How dairy farmers dealt with ‘Polar Vortex’

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, January 10, 2014

BROWNSTOWN, Pa. — While some of the photos posted by dairy farmers on their farm Facebook pages and Twitter were downright beautiful, others spoke volumes about the extreme challenges and dedication put forth to care for animals on farms this week during what is being called the “polar vortex.”

LuAnn Troxel captured this beautiful image at Troxel Dairy Farm. Behind the beauty was more snow and extreme temps.

LuAnn Troxel captured this beautiful image at Troxel Dairy Farm. Behind the beauty was more snow and extreme temps.

The extreme temperatures Tuesday and Wednesday were the talk of both the Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg and of farmers who were able to get away and attend the Keystone Farm Show in York, Pa. this week.

Frozen waterers, vacuum pumps, manure removal equipment and difficulty starting feeding equipment were the most commonly reported concerns shared by producers from New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia who were able to get to the show in York.

Further North and West into the lake regions of the Upper Midwest, through Northern Indiana and Ohio into western New York and Northwest Pennsylvania, the “polar vortex” was amplified by the snow storm preceding it.

Thankfully, by the time you read this, warmer temperatures are forecast to prevail and bring relief to cattle and caretakers as well as equipment and transportation.

The mantra this week for farm families was to not only take care of their animals but to communicate what they were doing with their farm and non-farm “followers” on Facebook,

“There are no ‘snow days’ on the farm,” wrote Tricia Adams at her family’s Hoffman Farms page on Facebook. Three generations of the Hoffmans milk 700 cows near Shinglehouse, Potter County, Pennsylvania.

3 generations of the Hoffman family operate the 700-cow dairy.

3 generations of the Hoffman family operate the 700-cow dairy.

“The extreme weather makes us feel like we are surviving it and not thriving in it!” she said in an email interview Wednesday, reporting Tuesday’s low at Hoffman Farms was -18 with a high of -4. The mercury fi nally reaching a high of 12 degrees Wednesday. They are thankful to be spared the additional 3-feet of snow that fell just north of them in New York.

As for the polar temps and wind chills, “we run a heater in the parlor to help with frozen milkers but even that was icing up,” said Tricia, adding that the conditions for the cows in the freestall barns were “very slippery.”

The Hoffmans, like other farmers dealing with these conditions, did their best to cope with frozen, caked manure in the walkways, barns and parlor — not to mention frozen waterers, feed mixers and tractors freezing up as the off-road diesel gummed up.

Starting equipment and dealing with manure were difficult in double-digit below zero weather, not to mention the wind chill.

Starting equipment and dealing with manure were difficult in double-digit below zero weather, not to mention the wind chill.

“We changed fuel fi lters and used additives to thin the fuel and keep our equipment running,” Tricia explained. “Winter is tough, and up here we are prepared for it; but when it gets this extreme, you know there is only so much you can prevent. What you can’t prevent you just have to deal with as it happens.”

Much attention was paid to the especially important job of “tricky calvings.” At Hoffman Farms, Tricia used heated boxes for the newborn calves.

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

Over in Bradford County near Milan, Pa. Glenn and Robin Gorrell were thankful for the 45 degrees and rain over the weekend to melt the snow at their 600-cow dairy before the sub-zero temperatures arrived Tuesday.

Glenn reported temperatures ranging -10 to -20 depending on location in the hills or valleys.

“I think that we were lucky here and we are always happy the rest of our team helps get us through,” said Glenn in an email interview Wednesday.

“The wind was the killer. It can really drive the cold everywhere,” he said, adding that they had frozen pipes in the employee house for the first time ever.

“In the tie-stall barn we were like everybody else: Bowls on the west side were frozen. The milk house froze for the first time in years. We thought we had all the equipment ready with new fi lters and more fuel conditioner, but we were wrong,” he explained. “We needed to cut more with kerosene and put tarps around hoods of the loader tractor and feed mixer.”

The calves and youngstock at Gorrell Dairy got extra bedding and a little more grain to get them by.

“Robin always has calf jackets on them once it is below 50 degrees anyway,” Glenn reported. “We tried to double up feeding our heifers so we would have less equipment to start in the extreme cold.”

At Troxel Dairy Farm Laporte County, near Hanna, Indiana, conditions were quite severe, with extreme low temps in line with what farmers were seeing in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota this week.

Facebook followers commented that the cows must be “milking ice cream” as they read LuAnn Troxel’s posts about dairying in temps that had fallen to -12 and -17 with wind chills as low as -53 in northern Indiana on the heels of over 1-foot of snow.

The cows were "good sports" but after three days, the extreme cold wore think on man and beast.

The cows were “good sports” but after three days, the extreme cold wore think on man and beast.

Calling the cows “good sports,” LuAnn acknowledged how tough this week has been for man and beast. She and husband Tom and son Rudy, operate the 100-cow dairy.

“Cold weather management is really not too complicated,” said Tom Troxel, DVM, who in addition to the dairy farm has South County Veterinary practice.

“Cows need to have plenty of feed and water, be out of the wind, and have a dry place to lie down. If they have these things, they can survive an awful lot,” he explained in an email interview Wednesday.

“Calves need the same thing, including increased feed (calories),” Tom advised. “But sometimes the threat of scours keeps feeders from increasing milk to calves. There is no question that cold stress can cause younger animals to be more susceptible to scours and pneumonia, but careful monitoring and feeding electrolytes can help a lot.

While it's tempting to do the bare minimum when temps are -17 with a -53 wind chill and there's 14 inches of snow on the ground, LuAnn was out feeding her calves at Troxel Dairy farm MORE frequently to keep up their energy reserves. Snow drifts also help insulate and inside the hutches they are cozy warm with fresh bedding.

While it’s tempting to do the bare minimum when temps are -17 with a -53 wind chill and there’s 14 inches of snow on the ground, LuAnn was out feeding her calves at Troxel Dairy farm MORE frequently to keep up their energy reserves. Snow drifts also help insulate and inside the hutches they are cozy warm with fresh bedding.

“It’s more important to increase feed to cold, young calves. Also, try hand feeding starter grain to young calves that are at least 2 days old,” he suggested.

As for cow nutrition during extreme cold, it comes down to “energy, energy, energy,” said dairy consultant Ray Kline, during an interview at the Keystone Farm Show in York, Pa. Wednesday. Ray has retired from the Agri-Basics team of nutritionists but is as passionate as ever about cattle nutrition.

“Feeding calves more often — 3 to 4 times a day — also helps because they do not have a rumen to heat them up,” he observed. “With the cows, the ration can be adjusted for higher energy, but without losing fiber. Cows normally eat more when it is cold, but a more dense ration also helps get more energy to them.”

He suggests picking out the “barometer cows” in the herd and watching them for Body Condition Score to know if ration adjustments to the whole herd are needed. Ray also urged dairymen to pay attention to waterers and keep them running.

“After an event like this, we can see it in the repro,” said Ray. “The cow will take care of herself first; so what she eats will go to maintaining herself through the severe weather.”

The seasoned dairy consultant also noted that “life spins its pattern back to years before.” While the “polar vortex” this week was new for some generations on the farm, others have experienced it before.

“If you look at history, we’ve had winters like this, but you have to go a long way back,” said Ray.

As for the milking equipment and transportation, Gib Martin, general manager of Mount Joy Farmers Cooperative in Pennsylvania noted that milk pickup and transport required more time and labor this week.

“We had some issues with tank compressors and one truck down, but no major interruptions in the flow of milk,” said Gib during an interview at Tuesday.

Ken Weber recommends using a heat lamp to keep compressors going for cooling the milk. Weber is retired from service calls but still works with BouMatic equipment. He suggests paying close attention to vacuum pumps outside.

“They are the last thing the dairyman uses to wash the pipe line and that moisture in there can cause them to freeze up,” he said during an interview at the Keystone Farm Show in York, Pa. Tuesday. “Just take a pipe wrench and work it back and forth to loosen it and consider using supplemental heat like a heat lamp to keep the pump warm.”

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A thankful heart

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Looking over the past year, and especially the past few months, the needs seem so great in the wake of weather events that have surpassed expectations. An early autumn blizzard in the Plains, a typhoon of immeasurable proportions in the Philippines, scores of tornadoes unleashed unseasonably in the Midwest — each event bringing its own form of devastation to a location, a people, a community.

And yet, folks in the midst of ruin are thankful. Reading the accounts or speaking with those affected personally, one common thread emerges… People who have survived a devastating event often have a more thankful heart than those of us going about our daily lives without having to face such immediate danger and loss.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving in a few days, we talk about what we are thankful for. We look around at family, friends, home, hearth, sustenance, and the Lord’s blessings in our lives.

But do we have a thankful heart? Are we full of gratitude? While giving thanks is an action we are reminded to engage in, a thankful heart, on the other hand, is a state of mind.

One example for me is the rancher in South Dakota who — when selected to receive heifers from the Heifers for South Dakota project — instead said no, let me give four of my best to someone who needs that spark of hope. In that case, the rancher had lost nearly half his herd in Storm Atlas October 4-5, but he said he would pull through. With a thankful heart, he gave four heifers to the project so that someone else in a similar situation could benefit.

After the tornadoes last weekend, farmers in some areas of the Midwest lost buildings, communities lost schools and homes. Within hours, neighboring communities and farm groups had mobilized cleanup efforts to help with the first step and most difficult step in rebuilding — grasping the devastation and sifting, sorting, cleaning up to regroup and move forward.

An ocean away in the Philippines, an even darker picture emerges, with a staggering death toll and untold survivors without food, water, shelter. As organized aid finally is able to flow to that region, stories of thankfulness follow.

We live in a world today with all the bells and whistles. We have so many distractions from the things that are most important. Each of us can be one moment away from a change or loss unexpected, which is all the more reason to not just give thanks for what we have but to embrace an attitude of thanksgiving, to have a thankful heart. 

The first Thanksgiving in 1621 was such an occasion. The celebration was of the first successful harvest, preceded by a winter of loss, disease, hunger, and fear and a spring and summer of drought but trusted still to be blessed with a harvest.

I am reminded of the Rose Kennedy quote: “Birds sing after a storm; why shouldn’t people feel as free to delight in whatever sunlight remains to them?”

A thankful heart then paves the way for optimism, faith, hope. A thankful heart allows us to see the new sunshine and sing instead of remaining quietly in the dark of the storm.

Happy Thanksgiving.birds-barn

Chillin’ with the Meck Bros… How two brothers are building their dairy business in volatile times.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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“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.

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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.”

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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NY-FARM-TO-CITY FIRST! Telling Milk’s Story at “Just Food”

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My friend TAMMY GRAVES wrote the guest post for my FOODOGRAPHY blog today. It also made the cover of today’s Farmshine newspaper, telling how she and dairywomen Deb Windecker and Lorraine Lewandrowski of Herkimer County NY had the rare opportunity to present a 75-minute workshop telling milk’s story at the JUST FOOD CONFERENCE in New York City. Great Job Ladies!

NEW YORK, N.Y. – For the first time, New York State dairy farmers were on the workshop list at the Just Food Conference March 29-30 in New York City. A 75-minute presentation entitled “Introduction to the New York Milk Shed” was prepared and offered by Herkimer County dairy farmers Lorraine Lewandrowski and Deb Windecker of Newport and Schuyler, respectively. Tammy Graves, a dairy farmer advocate from Otsego County also contributed by explaining the mutually dependent relationship between consumers and dairy farmers.

“We provided faces and stories about our milk for attendees. Many more conversations still need to occur, but it was a huge step in bridging the gap,” Deb Windecker reported. “So many people think there are antibiotics in our milk. We are pleased to report that we dispelled that myth by explaining the penalties and protocols that are in place at the farm, at the processing plant, and with our regulators, to ensure that never occurs.”

The presentation provided answers in four parts: 1) Where is dairy farming in New York State? 2) Why should you care about a Milk Shed and/or dairy farmers? 3) What does a dairy farmer do?  4) Why should you eat real dairy products?

Our message was “Milk is clean and safe. Milk is water. Milk means healthy cows. Milk is Local. Milk is a life’s work.”

Part One of the workshop for Just Food consumer advocates summarized the facts and included a visual overview of the NY Milk Shed: 5100 dairy farms, 610,000 cows, 113-cow average herd size. A pictorial tour of the milk regions (Lower Hudson, Upper Hudson, North Country, Mohawk Valley and Western New York) was the background for discussion. The discussion included a look at the diversity among NY dairy farms in terms of cow breeds, farm size by acreage, herd sizes and strengths and prominent resources by region.

Part Two illustrated the long-standing connection New York City has had with dairy farmers, highlighting the 1939 milk strike. As a result of the milk strike, then NYC Mayor Laguardia was an advocate and influencer for achieving adequate farm milk pricing at that time. Cheese pack boats, milk trains and today’s tractor trailers carrying 150,000 glasses of milk were mentioned. 

Additionally, Lewandrowski emphasized why the average New Yorker should be concerned about the state’s dairy farms.  A series of photos accompanied her points regarding economic development, food security, open space, watershed protection, floodplains, biodiversity, rural tradition, and the diversity of people working in New York’s dairy industry.

Part Three of the presentation evoked the most questions from attendees as it gave a micro-view of the cycle involving a dairy cow, a dairy farmer and soil. Growing seasons, equipment costs, feed storage were discussed, in addition to milking procedures and newborn calf care. 

Part Four explained that buying real dairy products translates to eating food that most closely mirrors the clean and safe milk that dairy farmers put into the milk truck. Attendees were very appreciative to learn that not all brands or types of cheese and Greek yogurt are created equal. 

“The experience provided us with invaluable insight to perspectives and beliefs of individuals that are keen on food topics,” the presenters reflected after the event. New York City residents who attended left with a better understanding.  One member of the audience approached the presenters about the possibility of chartering a bus to bring New York City food and farm-interested people to visit dairy farms upstate and to spend a day at the Fair.