By Sherry Bunting, reprinted from Farmshine August 22, 2012
Zach and Jeremy lost their father last year just a couple months before this story was published. He would have been proud to read it, and they credit their father with giving them the tools to become first-generation dairymen with their own farm today. Their dad bought them a few project animals for 4-H and FFA and taught them to work hard on the family’s crop and poultry farm where the boys were raised. Here is their story of building a dairy business in volatile times.
WOMELSDORF, Pa. — It was just shy of 100 degrees outside in the shade, but the cows in the barn didn’t mind. Standing in the 170-cow freestall barn at Meck Bros. Dairy near here, was actually comfortable on a visit during the August heat wave.
Despite the extreme temperatures that summer, the Meck brothers say their cows have done better than in previous summers. (Read more about their unique cooling system at the end of this story.)
The Meck Brothers have been farming in Berks County, Pa. since 2008 when they purchased a preserved farm and spent the past four years renovating it. They were attracted to this farm when it came up for sale in 2007 because much of the farmland around it is also preserved.
But their story really begins in Reinholds, Lancaster County, where they grew up on a crop and poultry farm operated by their parents Ronald and Joyce Meck until their father passed away this past spring. Today, they are cropping 340 acres at their own Berks County farm and the 400 acres in Lancaster County that belong to their family.
Why dairy? Zach and Jeremy started their dairy business on their own in a rather unconventional way, but they are quick to point out the impact of their father’s example, and the start he gave them when he bought their first 4-H starter animals.
“We were drawn to cattle in 4-H because of being able to grow the crops to feed the cows and being able to grow our own youngstock,” Jeremy explains.
In their late father’s poultry business, the pullets were raised off the farm and brought to the farm as layers. “We had a lot of land base for the poultry, so we started grazing our cattle there and growing feed to manage the manure nutrients from the poultry,” Zach notes.
They had been building their own dairy herd on rented farms for several years. They started out milking a small herd of 12 cows for the purpose of feeding veal calves they would buy from area dairy farms and auctions.
“During those years, we learned an awful lot about calf care and homeopathic remedies,” the brothers say with a smile as they mention the stinging nettles herbal tea they found helps young calves with scours.
Today, they raise all their own youngstock on area pastures, and are preparing to relocate them to one rented facility nearby. “That will cut down a lot on our run around time,” the brothers relate.
In 2007, they learned of this Berks County preserved farm going up for sale. They bought it and tore down the existing dairy barn, working with Franklin Builders to replace it with a small freestall barn. Zach and Jeremy built the parlor themselves by putting together two used milking systems and buying new stalls from the former Brandt’s Supply. And they did the stonework on the outside with the help of Kurtzcrete.
The manure pit and sand settling lane were also installed in stages with the help of a friend (Mark Landis), who works in excavating. They engineered a two-stage flush system for the sand-bedded freestall barn, and put in a sand settling lane that has a third “speed bump” for catching sand before the slurry goes into the pit. A second pit is available for future expansion.
The barn flushes from the center to the end while the cows are in the holding area for milking. Sand is pulled from the sand settling lane and reclaimed for reuse as bedding. The brothers estimate they recycle most all of their sand, and buy two loads of fresh sand a year in the winter.
The Meck Bros. Dairy herd has grown slowly. Before buying the Berks County farm, Zach and Jeremy grew the herd from 12 to 40 to 60 to 120 cows on a rented farm. They were intent on keeping their business as manageable as possible.
“We ran the numbers and realized we would have had to go to 600 cows to afford building everything all new,” Zach affirms. “So we would have needed more land base than what is on this farm. So, we built for 170 cows in this phase.”
They moved into the renovated facilities in 2008 with 120 milking cows, mainly Holsteins, including a few Red and Whites and Brown Swiss. (And the spring 2013 addition of those cute li’l Jerseys.) With high cattle prices that first year in business, they populated the barn by purchasing an economically priced crossbred grazing herd out of West Virginia to get their numbers up to 170.
“Those cows aren’t fancy but they do okay, and we are improving the herd as we breed them and bring in replacements,” Jeremy notes.
Moving the herd to the Berks County farm in 2008 was a welcome relief after the brothers had spent months milking and switching cows at the rented farm in Ephrata at the same time they were working on the new farm and facilities in Womelsdorf.
“We would work down there and then come up here and work some more,” Jeremy reflects. “We worked ahead to get crops in here to have feed here before we moved the cattle.”
Four years later, the brothers have come through some of the worst years in the dairy business. Looking at 2012-13, they have a corn silage crop that looks decent, and they had a terrific harvest of triticale forage this spring, along with hay and haylage. But the coming year will be difficult for them as for all dairy farmers with a moderate milk price trying to cover soaring input costs.
Zach does the nutrition work here, having previously worked for a nutritionist. They feed a high forage ration with 55 pounds of corn silage and 15 to 20 of haylage and five pound of triticale silage. The ration includes less than 12 pounds of total grain per day. They grow the forages and some of the corn, and buy soybean meal and corn distillers, wheat midds and minerals.
“It’s basically a 65% forage diet,” he says. “We double crop a triticale/Italian rye mix that we harvest before planting the corn. We got six to eight tons per acre with excellent protein this spring, and will do that again this fall for next spring.”
For corn silage, they plant Pioneer hybrids, but keep an open mind and check out the trials. “We planted 30 to 40 acres in BMR to fill one bunk as a summer feed for high digestibility,” Zach explains. “The rest is planted to a mixture to keep our seed costs down.”
Today, the brothers farm over 700 acres and milk 170 cows. The herd produces 75 to 80 pounds of milk per cow per day, with somatic cell counts around 200,000. They share responsibilities on the farm, with Jeremy taking care of the breeding, herd health and the finances, while Zach leans more toward the facilities and crops.
They sit down once a month and go over everything together and talk daily as they go about the chores on the farm.
“We started small and just worked and worked,” Jeremy relates. “We could not have done it without the foundation laid by our Dad. He bought us our first animals and lent us the barn to do it, and then he stepped away and let us do it.”
“It has been an adventure,” says Zach, who recently married Suzanne (Perdue). She brought her dairy roots in Maryland to Berks County, Pa.
Jeremy, still single, continues to renovate the old farm house near the milking parlor while living in the house across the road on the other part of the farm. He acknowledges that dairy is a family lifestyle and that being single and tied to the farm has its drawbacks.
“That’s why we both do everything here,” Zach adds. “We both know each other’s jobs so either one of us can take time off. You need to do that.”
With 15 years under their belts dairying since they were teenagers, the adventure for these brothers continues as there is always more work to be done and plans to be made.
As members of the Land O’Lakes cooperative, Zach has been active as a delegate for a few years. He also served previously as a member of the Dairy Policy Action Coalition (DPAC) board and the Berks/Lebanon County Dairy Farmers Voice.
“It’s time to get the younger generation involved in the leadership of their cooperative,” Zach affirms. “Our futures are at stake in the outcome of the decisions that are made.
“There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it, when you get half or three-quarters of a milk check — whether you are buying feed or considering the value of the crops going in the cows — dairying has to be sustainable. Where am I at the end of the day in terms of gross profit, that’s the relevant question,” he adds.
If producers here have to reduce production under the proposed dairy market stabilization program, Zach believes it would be a hardship for young and beginning farmers like he and Jeremy. “If we make 80 pounds and are paid for 70, but have higher taxes and a higher basis on our corn and soybeans and a smaller land base, how do we make that work?”
He points to the opportunity in the region fueled by the growth of the yogurt industry and other outlets for milk and consumers along the eastern seaboard.
“Why aren’t we focusing on the mechanics of the market?” he asks. “That should be our focus. We should be looking out for our fellow dairy farmers around us… Large or small, we’re all important. We have to focus on creating opportunities and getting the mechanics of the market right.”
Their Unique Cooling System – www.cowkuhlerz.com
“We love this system,” brothers Zachary and Jeremy Meck agreed as they pointed out the elements of German cooling technology they have trialed in their freestall barn this summer. “It is simple, cost-effective, low-maintenance, and it does a great job of cooling with minimal water use.”
Instead of evaporative cooling by soaking the cow, these intermittent misters are placed in front of the circulation fans to cool the air.
Jeremy points out the conduit are kept high up in the trusses, and the nozzles drop down in front of the fans. This keeps the system out of reach of the cows and equipment so it doesn’t get bumped or broken. It’s also easy to put together and maintain, he says. “It’s a push together system.”
“Dan McFarland wanted us to try this for Hershey Ag before they start using them in dairy, hog, and poultry barns,” Zach explains. “We like the fact that it produces a light cooling mist to cool the air without getting the cows, feed, bedding, and concrete wet.”
“We put one in the milking parlor, too, for the employees, and they love it,” Zach adds. “It’s just like air conditioning.”
Despite the extreme temperatures this summer, the Meck brothers say their cows have done better than in previous summers. “We have seen heats in our cattle that we would not have seen before, and production did not drop off nearly as hard,” Zach explains. “The cows are up eating. Normally we would have high refusal rates in the summer, but no refusals this year. Dry matter intake has been steady.”
Trialing the Aroto-Asi cooler is just one example of how these two brothers continually look for simple and cost-effective solutions to manage their dairy farm.
Zach (left) and Jeremy Meck love the new cooling system they’ve been trialing this summer in the 170-cow freestall barn at their Berks County, Pa. dairy farm. They’ve been dairying 15 years since they were teenagers and started out with 12 cows on their parents’ crop and poultry farm in Lancaster County.
This is a long view of the conduit up in the rafters that brings water to the Arato-Asi cooler nozzles parked in front of each fan. This intermittent mist in front of the fans cools the air without getting the cows, feed, bedding, or concrete wet.
MECK-BROS 9980 or 9982 or 0001
The thermostatically controlled mist is barely visible (60 seconds on and 60 seconds off), but its cooling effect to the air in the barn and milking parlor is clearly felt by humans and animals, alike. The system uses very little water.
MECK-BROS 9965 or 9970
Zach (left) and Jeremy Meck own and operate Meck Bros. Dairy, milking 170 cows and farming 700 total acres in two counties with the help of three part-time employees at the dairy in Berks County where they bought and renovated a farm in 2008.
MECK-BROS 0053 or 0032
Jeremy (left) and Zach Meck recently completed the stonework, themselves, with the help of Kurtzcrete, on the milking parlor to match the existing bank barn and farmhouse.