By Sherry Bunting (portions reprinted from Farmers Exchange 10/14/16 and portions reprinted from Farmshine 10/14/16)
HANNA, Ind. — Amid the difficult economics of dairy and beef production these days, many farm families are going through tough decisions about the future — along with uncertainty about the interest or ability their next generation may have for continuing the business. America’s dairy and livestock farms have raised generations of cattle that nourish our bodies, our rural economies and the land… not to mention raising generations of young people with the skills, work ethics and passion that take them far in their on-and-off-farm pursuits.
Herd dispersals are on the rise among family farms of all sizes. And while it is sad to see some of these farms mark an end to an era, there is reason for hope. The largest obstacle, in my view, is the current pricing systems and the concentration of power in a more vertically-integrated marketplace for both milk and beef. Consumers can help change this direction by caring where their food comes from and asking their grocers to identify country of origin as is done with fruits and vegetables — but that is a story for another day.
Today, I want readers to know about the Troxel Dairy Farm and their upcoming herd dispersal sale on Thursday, October 20th at 10:20 a.m. (10/20 and 10:20!) taking place at their farm at 17808 S 600 W, Hanna, Indiana.
Having known Dr. Tom and LuAnn Troxel for several years and having benefited from their hospitality through all seasons of the year on trips West, I am always in awe of the morning pace at their farm, which is also homebase for Dr. Tom’s South County large animal veterinary practice. And I admire the joy they have that rises above these tough decisions.
Mornings here have always kept me stepping as I would be out and about with my camera while Dr. Tom was busy in the milkhouse and cleaning pens or putting fresh bedding and feed out for the cows, LuAnn would be back and forth tending calves, answering vet calls, taking second rounds of coffee out to the barn, keeping a breakfast skillet moving forward… and so much more.
Busy mornings are to be expected when two busy people love what they do and when what they do is dairy farming alongside a large animal veterinary practice. Both can be demanding 24/7 jobs, and for 33 years of marriage, Dr. Tom Troxel has pulled double duty — wife LuAnn right there with him in the trenches and taking time to advocate for agriculture.
On this particular sunny autumn morning last week as we talked about the upcoming dispersal, veterinary customers stopped by for supplies, the milk truck backed into the lane for what will soon be the last daily pickup, workers made sale preparations, cows curiously spectated, while the resident peacocks strutted their stuff, adding their own brilliance to the splashes of color in LuAnn’s gardens that frame the cow pens, milk house and calf hutches.
LuAnn says she is thankful that after next week, Dr. Tom will have only one job to do.
The cows will be gone, but the South County Veterinary practice continues.
“Dairy isn’t something you just do, it is something that defines you,” said LuAnn during my visit last Monday morning, as she and Tom and son Rudy were finishing chores and preparing for the Oct. 20 complete dispersal of the milking and registered herd.
Her easy smile hid the uncertainty of the transition ahead. “Part of me is really sad, and part of me wonders about new opportunities we’ll find in this next phase.”
Tom confessed: “We’ll miss it. I’m kind of a workaholic so I’ll have to rethink things and find things to do that are more valuable than work.”
The sale plans were set into motion a year ago, when Tom and LuAnn knew that of their four sons — Rudy, Ned, Josh and Jackson — there would be no next generation to take the reins.
Rather than sell the herd immediately, they waited to calve-in some of the genetic progress Rudy made in his work with the herd over the past four years. This way they are able to sell animals of known value with genomic testing behind them and see some two-year-olds freshen and milk to get a glimpse of what would have been a great foundation herd for the future, that Rudy had developed — before passing the animals on to their new homes.
The Troxel Dairy herd dispersal is slated for 10:20 a.m. CDT on Thursday, October 20 at the farm. About 215 cattle will sell, including 113 cataloged cow and heifer lots, plus half-lot calves and embryos. Many are registered Holsteins, with solid genomic numbers, especially for productive life (PL), daughter pregnancy rate (DPR), somatic cell count (SCC), and milk components.
In fact, this milking herd of 140 cows produces high quality milk with somatic cell count consistently under 100,000. The current average is 75,000! Healthy animals and high quality milk have always been high priorities here.
The sale includes a unique range: predominantly registered Holstein cattle of all ages, including Polled, dominant/variant Red and Outcross genetics, as well as over a dozen Jerseys of all ages, some type Holsteins and 100 commercial grade milking cows and springing heifers.
“The genetic improvement has been quite something, considering that four years ago we had just one registered Holstein, and today we have 130 that are registered,” said Dr. Tom, crediting son Rudy’s skill and zeal for genetics. “With good genomic tests, these animals would have been a good foundation for the future, but now they can be a benefit to someone else.”
Rudy’s philosophy in transitioning the herd from grade to registered dovetailed with his parents’ longstanding emphasis on healthy cattle and preventive care. He bred not for show, but for working cattle “to exemplify the true working Holstein,” he explained the science-driven approach to breeding a true commercial cow. “We have rarely bred a cow under 1 or 2 in their DPR, and we have cattle at 5, 6, 7, even over 8 in productive life.”
While Rudy finds some satisfaction in having built a young herd with a few cow families that hold a lot of promise, he noted that around 30 of the registered animals are milking and over 75 are “the best that was yet to come.”
He points out the Ross cow they purchased from Clear Echo at the Summer Event Sale in Wisconsin in 2012. She is lot 13, with over 20 direct descendants selling, plus additional calves. The Dreamar cow is another he identifies as he thumbs through the catalog. She has nine direct descendents selling right along, plus embryos.
“Rudy took the (genetics) ball and ran with it,” said Tom with a smile.
With sale day fast approaching, LuAnn reflects on the decision to discontinue the dairy. “It was something that took weeks, even months to accept,” she said.
“We’ve ridden these cycles up and down for over 30 years,” the couple agreed. “We haven’t invested in new facilities. The dairy needs infrastructure and improvements. Our next generation made their family decisions not to buy the dairy farm.”
“We weren’t ready for the next generation,” Tom interjected. “Look around. We have lean to’s, not a new 21st Century building.”
Together they wondered, aloud, if investing in new facilities years ago may have produced a different outcome.
“We were so busy working and raising a family that we didn’t really take the time to plan that,” said LuAnn when asked what advice she might have for other farm families with next-generation uncertainty. “We always wanted our sons to make their own decisions on this. We love our four boys, their wives and their families and respect their decision to do what is best for their families.”
Planning for the next-generation is a challenge, “but I would recommend long term planning, not waiting like we did when it was too late for the planning to help,” she says.
Rudy, who graduated from Purdue with a degree in ag education, has taken an area sales manager position with Genex-CRI to follow the genetics path, which was seeded in junior high with his poultry projects and blossomed with his hand in the dairy herd over the past four years.
“This farm has been going since 1949 and has raised two families,” said Tom. His parents, Phil and Mary Troxel, started farming here almost 70 years ago. His mother was raised on a dairy farm and ahead of her time as a “dairy girl,” taking predominant care of the herd. Tom, one of eight children, was immersed in the farm early after his father suffered a stroke while he was still in high school.
Tom and LuAnn eventually took over the dairy after they married, and have operated both the dairy and Tom’s large animal practice here ever since.
Standing in the October sunshine discussing the upcoming sale, the curious cows walk right up and LuAnn reflects on the bond between a dairy producer and the cows. “I fed every one of these individually as calves,” she said, noting that while they can seem like children or grandchildren at times, “there’s a difference.”
“But you do spend more time with the cattle than the grandkids,” Tom interrupted, grinning at the reality of daily cattle care.
For years, the dairy has hosted media, consumer events, school field trips and trainings for vet tech students. (Below: On the left, LuAnn is constantly promoting and advocating for the dairy industry. Two years ago she snapped a photo of twin Jersey x Holstein heifers. Both heifers calved this past July. They and their calves will be sold in the Oct. 20 dispersal. On the right, Rudy shares information about dairy cows with local schoolchildren during a tour at the farm last fall. He will miss the farm and the cows, but is excited to get more involved in genetics as he takes a position with Genex-CRI.)
Both Dr. Tom and LuAnn have served on numerous boards over the years. In addition to serving as a past president of Indiana Dairy Producers (IDP) and currently on the board of the Dairy Girl Network (DGN), LuAnn also serves on the American Dairy Association-Indiana board — a position that will end when the milking ends, as has Tom’s former position on the Foremost Farms cooperative board.
While there may be fewer opportunities to be involved in organizations that promote dairy, the Troxels want to be involved wherever they can in the dairy industry they love. “The people in this industry are special. With few exceptions, dairy producers are honest, hardworking people who care about things other than themselves,” LuAnn points out.
“People say ‘it’s in your blood,’ and I guess that’s because dairying is systemic. It will be a little challenging to define who I am because everything from family relationships to daily routines to friendships and service have been within the context of the dairy farm. I’m not sure what it will be like, but I think it will be fine.”
The Oct. 20 dispersal is managed by Courtney Sales. The Troxels’ church will provide a delicious lunch, prepared with love, for a free will offering to benefit the Harvest Call Haiti Dairy Program.
All are welcome. For more information about the sale and the farm, and to see a catalog, visit www.troxeldairy.com.
The Troxel family from left Jackson and Paige, Dr. Tom and LuAnn holding Olivia, Maryana, Rudy (holding Nolan) and Rosario, Nathan, Ned and Alyssa, Josh (holding Declan) and Chelsie. Photo by Chelsie Troxel