middle age with no dependents have a subsidy income threshold of $65,000 combined total income. But at $70,000 a year, a $1609/month premium is 27% of annual income. Now add in some health care bills all the way up to the deductible of $12,000 and the combined out-of-pocket for both care and premiums would be 44% of annual income.

When inquiry for catastrophic coverage only, the marketplace administrator said this option is available only for individuals 30 years of age and younger.

It is no wonder that many farmers and self-employed small business owners responded to my request for feedback on their marketplace experiences with this sentiment: “We are opting out of the insurance for 2017 and paying the fine and hoping that the new administration will fix the insurance mess.”

Those without qualifying insurance in 2017 will be fined 2.5% of their income when filing their 2017 income taxes, but that is certainly less than the 27% the premium would cost a couple of humble means. The government deems that you can afford said insurance if you make more than $20,800 a year for a couple and $10,400 a year for an individual.

While the results of the recent presidential and congressional elections bring the potential for replacement of the Obamacare system that is clearly squeezing the middle-aged and middle-income of middle-America, there are some immediate concerns voiced by farmers and small family business owners.

For starters, the ability to purchase group plans for businesses made up of family members has ended. That ended in 2014. Today, a farm that employs full-time family members without any full-time W-2 employees getting coverage on payroll cannot purchase group plans.

Inquiries to the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau indicate that farms can continue to qualify for a group plan as long as they have one W-2 employee being covered by the plan in addition to an unlimited number of family member employees.

Such group plans are far more cost-effective than what is available to individuals, couples and families on the Obamacare marketplace or through an insurance broker.

There are commercial brokers selling insurance, but the plans they offer still go back to the terms of the Obamacare marketplace. In fact, in our personal example, the Highmark plan we had this year was of course discontinued (this was the case with almost every plan as new pieces of the Obamacare legislation came online this year). The lowest-priced option through Highmark would have cost us $1609/month for $12,000 combined deductible. The lowest-priced option through the marketplace at healthcare.gov was $1608/month for $12,000 combined deductible. A difference of one dollar a month and virtually no difference in terms.

Over the past six weeks, we, like others, received emails and phone calls from companies offering insurance plans, only to find out that these plans were not available to folks in our zipcode, after attempting to apply.

UPMC is one example. Upon hearing that a dairy producer in western Pennsylvania was able to secure better insurance for half of Highmark’s price through UPMC, I applied. After filling out all of the information and pushing the tab, a screen popped up: “Not available in your area.”

The zipcode struck again. Our area doesn’t qualify for multi-state plans.

As one farm family found in Pennsylvania’s northern tier, multi-state plans are available in only some zipcodes of the state. A multi-state plan is essential for families relying on doctors and health care providers on the other side of the state border. In some cases, these doctors and health care providers are far more accessible than anything in Pennsylvania, but finding insurance that allows use of these services was difficult, and expensive, for some border-dwellers.

One option people are exercising is off-farm employment. One producer noted that she specifically went back to work in an off-farm job for the sole purpose of providing health insurance for her family. “Everyone misses mom at home,” she writes. “But if we can save $1700 a month, it just made sense.”

Several producers reported hiring a part-time employee to cover ‘mom’s’ farm chores while mom gets a job to provide health care was a necessary trade off to get coverage this coming year.

On the other hand, an ag-related small business owner notes that his wife was going to pick up some extra hours at her part-time job to help pay the escalation in the premium cost of their marketplace plan. Upon further analysis, this extra income would put them over the threshold for the government subsidy, meaning that they would end up paying even more for their insurance if his wife worked more hours.

“In a way this system serves as a dis-incentive to work and earn income,” he wrote.

(That is true here as well. If my husband and I worked less at our self-employed businesses, we could perhaps qualify for a subsidy and be able to afford the rock-bottom bronze plan at a subsidized rate. Our combined income is about $5,000 over the annual threshold for our age with no dependents. So, instead of being incentivized to work and earn more to continue to build self reliance for our future retirement, we actually contemplated working less to get the subsidy. That contemplation lasted all of five minutes because it is diametrically opposed to everything we believe in and stand for as hard-working Americans.)

“I have clients doing a variety of things,” a dairy nutritionist reports. “My plain clients get their insurance through a church group plan. A few have a spouse taking a full time job and then hire part-time labor to do the farm chores.”

He observes that health insurance costs “have always been a problem for farmers, made worse since the ‘un-affordable healthcare act.’”

Some have suggested milk cooperatives offer member health insurance plans. A quick survey reveals this is easier for large multi-state cooperatives that already provide a long list of member benefits that can be purchased. For example, dairy farm member-owners of Dairy Farmers of America can purchase group plan insurance through DFA’s Agri-Services Agency.

ASA works with a long list of health insurance carriers across the country, and offers quotes for DFA members at its website. But these are group plans, not individual family plans.

Several members have reported this works fine for farms seeking group plans that include at least one W-2 employee; however, for farms that rely on all family labor, with or without part-time student labor, the alternative, again is to head back to the Obamacare marketplace exchange for a personal plan.

Some dairy producer associations are looking into developing group plans that can be made available to individuals and families in their states. Kentucky Dairy Development Council, for example, just began offering a group plan to the state’s dairy farm families. Director Maury Cox notes that the future of this program is uncertain, but that as the number of participants potentially increases, the plan available could become better and more affordable.

Meanwhile, many farmers and self-employed folks responded to my inquiry with reports of converting from conventional insurance to “health sharing” plans through Samaritan Ministries and Christian Healthcare Ministries (CHM). These options qualify as insurance to avoid the tax penalty, however the operate differently from conventional insurance. Some farmers reported using CHM as their sole health insurance while others give to CHM to obtain help sharing their deductible costs of their regular insurance.

Those who have been with CHM for several years seem to have very positive things to say about health sharing. But there are caps. For severe situations where health care needs exceed $125,000, the outcomes are less predictable. The health sharing systems are not contracts to pay. Once costs are above the cap, members can donate to help that member cover their costs. In this way, the health sharing plans follow the Christian example of caring and sharing.

Meanwhile, there are those who have found the new Obamacare system and its subsidized marketplace plans to be of great benefit.

Two dairy farmers contacted me anonymously for this report — one from Pennsylvania and the other from the Midwest. They shared with me the details of their positive experiences. Both are in their 40s and have school-age and college-age children. Both qualify for the subsidy and will pay around $600 to $700/month to insure their entire families with a much smaller deductible (gold plan).

One of the two respondents indicated his thankfulness for the Obamacare insurance that allowed his wife’s severe medical needs to be covered with no waiting period for pre-existing.

The other disclosed gross income of over $80,000 a year and was able to qualify for the subsidy due to having a large family of dependents. He said that some say to him that they are paying for his insurance because of the subsidy, and yet he says he does “not feel poor.” He asked whether those who are having trouble finding affordable insurance are perhaps not taking the time to completely fill out the income statements when applying.

On the other hand, another dairy farmer indicated that she did go through all of the application hoops previously, and was rudely surprised at the end of the year that they owed money after their taxes were evaluated.

When they first applied at the marketplace, they were told that their income qualified them not only for a subsidy of the insurance premium, but also for special health insurance programs for their children. Then, after the government healthcare folks went over their tax returns with a fine tooth comb, they ended up not qualifying and owing the federal government money for the subsidy that had cheapened their insurance throughout 2016.

This is a tricky accounting process for farm partnerships and LLCs where members of the partnership and LLC own and depreciate income producing assets within the LLC or partnership. An LLC member’s income tax obligation are considered differently in terms of deductions when it comes to income assessment for health insurance.

It is all so complex, and suffice it to say, the Obamacare marketplace has become a government arm linked inextricably now to the IRS. A concerning precedent. In fact, several farmers noted for this report that they spend time with their accountants a little earlier this year to look specifically at the health care issue and implications for yearend tax planning.

All across the country, people are seeking to navigate these many issues with many unknowns thrown into the brew.

As one rancher reported, their insurance agent sees the dichotomy in the current system, and that the rising costs are due in part to those who do not have coverage until they get sick, and then the company is forced to take them. This includes non-citizens whose healthcare costs are covered.

Some have suggested that instead of fining people for not having insurance, there be accountability that Americans have one year to get into a plan, and after that, insurance premiums for those previously uninsured would be at a rate that covers some of the million-plus hospital costs.

When asked about whether the Affordable Care Act can be ‘tweaked’ or if it must be started from scratch, Trent Loos, a member of President-elect Donald Trump’s ag advisory committee, says “I love driving a team of horses with my chuck wagon, and this health care system is the largest wreck of a team of horses I’ve ever seen. The wreck is so bad that the wagon has completely fallen apart.”

Just 30 days before the November 8 election, the Obama administration came out saying the average premium increase for health care insurance was 24%, “but don’t worry about it because the subsidy will cover that,” Loos recalls. “How much more disconnected can you be?”

For much of Middle-America, the premiums have gone up 30 to 60% (in our case 60%) and the working middle class largely do not qualify for the subsidy.

“I don’t know of any agriculture group that is even talking about coming up with a program for their members because they don’t know where to begin,” Loos says of the extremely complex Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act.

Loos expects this to be tackled within the first 100 days of the new Trump administration in Washington. “If it is not tackled in the first 100 days, then every hope for the future will seem to be gone,” he said in a phone interview with Farmshine last week. “This is affecting every family in agriculture and beyond. It affects every family that relies upon themselves instead of the government.”

The solution? “Scrap it and start over,” Loos says. “This chuckwagon is dismantled on the ground. How can we glue it back together. Duct tape and baling wire are not enough for this one. President-elect Trump is very aware that this is something that needs to be fixed.”

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Dec. 16 emergency herd dispersal follows tornado’s destruction; Tenn. recovering from wildfires/tornadoes

 

 

ATHENS, Tenn. — While the Governor of Tennessee seeks a presidential disaster declaration for five counties hit by fire and storm November 30th, communities continue to work through the daunting task of cleanup, assessments, recovery and rebuilding.

The Southeast drought that had persisted from summer through fall fueled fires across six states, most notably Tennessee’s Great Smokey Mountains.

In the overnight hours of November 30, the Smokey Mountain fires went rampant as 80 mph winds drove a firestorm that created eight new fires by the next morning.

The front of moisture that eventually carried enough rain to quell fires to 50% containment was preceded by a 40-mile line of tornadoes and high winds. Worst hit in these storms was the community of Athens, Tennessee, near the original Mayfield Dairy Farm.

That rain was the first substantial rain since mid-June, according to University of Tennessee extension reports. But it had its impact after the fires first engulfed Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.

Lives were lost, injuries sustained, and homes and businesses destroyed.

Among the losses, Eastanallee Dairy Farm, owned by Blan and Kathy Dougherty, sustained destruction of its barns and milking facilities. The local community came to their aid.

According to Julie Walker, AgriVoice, “a great group of folks with animal and farm experience got first things done first. It was obvious the milk barn, and housing and feeding facilities received the brunt of the hit, and cows were not going to be able to be milked. Unfortunately, six just-weaned calves were killed,” she explained in a e-news post. “Steve Harrison, a neighbor to the Doughertys, generously agreed to temporarily house the cows until some decisions about the herd’s future could be determined.”

Last week, the Doughertys decided to have an emergency milking herd and bred heifer dispersal sale set for tomorrow — Friday, December 16 at 12 Noon — at the Athens Stockyards with basically just time for word of mouth and digital/social media advertisement.

It is hard enough to contemplate a dispersal of a dairy herd, and even tougher to do so under these circumstances. The Eastanallee herd is among the highest producing herds in Tennessee. A total of 114 milk cows and 15 bred heifers due through March will be offered. They will keep the yearlings and young stock as they evaluate their future, which may or may not include milking once again.

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There was a massive amount of property damage on their farmstead, and while their home was damaged, the Doughertys are thankful to have not lost their home, as have many of their neighbors nearby.

Getting ready for the sale, some culling has already taken place:  cows with breeding problems, mobility problems, and low production have already been sold.  Animals selling will be sound.  A sale catalog has been created by Ag Central Co-op, click here to view it.

We wish the Doughertys well, and our thoughts and prayers remain with the Athens community and all affected in East Tennessee. Many are homeless and services are taxed after the wildfire / tornado disasters in the counties of Coffee, McMinn, Polk, Sequatchie and Sevier for which the Governor requested this week a presidential disaster declaration.

Below are some links to two of the wildfire and tornado relief efforts.

 

 

Tennessee 4-H Wildfire Relief

Tornado Relief through United Way

Life after cows.

 

Anatomy of a dairy exit and dispersal.  Community support softens sting.

More than a few families can relate to this story and others are examining the fork in the road to see which direction their family farm businesses should take. Farmers are aging, and discussions are being had around kitchen tables all across Rural America about the future, whether to expand and modernize, exit, diversify, or stay the course. Even as farm families persevere in these difficult times of steep losses and low commodity prices, some are making the tough decision to exit dairy production.

These decisions are rarely easy, particularly when cattle values are down and next generation career paths are uncertain — or evolving away from the farm. The future doesn’t always follow a plan even when there is a plan. It is a tough economic time to sell a herd, a life’s work, and to send the next generation of cattle and children off to new pursuits, pathways, careers, lives…

Bittersweet. Thankfulness shines through in this video where end makes way for beginning … Whether living it or leaving it, the steps forward are grounded in faith, and a whole lot of love.

Love never fails. 1 Corinthians 13:8

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, Nov. 4, 2016

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HANNA, Ind. — “It’s not like a death, but in a way, it sort of felt like that, at first,” said LuAnn Troxel a few days after the herd dispersal of 215 lots plus calves and embryos at Troxel Dairy Farm on October 20. “The first cow started selling, and I was concentrating on that, and then I got busy, and before I knew it, the last cow was selling. But when I saw the big semi-truck back in for the largest load, that’s when it hit me as final. They are leaving.

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She was quick to add that her “heart is so thankful for what we have and for all the people who came out to support us. The auctioneer was right, these cattle are the future, and our son Rudy did an incredible job with the genetics. Young dairy producers who purchased some of these cattle will have some valuable animals to work with, and that feels good.”

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Sale day dawned rainy and cold, and the community came out in large numbers, with over 70 registered buyers. Many came for morale support and to enjoy the hot chili and baked goods provided by their church family with a free will offering raising $5000 for the Harvest Call Haiti Dairy Project.

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Dr. Tom and LuAnn Troxel had made the decision to exit the dairy business a year ago. Certainly the cattle would have brought more  a year ago, than they did a month ago amid October’s downturn in what had appeared to be a recovering dairy market, burdened further by a rapid decline in the beef market that often softens dairy cattle market values.

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The sale consisted of over 100 grade commercial cows and another 125 registered Holsteins of all ages, and about a dozen Jerseys. Son Rudy had developed the registered herd in his four years of full-time employment on the farm.

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Registered cattle with genomic numbers ranged $1800 to $2200 with not many lower and a few higher. The average for the full sale — including unregistered grade cows and the younger heifers over three months old — was $1453.

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The top sale was Lot 62 MS McCari Nomi 57900-ET. The fresh 2-year-old with a GTPI of +2525 sold for $5500 to Russell Springs, Kentucky through Max Dunseth of Holstein USA. Her Mogul daughter — a calf born July 24, 2016 and with a GTPI of +2600 — was the second-high seller of the day at $3800.

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troxel-sale-303Dunseth purchased a load of cattle for various orders, and the largest volume buyer purchased 34 cows, both registered and grade, on order to Illinois. troxel-sale-107

 

Other volume buyers supported the sale, including Andrew Steiner of Pine Tree Dairy. With Pine Tree genetics in the young registered herd — and several sale offerings descending from the Rudolph-Missy family — Steiner said he was looking for protein, and remarked on the quality of the cattle. He and his wife Julie took 14 head home to Marshallville, Ohio.

The balance of the cattle sold locally to the many in-state buyers. Several neighbors said they were there “to support the Troxels” and came with plans to buy one or two good cows from “some really good people.”

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Young dairymen from nearby Indiana counties purchased for their young dairy herds. One from Elkhart called two days after the sale to say how well the nine cows he bought are working out for him and how “really nice” the animals are.

 

 

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troxel-sale-94The Troxels’ niece, 10-year-old Anna Minnich, brought her checkbook and bid on several Jerseys. She had lost her Jersey cow Elegance at calving in September and ultimately purchased one of the Troxels’ Jersey cows named Utah as a replacement, along with two calves from the same family — Utopia and Unique. Anna plans to show them next year.

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A local heifer grower purchased some registered heifers, and another buyer purchased two for himself and an additional registered heifer with great numbers to donate to the Mennonite Disaster Committee heifer sale, showing how people in this industry want to give back.

“We had quality animals, and they sold for what the market would bear,” said Dr. Tom, with a smile, when asked how he viewed the sale outcome. “I am glad they did not have to go to the livestock auction.”

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Last fall, just eight buyers attended the small string sold ahead of this year’s complete dispersal. “One cow that we didn’t sell last year brought $400 less today,” LuAnn observed. “That gives you a true indication of the strain we are all under.”

But despite the strain, having more than 70 registered bidders, and such an attendance from the community, helped soften the sting. Dr. Tom is well known to the community as a large animal veterinarian who operated the dairy as the second generation on the farm, with LuAnn a prominent dairy advocate.

“To know people were here and that they cared about the cattle did insulate us a little,” LuAnn added. “We could not have gotten even these prices for this many cattle on just the market, alone.”

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Many connections were made between articles, ads and social media that resulted in buyers no one expected. The buyer from Illinois taking 34 cows was one example. A college friend of her daughter-in-law — both having no farm background but marrying into farm families — saw the note about the sale on Facebook, and her husband bid online. In fact there were some cattle in the sale that lit up the online Cow Buyer computer and had ringmen and order buyers on their phones taking bids. Courtney Sales, LLC managed the sale.

“The decision was made and we kept with the plan to move forward and trust God to work out the details,” LuAnn added.

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While farms have to have money to make things happen and get by, LuAnn expressed what many dairy farmers feel, that “while money is necessary, it is not the primary motivator or we would have exited the dairy business a long time ago,” she said. “Family is huge in this. Most of the time dairy farming is good for families, but these tough downturns do put a strain on families. We are blessed to have worked together and to have raised our family here on the farm.”

Having all four boys come home for the sale and hearing them talk, reinforced that sentiment.

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Each of the sons took in the sale preparations and the emotions of the sale day differently, but the bottom line was in saying goodbye to a piece of who they have become. While the farm and veterinary practice go on, the cows are leaving and they were central to life on the farm.

“I have to believe that what we have done for 33 years has been beneficial to our boys, but also to the 30-plus high school kids we’ve employed here over those years,” LuAnn acknowledged.

Certainly true as they have all stayed in touch over the years and some came out to the sale.

“We tried to make our dairy something that people felt good about, where kids could learn how to take care of an animal and have it be something that they remember fondly, that they could work here and develop into responsible young adults with the confidence that comes with knowing and doing something that is bigger than yourself,” LuAnn related.

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She will miss the girls that have most recently milked for them up until the sale. “They were laughing and talking about the different cow personalities and wondering how it will be for them at their new homes. All of this life around the animals just adds to the richness of the dairy experience and why this is such a compelling lifestyle.”

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There are so many aspects to a family’s decision to exit the dairy business. First comes the realization of the next generation’s plans for their own families’ futures. Next comes the actual sale planning, which can be very time consuming, so much so, that the emotional weight of saying goodbye to the animals is not top-of-mind.

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In addition to coming out to buy cattle and be supportive, some sale attendees indicated they are facing similar decisions and wanted to see how it all works. Others had read the articles and just wanted to be there. Still others knew they wanted to bring a few of the Troxel girls home to their farms.

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As the Troxels adjust to life after cows, LuAnn notes that other producers, who have been through this process, have encouraged her to “hang on to find the blessing in this decision.”

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At the moment, she still has 20 calves to feed, and there are six dry cows to calve. While they sold all of the registered animals of all ages, plus the grade milking cows, they kept the grade dry cows and unregistered young stock to sell later as fresh or springing heifers.

“It is strange to walk out and see just one or two cows,” LuAnn said with a hint of emotion. “But we have heard from some of the buyers. And that’s good. It’s good to know they appreciate our cattle.”

In fact, buyers repeatedly complimented the family on sale day about the quality of the cattle as they paid their auction bills and backed trailers in to load.

“They did look good,” said LuAnn, not in a prideful way so much as satisfaction for having raised good, productive, healthy animals that will work for their new owners the way they worked for the Troxels.

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“There’s no time to dwell on it,” she said. “The boys were all home and they are leaving today. Then we help move Rudy and his family to Wisconsin for his new job with Genex-CRI.

“We knew all of these changes would be coming. It is just strange for it to be so quiet here. The challenge will be the transition from going a million miles an hour to having it just stop,” she explained. “First, we’ll take it easy, and then, we’ll get at it. Next week the vet calls will need to get caught up, and then we’ll need to figure out what our new normal is, and that will take a little time.”

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