Measure every decision by cow comfort and know your numbers: ‘That’s how you fight inflation’

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, December 23, 2022

NEW HOLLAND, Pa. – “Too much money chasing too few assets,” that’s the definition of inflation, said Gary Sipiorski, ag lender and financial consultant from Wisconsin.

He didn’t have to tell the over 250 dairy farmers attending Homestead Nutrition’s dairy seminar at Yoder’s Restaurant in New Holland on December 7 that inflation is real, because they are feeling it.

His bottom line is to measure every decision by its impact on cow comfort and manage the net income the cows generate.

As president and CEO of Citizens State Bank of Loyal, Wisconsin, Sipiorski is also an advisor to the Federal Reserve Board of Chicago. He expected the Fed would raise interest rates another half a percent, and several days later, that’s what they did.

Raising interest rates is meant to slow things down enough to curb that inflation, and as farmers, “you’re feeling the effects of both,” he said.

Sipiorski described the effects of both the disease and the cure as something that creeps up gradually to squeeze the margin.

“You can be taking good care of things and don’t see this happening, as the temperature gradually increases. It sneaks in slowly,” he said. “The war on inflation will continue for at least the next 12 months, and we are likely to see interest rates continue higher before stabilizing around the middle of next year.”

The good news for dairy, he said, is that even though consumers are drinking a little over half as much milk per capita as they did 50 years ago (18 gallons vs. 30 per person per year), they are eating more than double the gallons of milk in the form of all dairy products, combined.

In 2021, Americans consumed 667 pounds (77 gallons) of dairy products per capita. That’s 12 more pounds per capita than in 2020.

“We didn’t drink the 77 gallons, we ate it,” said Sipiorski, adding that dairy exports have also become crucial.

“By the end of this year, 20% of your milk production will be going elsewhere,” he said. “That shows the faith the rest of the world has in the superior product you make.”

Inflation, rising interest rates and supply disruptions are slowing the rate of dairy expansion, as the industry focus turns inward to manage margins even more tightly as feed costs have doubled, cropping costs have quadrupled, lines of credit cost more and are harder to get, machinery and parts cost more and are harder to find, and some farms must deal with a milk base program from their milk co-op or buyer — putting penalties on overbase milk in the output side of that margin equation.

Sipiorski shared his insights on the most important things the top 30% of dairy producers do in a talk he titled ‘Chasing inflation with a cow.’

The top third of dairy producers double-down on managing these primary areas: feed, debt, labor, cow comfort, and knowing their numbers.

Minimize feed shrink

With feed and cropping costs so much higher, Sipiorski told dairy farmers the 10 to 20% they can be losing in feed shrinkage is a significant area to manage.

“Losing 10 to 20% of the feed from field to rumen is a big cost to the dairy,” he said. “We are seeing more investment in feed storage sheds, bringing the mixing indoors and thinking about how you mix the feed, in what order.”

Pay down lines of credit, not term debt

Choosing carefully what debt to pay down at this time of rising rates is also critical. Paying down lines of credit that have adjustable interest rates and keeping some of that cash liquidity may make more sense than paying additional principal on longer-term fixed rate loans.

“Your thought process may be to pay down that term debt, but if the rate is locked-in, and you pay it down, that money is gone, and you may need that money later, and then pay a higher interest rate for it,” Sipiorski explained, advising farmers to talk with their lenders about their debt structure.

Push pencil on machinery

“Do the math on whether to lease or buy machinery,” Sipiorski urged. “If it is something you use three months of the year, can you afford it? Can you afford the cost to have and maintain that piece of equipment?”

He noted that the top dairy farms push the pencil to compare costs of owning new equipment, leasing it, or hiring custom operators for segments of their field work.

Time is money, spend it wisely

In addition to dealing with hired labor cost and availability, Sipiorski advised farmers to “count your steps and measure your time.”

In other words, know what your time is worth and find ways to streamline chores for yourself and your employees. One example he gave was to put tools around where they will be used to minimize time spent going back and forth for tools needed.

Keep improving cow comfort

“Cow comfort is a place to keep improving to fight that inflation with that dairy cow,” Sipiorski declared.

It’s the accumulation of a lot of simple little things the top third of producers do, such as providing enough space at the feedbunk, waterer and in the dry cow area.

“The dry cows are working just as hard for you, so don’t cheat them” he said, adding that top producers are absolutely passionate about cow comfort.

The cows require a lot of investment, and the top producers benchmark the investment per cow at $8,000 to $20,000, while benchmarking gross income per cow at $5,000.

“Cow comfort is an area of investment that brings you the most return. Every decision you make, ask yourself, are you making money with that decision?” he said. In other words, “are you making cows more comfortable with that decision?”

Keep improving milk components, quality

Producing milk with higher component levels and lower somatic cell counts (SCC) is what the top third of producers are doing, said Sipiorski.

“This is even more important if your co-op has a base program. If you can’t produce more milk, make the milk you are producing better,” he said, noting that components drive value.

Quality as measured in SCC will also increasingly drive value and market access. Sipiorski sees the industry getting to the place where milk will eventually have to be under 150,000 SCC.

While he didn’t specifically mention transformation in the processing sector, it’s becoming clear that ultrafiltration and microfiltration in some of the newer dairy plants is aimed at removing the lactose from the milk to be used in making cheese, other dairy products and lactose-free high protein milk beverages.

Those working with this technology have repeatedly said it requires farm-level SCC thresholds to be even lower because, as the water and lactose are removed through membranes and reverse osmosis, the remaining solids are condensed. This includes the SCC being concentrated with those valuable solids, so those processors expect a lower-SCC limit at the starting point.

Get educated on marketing

Sipiorski advised farmers to be “educating yourself on marketing and risk management.”

He noted that milk markets are volatile, and marketing through a broker or a cooperative program or other risk management can be good or bad.

“You won’t know if it’s a good deal or not, if you don’t know your cost of production, your margin,” he said.

Know the numbers, focus on high quality forage production, and look at areas where changes and investments can help fight inflation, he advised.

One thing he has seen more farms moving toward – to reduce marketing costs – is to increase milk storage to go from once a day to every-other-day pickup to reduce fuel costs, transportation and ‘stop’ charges.

This is something that has been occurring at the retail end for years, with less frequent deliveries from processors to retailers becoming the norm today.

Benchmark against industry or self

Benchmarking the dairy to itself year over year or to industry averages is important financial management, according to Sipiorski.

The numbers that are needed to do this are found on the balance sheet, income statement, and accrual accounting of yearend income – not the IRS tax return. 

He said that doing a business plan with projected cash flows helps make better financial decisions.

Sipiorski gave farmers some financial benchmarks to keep in mind, noting again that the numbers need to be based on accrual accounting, not the year end IRS tax return.

“In that tax return, you have prepayments and depreciation,” he said. This skews the cost of production calculation, for example, because the cost of inputs are not directly aligned with the output revenue.

Sipiorski ticked through some industry benchmarks to be aware of: Equity position (50%), liquidity (2:1), net profit margin (10%), cost of production ($17-22.00/cwt), operating expense as a percentage of gross income (65-80%), and debt to revenue ratio (1:1).

The bottom line, he said, is “you need to produce 100 pounds of milk for less than you sell it for.”

On that point, he noted the most recent USDA forecasts at the end of November are for Class III milk to average $19.80 in 2023 with the All-Milk price next year forecast to average $22.70, while the cost of production in 2022 is averaging $20 to $22.00 across the industry, but the range is wide.

“Pennies (per hundredweight) are a big deal,” he said, showing that the 47-pennies per hundredweight difference in a Q2 2022 comparison of the net margin per hundredweight of $6.64 for all herds vs. $7.11 for the ‘top 30% of herds’ amounts to just shy of $113 per cow annually.

“That’s $2800 on 25 cows, $11,280 for a 100-cow dairy. That’s how we fight inflation with a cow,” he said. “Who in this room wouldn’t want another $11,000 in the pocket to fight inflation?”

Sipiorski described dairy as a dynamic business full of chaos and volatility, but with that comes lots of opportunities.

He sees a ‘barbell-shaped’ future for dairy, where there will be opportunities for small and mid-sized family dairies even if a large portion of the milk supply comes from much larger dairies.

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Gary Sipiorski, a lender from Wisconsin, talked about dairy financial management in these inflationary and volatile times. Despite the chaos and consolidation, he sees opportunities for small and mid-sized family dairies in the future, even if a large portion of the milk supply comes from much larger dairies. Photo by Sherry Bunting

Dream in progress at BAD Farm, where they DON’T live up to their name

‘Tis the season for something special. Their story began with raw milk sales over 10 years ago, today it is becoming so much more.

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, December 16, 2022

KEMPTON, Pa. — ‘Tis the season for something special. It’s Christmastime, and diversified consumer-facing dairy farms are featuring special products, memories and events, complete with decorations, milk (or hot chocolate) and cookies, wagon rides, Christmas settings and on-site photographers for on-the-spot family Christmas portraits – you name it, and dairy farmers are doing it.

Recently Jason and Kacey Rice (and sons Emmit, 6, and Ellis, 4) had such a “Christmas on the farm” event at their BAD Farm near Kempton, Pennsylvania. Delicious dairy products, made with the milk from their 60 cows, were combined with holiday festivities, opportunities to see a working farm, visits with Santa, and, yes, portrait sessions with a holiday setting, a festively outfitted calf and a photographer.

Almost 100 people dodged the raindrops on the first Saturday in December to attend the event at the store the Rice’s built on the farm in 2020 as they began offering more products.

But their journey began with selling just raw milk and eggs more than a decade earlier.

In addition to the store, BAD Farm products are sold at pop-up farmers markets in Emmaus and Lehighton. Jason’s dad manages the meat sales. His mom is the point person for the farmers markets, staying in touch with Kacey, who runs the on-farm processing of the items they do on-site and ordering those products that are processed for them elsewhere — all using the milk from their own cows.

The farm’s name gets some attention, notes Jason during a Farmshine visit Monday (Dec. 12).

His parents, Beth and Dave Rice (the original B and D Farm) found themselves and others abbreviating the initials BAD. Jason’s middle name is Dave and his wife Kacey’s middle name is Beth – so they kept the acronym after transitioning the farm.

Today, BAD Farm milk and dairy labels state the motto: “Where we DON’T live up to our name.”

“It’s a conversation starter at the farmers’ markets,” says Jason. “People remember it.”

When he came home from SUNY Mohrsville in 2009, it was a rough time for dairy farms. He already had a vision for the farm to get closer to consumers, and his parents already had done the work for a raw milk permit.

For more than 10 years, they sold raw milk and eggs in a tiny outbuilding by the barn and did freezer beef as well. Today, the coolers in the new farm store hold fruited regular and Greek yogurts as well as aged cheeses and cheese curds in some popular flavors — all made with their farm’s milk by two different processors. 

The beef in the freezer is from their own Holstein calves that are fed out at another location. The eggs are from their own chickens, cage-free but in a poultry building on the farm due to their location at the base of Hawk Mountain. The prepared meals are made for them by a commercial kitchen, featuring items like shepherd’s pie, meatloaf, quiche Lorraine – all dishes that use the dairy, eggs and beef produced at BAD Farm.

This year, they realized a dream making their own ice cream and chocolate milk.

In Pennsylvania, raw milk can be sold with a permit, but raw milk cream cannot. Jason’s ultimate dream of making their own chocolate milk and Kacey’s dream to make their own ice cream, from scratch, became reality when a Pa. Department of Agriculture innovation grant helped them invest in this processing infrastructure.

Previously, these products were made for them elsewhere. They have also started a line of coffee creamers, with peppermint in the cooler for the holidays, pumpkin spice in the fall, and traditional vanilla and salted caramel. They now do pasteurized creamline milk in addition to raw milk, and they offer yogurt sMOOthies, which are a big seller in fruit flavors, mocha, and a peppermint for the holidays.

For Jason, the chocolate milk is the big one. His enthusiasm about it is clear. It’s an area he has always believed the industry can do better. 

“We wanted to make a really good chocolate milk — something people can be proud to put on their dinner table,” he says.

(Yes, they succeeded. BAD Farm’s chocolate milk is super GOOD. I brought some home, and found it has a really smooth and silky finish to go with that creamy texture. I also took along a Mocha Morning yogurt sMOOthie, which was quite a treat, finishing it before I was 5 miles down the road.) 

As for the BAD Farm chocolate milk, it is a pasteurized non-homogenized creamline chocolate milk. It is 90% whole milk with 10% heavy cream added. They don’t standardize the whole milk, and their herd test is right around 4.0 butterfat.

“We found we could really pull back on the added sugar this way,” Jason reports.

With the processing infrastructure, Kacey was able to start making old-fashioned ice cream. “I always wanted to do ice cream from scratch, and the innovation grant helped with that,” she says. 

Kacey works with seven ice cream flavors, rotating in some seasonal specials. Her philosophy is to focus on quality and marketing and “getting the products to the people,” rather than trying to make every flavor under the sun. 

They shoot for memorable ice cream experiences. Their chocolate blast uses three kinds of chocolate for a signature blend. They work with orchards on custom flavors. They offer peaches and cream in the summer and apple pie ala mode in the fall. They rotate core flavors to keep it interesting. 

Neither Jason, nor Kacey, studied dairy processing specifically in college, but they learned concepts that contributed to their vision. They read, and ask questions, talk to peers and seek advice from those who’ve done it. They are constantly learning and looking for trends and ways to extend what comes from their farm — milk, eggs and beef – and turn it into what consumers are looking for. 

“We don’t have hired help except one high school employee to help milk,” says Kacey.  “Instead, we pay people to process some of the products we offer that are made with our milk while we are focusing on building our connection to consumers.” And they are gradually doing more of their own processing also.

“To do this, you have to want to talk to people. You have to want to have those consumer conversations. Our store is right in the middle of everything on the farm. People can see the cows as they walk down to the calf barn. They can see the farm tractors coming and going through the seasons. They see it all,” says Jason, noting that they don’t do group tours, as such, but “we’re here, and we’re available. We could be in the middle of doing corn silage and someone stops and has a question. We need to stop what we’re doing and talk to them. It’s a priority. That’s the commitment we make.”

And that’s okay with Jason and Kacey because connecting with consumers has been part of their vision for the farm since the transition began. 

With their on-farm self-serve store completed in April 2020, just as the Covid pandemic hit, the couple had to pivot quickly to meet customer demand for more staples and more products as consumers were faced with shortages in stores and became more tuned-into where their food comes from and were looking for things to do, places to go.

Being somewhat off the beaten trail, BAD Farm is a destination, not a quick stop on the way home from work, but the raw milk sales on the farm and the connections made at the farmers’ markets off the farm give the Rices core customer bases to build on.

The store is built on the other side of the barn toward the house. The dairy innovation grant helped the Rices add processing with three uniquely incorporated trailers.

Jason’s grandfather David Rice, an electrician and retired contractor, came back for a long visit from Nebraska where he had moved many years ago (helping Jason’s uncle, Dan Rice, when he was still a partner in Prairieland Dairy, before the processing part of that business was sold).

The Rices had purchased a ‘processing trailer’ and revamped it with some new equipment to do the pasteurized creamline milk, chocolate milk and ice cream. They purchased a frozen foods trailer and turned it into their refrigerated storage cooler and another trailer for their storage freezer. The infrastructure adaptations are smart and practical. The three trailers back up into the back of the store building, with a buffer area for storage in between — and each with its own sets of sealed entry doors.

While grandfather David helped with the electrical work and mapping out the flow in processing, storage and retail, grandmother Gloria painted country art for the vintage displays of old farm and dairy equipment interspersed between coolers — giving the space that country store feel. 

Jason and Kacey have known each other since high school. He went to SUNY Mohrsville for animal science and ag business management. She went to Penn State for ag education. For the past 10 years, Kacey was an ag teacher, until August 2022. Now she is full time at the farm, where she enjoys the processing and marketing. They have two young boys, Emmit, 6, and Ellis, 4, keeping them busy as well.

As their dream progresses, the Rices are methodical, taking incremental steps with eyes on how they invest and where they put their focus to continue diversifying, while staying rooted in using the dairy, eggs and beef produced on BAD Farm, where they DON’T live up to their name. To be continued.

COW TALK: Thoughts inspired by cows’ breath on cold morning

By Sherry Bunting, republished from Farmshine, November 18, 2022

These cows are wondering what’s going on. Five days ago, they enjoyed balmy 70-degree temps. This morning, they could see their own breath freezing in mid-air.

They’ve been listening to their farmer’s radio this week and heard that President Biden pledged to give $11.4 billion ANNUALLY to other countries for a climate transition. They heard that climate pledges were being made at COP27 that could make what is happening to some of their friends in Europe happen here in the U.S. to them too.

This got their attention because they’ve also been hearing how the methane in their burps is being overblown by a whopping 3 to 4 times its actual warming potential over 20 years.

(They could have told you that if they could talk).

Yep, they know they are getting a raw deal here. Even the world’s foremost authorities on what units of measure to use for methane agree that the GWP100 is overblowing the cow problem, whereas the GWP* they hear Dr. Frank Mitloehner talk about when their farmer has a zoom webinar airing within earshot is more accurate and gives them a chance to be the SOLUTION they know they are instead of the PROBLEM they know they are not.

But cows can’t talk, so they can’t stick up for themselves. Are we sticking up for them?

Bessie and her friends have heard that their farmer must pay 15 cents for every 100 pounds of milk they make to an organization in Chicago that is content to use the inflated unit, content to keep driving their net-zero talking points even though net-zero GHG is impossible because, well, because cows continue to breathe and burp, so getting the unit of measure correct may literally save their lives some day.

Even their tiny cow-sized brains are smart enough to know that inflating a problem to make a buck is not a good idea.

What is a good idea for the cows and their farmers, and for the world, is for the 15-cent-takers to change their narrative and talk about true warming potential and climate neutrality instead of net-zero, ad-nauseum.

One can sense these cows wish they could speak up to say: “Stop overblowing our burps please! It’s impolite!”

They might even say something like this: “Our ‘hot air’ is nothing compared to the steam rising off the loads of bull coming out of Washington, D.C. and COP27 in Egypt!”

These cows have also heard on their farmer’s radio station that the mid-term elections are still undecided as to what party will be in leadership of the People’s House. And yes, they’ll admit that over the past eight days, they’ve placed a few bets on the outcomes between mouthfuls of TMR at the feedbunk where they discuss current events.

They’ve even wondered if they should start a new political party of their own: the COW-MP party, which stands for Commonsense Organization of Whole Milk Producers. After all, some people think skim milk is their product. That one really gets them mooing.

This Thanksgiving, we’re thankful for our dairy farm families and the people of this industry who work hard every day to feed the world. But this year, we’re giving a special ode of gratitude to the bovine beauties, themselves, that make it all possible. Where would we be without the cows?

While the climate policy wonks, activists, even industry organizations perpetuate or allow this verbal abuse of our cows to continue, we’re thanking God for providing the essential irreplaceable cow.

We’re pretty sure He knew what He was doing a whole lot better than those in the ivory towers making policy, devising hoops for cows to jump through in order to exist and funding startups to make fake protein from fermentation vats in labs and factories under the mantra of saving the planet from the inflated overblown warming potential of our burping cows.

Even those of us with tiny cow-sized brains are smart enough to realize it’s really all about making money and controlling food.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving, and let’s think more about how we should be standing up for our cows.

For the love of cows

A girl and her heifer in the full-circle of a cow-loving community

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Sometimes you hear something that strikes a chord and you want to know more… As we start this season of thanksgiving, there are young people all over the country who are thankful for the love of cows. They may have parents and grandparents who feel this way too. Some may operate dairy farms, others may rely on the older generation and a tight-knit cow-loving rural community, like the one in Susquehanna County, to make it possible. Such is the story of Delaney Curley and her Red and White winter yearling Curlydell Warrior Summer-Red — each with her own tale that would not be possible except for the love of cows.

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, November 4, 2022

IRISH HILL, Pa. – The past three years have been a dream come true for Delaney Curley as her family moved to Irish Hill just a mile or so from her grandparent’s farm outside of Montrose. 

Growing up, she would stay with Bob and Mary Curley for weeks at a time in the summer. Laura, her mother, recalls the crying the entire hour and a half drive home to Mountain Top. The Susquehanna County farm is where Delaney had her 4-H club, her cousins and friends with similar interests and the wide open spaces of the mountains, hunting and fishing, all of it calling her to pursue conservation science after she graduates from Elk Lake High School this year.

“We didn’t always live here. When we lived in Mountain Top, grandma and grandpa’s farm was a magical place for me. I love every part of it – working with the animals especially,” Delaney reflects. “Here, in this tight knit rural community, I found people like me.”

Bob sold his 60-cow milking herd in 2001. He is the fifth generation with 540 acres of crop, hay and pasture land. The main farm has been in his family since the Curleys came to America from Ireland in 1840. Today, he rents corn acres to a nearby farm and he and son Bill, Delaney’s father, manage the hay and pasture land with 20 to 30 heifers on hand, additional progeny of earlier purchases by the sixth generation for the seventh generation to show over the years, and some dry cows.

If not for Bob’s love of cows, this story would not be unfolding. It began when Delaney’s cousin Cali was the first of Bob’s grandchildren wanting show calves but having no home herd to draw from.

While the Jersey, Holstein and Red and White heifers start out at Bob’s farm until they become milk cows, breeding for Red Holsteins has special significance. Bill recalls his dad breeding for Reds before it was cool, but as a youth, Bill never won a class in all of his show years. Back then, Red and White Holsteins showed with Black and Whites, but the industry’s breeding focus for Reds came later.

When his niece Cali started showing, “that’s when our quest to be an owner-breeder began,”  Bill reflects. They got her started with a calf purchased at the Nittany Lion Fall Classic, and she raised her to be grand champion Holstein of the State Junior Show. Bill’s son Patrick and later his sister Delaney got started with a purchase of bred Jersey heifers from Luchsingers in New York, and a Jersey calf out of that developed into a champion. 

Those heifers calved and the 20 to 30 milk cows they became went to Joe Vanderfeltz’s 400-cow freestall herd for milking, so the Curleys could keep working toward that owner-bred herd, which today includes the Holsteins. Heifers are pasture bred by genomic bulls, and the milk cows at Vanderfeltz’s are AI-bred. Those calves come back to Curlydell.

For the love of cows, they didn’t want to just buy and show, but rather to breed for show. That was especially important to Delaney.

“We’ve always viewed the show animals as 4-H projects to go through to states and have the kids working with them and making those decisions… to take out to show what you are proud of,” says Bill.

Even for Patrick, who gravitates to the technology side of dairy data working for Ever.Ag, showing cows was fun, he says.

In Delaney’s case, however, it’s for the love of cows. 

It’s a foggy, drizzly morning on Irish Hill and the family reflects over breakfast on the move here and the owner-breeder herd that’s been developed over the decade of youth shows. For example, Delaney’s first Jersey ‘Ricki’ was purchased as a two-month-old calf and won banners as a 4-year-old in 2018. Today, she is 10 years old in the retired cow meadow.

Yes, for the love of cows they have a meadow for special retirees.

Throughout the mountains of Susquehanna County in Northeast Pennsylvania, there are families who still milk cows, but even more families who still love them, breed them, show them and care for them. 

The county show at the Harford Fair in New Milford is always quite competitive.

“Our county show is small, but the quality is always amazing,” Bill relates. “If we do well locally, we know we can be competitive to do well in Harrisburg. The competition is deep with so many top breeder herds right here in our county.”

In fact, three of the animals in the pull for junior champion at the 2022 Premier National Junior Show (PNJS) during the All American in Harrisburg in September came from Susquehanna County. 

“That’s a nice meter stick,” Bill affirms, noting that Delaney’s Summer was one of them. Her first-place winter yearling Curlydell Warrior Summer lived up to her name and gave Delaney a perfect undefeated summer from county to districts to states and nationals.

Further testament to the owner breeder herds of the area, when Delaney’s heifer earned bred and owned junior champion, all but two of the breeds had owner-breeder champions from Susquehanna County.

“They are all friends. To have that competition and friendship starting out in your home county, it really pushes you to up your game,” says Laura.

Summer was taken off pasture just 10 days before the county show, where she won her class and was reserve junior champion. Her dam Scarlet had done okay before her — winning districts and doing well in the state show against 30 other animals. 

But then she had this polled Warrior heifer.

“There’s something about when your animal that you own has her calf, it’s just more special,” says Delaney.

Summer did well as a winter calf last year. She started out small, born at 70 pounds as the offspring of a first-calf heifer, but nice and solid with show type. She had placings of 4th and 5th in her class and onlookers told Delaney she’d be one to beat the following year.

And so she was, this year winning her classes against Reds and Blacks.

“She’s the kind of heifer that the more you look at her, the more you like her, not a lot of flaws,” says Bob, knowingly.

With Scarlet’s second calf Sage, Delaney was excited to show produce of dam. The best feeling, she says, “is to win when you’re not expecting it.”

When Delaney and Summer entered the PNJS showring in Harrisburg, the judge took one look and moved right on. She recalls positioning Summer for another look, but figured she was written off. Then, halfway around the ring, “he pointed to me for the pull, and I thought he wasn’t interested.” 

That’s a thrill that is hard to describe, she recalls with a smile.

For Bill, the win was a full-circle of emotion involving Summer’s story that goes back to Bill’s longtime friend.

“We did the easy thing, breeding Scarlet to Warrior. You would have to go back to Starbuck for a bull that stamps them like that,” he says.

“But David Mattocks bred her mother. He did the hard work,” Bill recalls his good friend who lost his battle with cancer four years ago this month. Summer’s granddam was purchased from the Da-Vue dispersal.

It was Dave’s love of cows, his commitment to four decades of breeding until those last several months of his life, that also live on in this heifer, a heifer that Bill’s father has also bonded with.

Bill had intended to buy her as a bred heifer at the Da-Vue dispersal in 2018. He and Joe had picked two heifers on conformation.

“Then I looked at the pedigrees and saw one traced back to Dave’s first Excellent cow. That cow was all he talked about on our trips back and forth to Penn State,” Bill recalls their college years in the late 1980s.

“Dave had big dreams, we lost him way too soon,” says Bill. While they were in college, Dave was in partnership with his uncle, and he always talked about this cow Scenic-Vue Stewart Starr. She was Good Plus at the time and became his first Excellent cow.

When Bill got to the dispersal at Fisher’s, he ended up missing the heifer that went back six generations to that cow, but he bought three or four others, “just not the one I wanted.”

A couple weeks later Bill got a call from Dave Lentz, that a few animals were left over from the sale, and by some miracle Starr was one of them. 

“Dave (Mattocks) and I went down together to pick her up. His health was failing,” Bill recalls, explaining that the heifer represents so many ties – family, friendship, dreams, memories, past, future, all for the love of cows. 

It was definitely for the love of cows that Dave knew at age 10 he wanted to be a dairy farmer. He learned from his uncle before him and credited the dairy community around him in his welcome letter for the dispersal, writing: “There is no other industry that so abounds in people that would do anything  for you,” thanking those by name who helped when he was down. 

The sale was in February 2018 and in November that year, Dave was called to his heavenly home.

That bred heifer Bill bought — Da-Vue Reality Spirit-Red, granddam to Delaney’s Summer — now represents a blending of seven generations of Very Good and Excellent cows from Dave’s herd, his dreams and vision, now part of the owner-breeder herd at Curlydell with Summer and Sage from Spirit’s daughter Da-Vue Fusion Scarlet-Red.

“Her name was Spirit, and she was surely spirited,” Bob recalls the chase when she came off the truck the day Bill and Dave brought her to Irish Hill. Her first few weeks there in the tiestall and pasture, not quite a springer yet, were not without challenges.

“I try not to let any of her calves see an open barn door,” Bob laughs, remembering the time Spirit managed to get into the hay mow through the hay drop, and the devil of a time getting her out. He and Delaney baby the calves that have come from her. Today, Spirit is part of the flow of the freestall herd that suits her as a milking cow, making 40,000 pounds of milk at Vanderfeltz’s.

“He takes care of our milk cows like they are his own, and we consult on the breeding decisions,” says Bill, getting the calves back and returning them as milk cows. 

Making the move three years ago to Irish Hill was Delaney’s idea to be where her cows are, along with her 4-H club, her cousins and friends, her grandparents and the hunting and fishing. 

“If we were going to do it, that was the time, before she started high school,” says Bill. Leaving Mountain Top, where Laura grew up, was hard, but her parents had passed away and Bill’s parents are like her own. 

The entire family moved, first renting a place, then buying a home just down the road from the farm.

For the love of cows, Delaney is where she wanted to be, where she could double-down on her 4-H projects – her Jerseys and Holsteins, especially the Red and Whites.

“We’re glad we’re here on Irish Hill. It’s a place where life really hasn’t changed much. There is a good core of families and kids here all engaged in showing cows, a place where we can wake up and take the 4-wheeler to the barn. It’s hard to describe what that means,” Bill explains.

For the love of cows, they are home and the outdoors from the cow pastures to the mountain wilderness are what steer this Elk Lake High School senior to take her basketball skills and interest in conservation to Paul Smith’s College in the Adirondacks next fall.

While some cattle from the heifer meadow will be sold, Delaney wants to keep a core herd of pedigreed Jerseys and Red and Whites, to keep showing as an owner-breeder – even after 4-H.

“My grandfather did it all before we moved up here,” says Delaney.

“None of this would work without Dad. We could only do this with him. Some would call that elder-abuse,” Bill laughs, adding that living here gives him time he’s glad to have, even if it’s just 45 minutes a day doing chores with his dad and hearing stories… for the love of cows.

Laura relates how her father-in-law loves the baby calves, “even after they are weaned and two months old, he’s bringing warm water to them twice a day.”

Quietly listening, Bob puts it all into perspective.

“I’d be lost if I didn’t have it to do,” he said.

For the love of cows, adds Bill, “this is how we end up with retired cows living in a pasture.”

But more to the point, he says as the rest of the family nods in agreement: “Every single thing that we have here, or that the farm has, is owed to the cows. Period. I can’t imagine not having at least one, and so we do things that might not make sense but that we feel good about.”

If only the generations removed from farms could have this shared experience, to get in touch with this feeling… For the love of cows, they might not believe the cow blame-game regarding climate and the environment.

With her eye toward a future in the open spaces and conservation science, maybe this young lady — and others of her generation like her — can bring that love of cows to others and keep it going.

For the love of cows, family and friendships — three generations reminisce: Bob Curley and granddaughter Delaney with her undefeated homebred polled winter yearling Curleydell Warrior Summer-Red, and Delaney’s parents Bill and Laura with Summer’s dam, Da-Vue Fusion Scarlet-Red. Her dam Da-Vue Reality Spirit-Red is a productive milk cow at the nearby Vanderfeltz farm that Bill purchased as a bred heifer from the Da-Vue herd dispersal in 2018. She goes back to the first Excellent cow his longtime friend, Dave Mattocks would talk about during their college years driving back and forth to Penn State in the 1980s. Dave was called to his heavenly home in November 2018, nine months after the herd dispersal and his courageous battle with cancer. Photos by Sherry Bunting

Despite frustrations, G.T. is not giving up on ending federal prohibition of whole milk in schools

After his whole milk in schools amendment failed on a committee-level party-line vote in August, G.T. Thompson said he’s not giving up, but that a change in leadership is needed to get this done. “Current leadership has an anti-kid, anti-dairy bias. This has become all politics with no logic,” he said.
Bills that would end federal prohibition of whole milk in schools are before the United States Congress and in the Pennsylvania and New York state legislatures. In the U.S. House there are 95 cosponsors. In the Pennsylvania House, it was passed almost unanimously, but the PA Senate refuses to run it because of lunch money scare tactics. Proponents of the various whole milk bills say Democrat party leaders oppose this common sense measure. Some Democrat lawmakers have signed on along with the Republicans as cosponsors; however, as the fight to include it as an amendment in childhood nutrition reauthorization proved — the Democratic leadership has another agenda for America’s foods and beverages and has therefore halted any movement of this measure to end federal prohibition of whole milk in schools and in daycares and in WIC. This bill is simply about allowing a choice that would be healthy for America’s children and rural economy. The evidence is overwhelming that the Dietary Guidelines and Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act got it wrong. Our children and farmers are paying the price for this mistake. Those in charge don’t seem to care about science, freedom of choice, nor petitions signed by tens of thousands of people.

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, August 5, 2022

WASHINGTON, D.C. — An attempt by Congressman Glenn “G.T.” Thompson (R-Pa.) to get his Whole Milk for Healthy Kids bill attached as part of an amendment to the Childhood Nutrition Reauthorization package failed last week despite the bill having nearly 100 cosponsors, including both Republicans and Democrats.

Joining him in introducing the amendment during the Committee’s markup of the Democrat’s child nutrition reauthorization were Representatives Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), Fred Keller (R-Pa.) and Russ Fulcher (R-Idaho).

“Unfortunately, the Democrats folded on us, and the amendment was defeated,” said Thompson in a Farmshine phone interview Tuesday (Aug. 2). The amendment also included language that would have allowed whole milk for mothers and children over age 2 enrolled in the WIC program.

“The current leadership has an anti-kid, anti-dairy bias, that’s my interpretation,” Thompson said. “Our whole milk provisions are good for youth and their physical and cognitive well-being. It’s also good for rural America.”

Thompson said his effort as a member of the House Committee on Education and Labor was to include the substance of two bills related to whole milk in the huge reauthorization package. Child nutrition reauthorization is normally a five-year cycle, but it has not been updated in over a decade since the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act passed under a Democrat majority in 2010 to double-down on anti-fat policies in all government feeding programs, including schools.

“We wanted moms and children to get access to the best milk, but this has become all politics with no logic,” he said.

The Committee moved the child nutrition package forward last week without the whole milk provisions. That package will now go to the full House for a vote.

Thompson said its fate is uncertain, that it is likely to pass the House, although the margins are tighter there, he explained. 

However, he believes the child nutrition package will be “dead on arrival” in the Senate where it likely will not receive the 60 votes needed to pass.

If that happens, then the task of writing it would begin again in the next legislative session (2023-24).

“Our best hope (of getting the whole milk provisions for schools and WIC) is for Republicans to take back the majority in November,” said Thompson, explaining that he is already working with Ranking Member Virginia Foxx, a Republican from North Carolina. “She understands the issue and knows this is one of my top priorities.”

If Republicans gain a House majority in the midterm elections, Foxx is a likely candidate for chair of Education and Workforce, and Thompson would be a senior member of that committee as well as being a likely candidate for chair of the House Agriculture Committee, where he is currently the Ranking Member.

In fact, he said he is “very positive” about being successful getting Whole Milk for Healthy Kids out of committee under Republican leadership and is already working hard to ensure its success out of the full House, pending who is in leadership after the midterms.

Thompson said he is also working on allies in the Senate.

Up until now, it has been the outgoing Senator from Pennsylvania – Pat Toomey – who has “carried the milk” on this issue with companion legislation in the Senate.

“His bill impressed me in how he and his team thought through the issue on fat limits that are imposed on our nutrition professionals in schools,” said Thompson, taking note for future reintroductions of his bill.

On the House side, the Childhood Nutrition Reauthorization originates in the Education and Workforce Committee, but in the Senate the package originates in the Agriculture Committee.

Thompson notes that if the Republicans have a majority in the Senate, the current Ranking Member of the Ag Committee, John Boozman of Arkansas, is a likely candidate for chair. Boozman, who previously served in the U.S. House and was a mentor to Thompson. Today, they are the Ag Ranking Members in the two chambers and work closely on issues important to farmers and ranchers.

Back in 2018, when Thompson was asked at a farm meeting why his first introduction of the Whole Milk for Healthy Kids did not pass when Republicans did have a majority in the House and Senate in the 2017-18 legislative session, Thompson noted that National Milk Producers Federation, at that particular time, supported a more gradual shift to first codify the permission for 1% flavored milk then work up to the whole milk provision. 

When asked the question again after his amendment failed, he reflected, noting that in the 2017-18 legislative session, the school milk issue was not well-understood in either chamber of Congress. Then Secretary of Agriculture had made an executive decision to provide flexibility for schools to serve 1% flavored milk instead of limiting it to fat-free. But a bill to codify that change into law has also failed to pass in its three attempts as well. 

It’s not hard to believe that members of Congress do not understand this issue — given the fact that it has taken many years and much grassroots education effort to open even the eyes of parents to the school milk issue. Today, many parents are still unaware that their children over age two at 75% of daycares and 95% of schools (any that receive any federal dollars) do not have the option of drinking whole and 2% milk. Their only milk options by federal prohibition are 1% and fat-free. People just don’t believe it to be true and figure the problem kids have with milk at school is because it’s not chilled enough or comes in a hard to open carton.

In the current effort to get whole milk provisions into the child nutrition reauthorization, however, Thompson confirmed that in addition to the Grassroots PA Dairy Advisory Committee and 97 Milk effort —  “all major dairy organizations were working on this.”

Put simply, said Thompson, if the Republicans gain a majority in November, they are likely to be the ones who will write the next child nutrition package. As the one written recently by the Democrats is headed to the full House and has a tough-go in the Senate, Thompson said even if it does pass, targeted legislative fixes could be achieved in the next legislative session, pending a change in leadership.

“My goal is to work hard. The package that is going to the House now under the Democrats not only does not include whole milk provisions, it continues to micromanage school nutrition professionals who are the ones who know the kids the best and are in the best position to know how to help them eat in a healthy way,” said Thompson.

“Under the current (Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010) and this update — if it passes — kids aren’t eating the lunches. If they are not eating the meals (or drinking the milk), then it is not nutritious,” he added.-30-

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Bishop family starts new chapter at Bishcroft Farm, large herd dispersal of 1500 head Sept. 1 and 2

With mixed emotions as they transition away from dairy at Bishcroft Farm are Herman and Marianne Bishop flanked on the left by Tim and Anne and their children (from left) Thomas, Esther, Jim and Elizabeth and on the right by Rich and Nikki and their children (from left) Peter, George, and Bethany (not pictured).

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, August 19, 2022

ROARING BRANCH, Pa. — It is likely to be the largest dairy herd dispersal in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania when the Bishop family has their two-day auction of 1500 head on September 1st and 2nd at Bishcroft Farm here in Roaring Branch, Tioga County.

The sale is managed by Fraley Auction Company, Muncy.

The Bishops have been dairying 83 years across three generations. Herman and Marianne are in their 75th year of membership with Land O’Lakes and were recently recognized for that milestone. They operate the farm in partnership with sons Tim and his wife Anne and Rich and his wife Nikki and are transitioning toward a more flexible future, while leaving open the option that another generation may want to milk cows on a smaller scale someday.

The closed commercial herd of sire-identified, AI-bred Holsteins is attracting interest with 580 first and second lactation out of the 750 total milking and dry cows selling Thursday (Sept. 1) and the 750 heifers selling Friday (Sept. 2), ranging 4 months old to springing, with 100 heifers due from sale time through December.

The herd makes an RHA of 26,146M 1021F 797P with somatic cell count averaging 138,000 on the sale cattle.

The sale list will note whether cows are bred to beef or sexed semen Holstein.

They started with Angus beef-on-dairy three to four years ago, primarily on the cows that weren’t settling — resulting in those genetics leaving the herd, Rich explains.

They use Holstein sires on the cows that are daughters from higher net merit bulls, and all bred heifers are due to Holstein sires with 90% to sexed semen, the Bishops confirm. Two-year-olds are also bred first service to sexed semen with a high percentage due to sexed-semen.

The Bishops are keeping all crossbred cattle and all calves under four months of age to raise and sell at breeding age, as they have forage to use up.

“We’re also keeping the bottom end of the cows to continue milking 100 to 150 head for a while,” Rich explains. That is until their valuable production base with Land O’Lakes is sold. 

“Our base is listed on the Land O’Lakes website and must transfer through their system, but they don’t set the prices,” he explains. “The buyer and seller negotiate the price and quantity with a 1000-pound daily base minimum transaction.”

Bishcroft currently ships a trailer load of milk every 21 hours. They have worked hard to manage their production to their daily base of 64,352 pounds of milk, which can only be sold to existing Land O’Lakes members.

During a recent Farmshine visit, Rich’s son Peter, 13, was the one to say he’ll really miss the dairy cows.

“He’s never known anything different,” says Nikki. “He fed the calves with me since he was a toddler.”

At the time of the sale, the Bishops are milking 750 cows 3x, having peaked in January milking 820. They have always milked 3x, even experimenting with 4x, seeing 7 to 8 pounds of additional milk per cow, but finding it unsustainable in terms of labor.

The Bishops observe that smaller dairies and more diversified farms have more flexibility to navigate changes in weather patterns, markets, labor and policies.

“I don’t see ever going back to milking a large herd here,” says Rich. “Maybe a small herd. Maybe Peter will want to do something like that with direct-to-consumer sales. But I don’t see going back to what we have today.”

At Ag Progress Days last week, a panel of experts said Pennsylvania is the state with the second largest volume of direct-to-consumer sales of farm products. A relationship with consumers holds some appeal for the Bishops as they transition into cash cropping with some beef on the side and a limited amount of pork as well.

The Bishops have always strived to be near the top of the dairy pack. Progressive and forward-thinking, the brothers participated in industry conferences and geared decisions toward cow comfort, productivity, quality and efficiency.

In fact, that’s something they’ll miss most — the friends they would regularly see at dairy industry meetings. 

“Things aren’t what they used to be,” says Tim.

“We see this developing to where larger herds like ours have to be in the top 10 to 20% or we are going backward,” Rich observes. “Dad is almost 77, and he’s doing the majority of the feeding. Tim and I want to spend more time with our families off the farm, and it’s getting harder to attract and keep employees that are willing to work these hours or to make enough money in dairy here to pay the wages and overtime competing with what is happening in New York State.”

The milk price jump of 50% this year was welcome relief after six years of tight margins and uncertainty. That’s when the Bishops really took stock of their position and decided to invest differently.

When asked how it feels to see the herd being sold, Herman, the patriarch, replied: “This is no different than what I did in 1970 when I increased my dad’s herd.

“It’s the way it goes. We made a change in 2004 and 2005 for another generation, not for me. I had a registered herd of 150 cows. We did a lot of research. The boys went and looked at 60 farms. They built this and expanded the herd (from 150 to 350 and from 350 to 650 and from 650 to 800). We changed things for the times, and that’s what’s happening now, a change for another generation,” Herman explains.

Rumors have run rampant, but the simple truth is this: The families are transitioning to options they see as more flexible and less stressful. 

They began transitioning their cropping this spring, knowing they wouldn’t need the same mix of crops and forages. They had already been doing trial work for Syngenta. They started looking into utilizing the freestall facilities for beef to some extent, maybe converting to a bedded pack. They’ll still make some hay, but their investments now are in equipment for cash cropping the 1450 acres of land they own and rent.

They planted soybeans for the first time and handled the cover crops differently, harvesting some as small grains, and burning a lot of it down as ‘green manure’ fertilizer to minimize their need for purchased fertilizer.

This will also be their first year combining corn, Tim explains, noting that on-farm grain storage is something they are looking at as they planned to go to Empire Farm Days the day after our visit.

In fact, the brothers note the higher milk price this year allowed them to make some crop equipment investments from cash flow.

As the Bishops raise and feed-out their beef-on-dairy crossbreds, they realize they have a learning curve ahead of them if they move further into beef production.

“We hope to do some direct-to-consumer sales,” says Tim, “feed some of these cattle and bring in a few pigs, even look at doing a truck patch (garden).”

Nikki says the family has always taken time to educate and advocate with the community of consumers around them. Tim’s youngest daughter is a Little Miss U.S. Agriculture, and Nikki fields questions constantly from her colleagues where she works at a local hospital. They want to know where their food comes from.

“People are curious. I have explained cattle rations, comparing it to the ‘ages and stages’ diets we have for kids (at the hospital). The response I would get is ‘that sounds like complicated hard work, why don’t you just buy milk at the store like everyone else?’” Nikki relates.

“These are educated people, and they didn’t quite get it until I explained that if they went to Weis Markets, the milk they were buying might be ours!”

She also tells the story from a few years back when fellow nurses saw the rBST-free pledge on the little milk chugs in the hospital cafeteria and started asking what it was because they thought they were going to win a ‘free rBST.’

While young Peter said several times that he’ll miss the cows, others in the family said they’ll miss the fresh milk.

“We might have to keep a few to milk for ourselves and to have milk to feed to the pigs,” says Tim.

“Excited and nervous” were the two words he used to describe the transition ahead.

“It is nerve-wracking but also feels a little like seeing a bit of light at the end of the tunnel,” Rich adds, noting the stress that comes with price volatility and labor issues will now flip to adjusting to managing cash flow without the regularity of a milk check.

The children are still adjusting to the news, having learned of the decision just a few weeks before our visit.

Some have favorite cows they’ve grown and shown that will have to stay, but Rich also notes none of the kids were “dying to milk cows,” and if they decide they want to do that, some assets are here they can put to use on a smaller scale.

“We have ideas and thoughts about how to utilize what we have differently, but we want to walk before we run,” he says.

Toward that end, the brothers are participating in seminars and looking at beef programs that are coming along. Their main focus will be low input, feeding the current beef-on-dairy crossbreds, raising the 120 heifer calves under 4 months of age they are retaining to breeding age, seeing how the sale goes, maybe looking at buying some feeder cattle… Time will tell as they look and learn and adjust.

“When you realize what a huge world God has created and we’re out here trying to feed the world, you realize how fortunate you are to live here and to be farming,” says Tim.As Herman affirms, this is another chapter in the story:

“The farm and the family are here. As for the future, we never know what it brings.”

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Are we moving toward cow islands and milk deserts?

Opinion/Analysis

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine (combined 2 part series Aug. 12 and 19, 2022)

In Class I utilization markets, the landscape is rapidly shifting, and we should pay attention, lest we end up with ‘cow islands’ and ‘milk deserts.’

Farmshine readers may recall in November 2019, I wrote in the Market Moos column about comments made Nov. 5 by Randy Mooney, chairman of both the DFA and NMPF boards during the annual convention in New Orleans of National Milk Producers Federation together with the two checkoff boards — National Dairy Board and United Dairy Industry Association. 

Mooney gave a glimpse of the future in his speech that was podcast. (Listen here at 13:37 minutes). He said he had been “looking at a map,” seeing “plants on top of plants,” and he urged the dairy industry to “collectively consolidate,” to target limited resources “toward those plants that are capable of making the new and innovative products.”

One week later, Dean Foods (Southern Foods Group LLC) filed for bankruptcy as talks between Dean and DFA about a DFA purchase were already underway. It was the first domino right on the heels of Mooney’s comments, followed by Borden filing Chapter 11 two months later in January, and followed by three-years of fresh fluid milk plant closings and changes in ownership against the backdrop of declining fluid milk sales and an influx of new dairy-based beverage innovations, ultrafiltered and shelf-stable milk, as well as lookalike alternatives and blends.

The map today looks a lot different from the one described by Mooney in November 2019 when he urged the industry to “collectively consolidate.” The simultaneous investments in extended shelf-life (ESL) and aseptic packaging are also a sign of the direction of ‘innovation’ Mooney may have been referring to.

Two months prior to Mooney issuing that challenge, I was covering a September 2019 industry meeting in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where dairy checkoff presenters made it clear that the emphasis of the future is on launching innovative new beverages and dairy-‘based’ products.

Here is an excerpt from my opinion/analysis of the discussion at that time:

“While we are told that consumers are ditching the gallon jug (although it is still by far the largest sector of sales), and we are told consumers are looking for these new products; at the same time, we are also told that it is the dairy checkoff’s innovation and revitalization strategy to ‘work with industry partners to move consumers away from the habit of reaching for the jug and toward looking for these new and innovative products’ that checkoff dollars are launching.”

These strategy revelations foreshadowed where the fluid milk markets appear to be heading today, and this is also obvious from recent Farmshine articles showing the shifting landscape in cow, farm, and milk production numbers.

When viewing the picture of the map that is emerging, big questions come to mind:

Are today’s Class I milk markets under threat of becoming ‘milk deserts’ as the dairy industry consolidates into ‘cow islands’?

Would dairy farmers benefit from less regulation of Class I pricing in the future so producers outside of the “collectively consolidating” major-player-complex are freer to seek strategies and alliances of their own, to carve out market spaces with consumers desiring and rediscovering fresh and local, to put their checkoff dollars toward promotion that helps their farms remain viable and keeps their regions from becoming milk deserts? 

What role is the industry’s Net Zero Initiative playing behind the scenes, the monitoring, scoring, tracking of carbon, the way energy intensity may be viewed for transportation and refrigeration and other factors in Scope 1, 2 and 3 ESG (Environment, Social, Governance) scores? 

Shelf-stable milk may provide solutions for some emerging (or are they self-inflicted?) milk access and distribution dilemmas, and maybe one view of ESG scoring favors it? But ultimately it also means milk can come from cow islands to milk deserts — from anywhere, to anywhere.

It also becomes clearer why the whole milk bill is having so much trouble moving forward. The industry machine gives lip-service support to the notion of whole milk in schools, but the reality is, the industry is chasing other lanes on this highway to ‘improve’ the school milk ‘experience’ and ensure milk ‘access’ through innovations that at the same time pave the road from the ‘cow islands’ to the ‘milk deserts.’ 

It is now clearer — to me — why the Class I mover formula is such a hotly debated topic. 

If major industry-driving consolidators are looking to transition away from turning over cow to consumer fresh, local/regional milk supplies by turning toward beverage stockpiles that can sit in a warehouse ‘Coca-Cola-style’ at ambient temperatures for six to 12 months, it’s no wonder the consolidators want the ‘higher of’ formula to stay buried. What a subversion that was in the 2018 Farm Bill.

In fact, if the industry is pursuing a transition from fresh, fluid milk to a more emphasis on shelf-stable aseptic milk, such a transition would, in effect, turn the federal milk marketing orders’ purpose and structure — that is tied to Class I fresh fluid milk — completely upside down.

Landscape change has been in motion for years, but let’s look at the past 6 years — Dean had already closed multiple plants and cut producers in the face of Walmart opening it’s own milk bottling plant in Spring 2018. The Class I ‘mover’ formula for pricing fluid milk — the only milk class required to participate in Federal Milk Marketing Orders — was changed in the 2018 Farm Bill that went into effect Sept. 2018. The new Class I mover formula was implemented by USDA in May 2019, resulting in net losses to dairy farmers on their payments for Class I of well over $750 million across 43 months since then.

(Side note: Under the formula change, $436 million of Class I value stayed in processor pockets from May 2019 through October 2019, alone. DFA purchased 44 Dean Foods plants in May 2019 and became by far the largest Class I processor at that time.)

These and other landscape changes were already in motion when Mooney spoke on Nov. 5, 2019 at the convention of NMPF, NDB and UDIA describing the milk map and seeing plants on top of plants and issuing the challenge to “collectively consolidate” to target resources to those plants that can make the innovative new products. 

One week later, Nov. 12, 2019, Dean Foods filed for bankruptcy protection to reorganize and sell assets (mainly to DFA).

Since 2019, this and other major changes have occurred as consolidation of Class I milk markets tightens substantially around high population swaths, leaving in wake the new concerns about milk access that spur the movement toward ESL and aseptic milk. A chain reaction.

What does Mooney’s map look like today after his 2019 call for “collective consolidation” and the targeting of investments to plants that can make the innovative products, the plants that DMI fluid milk revitalization head Paul Ziemnisky told farmers in a 2021 conference call were going to need to be “dual-purpose” — taking in all sorts of ingredients, making all sorts of beverages and products, blending, ultrafiltering, and, we see it now, aseptically packaging?

In addition to the base of Class I processing it already owned a decade ago, the string of DFA mergers has been massive. The most recent acquisitions, along with exits by competitors, essentially funnel even more of the market around key population centers to DFA with its collective consolidation strategy and investments in ESL and aseptic packaging.

The South —

The 14 Southeast states (Maryland to Florida and west to Arkansas) have 29% of the U.S. population. If you include Texas and Missouri crossover milk flows, we are talking about 37% of the U.S. population. 

The major players in the greater Southeast fluid milk market include DFA enlarged by its Dean purchases, Kroger supplied by Select and DFA, Prairie Farms with its own plants, DFA and Prairie Farms with joint ownership of Hiland Dairy plants, Publix supermarkets with its own plants, an uncertain future for four remaining Borden plants in the region as Borden has exited even the retail market in some of these states, and a handful of other fluid milk processors. 

In Texas, alone, DFA now owns or jointly owns a huge swath of the fluid milk processing plants, having purchased all Dean assets in the Lone Star State in the May 2020 bankruptcy sale and now positioned to gain joint ownership of all Borden Texas holdings through the announced sale to Hiland Dairy

The Midwest — 

Just looking at the greater Chicago, Milwaukee, Green Bay metropolis, the population totals are a lake-clustered 6% of U.S. population. Given the recent closure by Borden of the former Dean plants in Chemung, Illinois and De Pere, Wisconsin, this market is in flux with DFA owning various supply plants including a former Dean plant in Illinois and one in Iowa with Prairie Farms having purchased several of the Dean plants serving the region.

In the Mideast, there is Coca Cola with fairlife, Walmart and Kroger among the supermarkets with their own processing, and DFA owning two former Dean plants in Ohio, two in Indiana, two in Michigan, and a handful of other bottlers. 

In the West: DFA owns a former Dean plant in New Mexico, two in Colorado, two in Montana, one in Idaho, two in Utah, one in Nevada and one in California, as well as other plants, of course. 

The Northeast —

This brings us to the Northeast from Pennsylvania to Maine, where 18% of the U.S. population lives, and where consolidation of Class I markets, especially around the major Boston-NYC-Philadelphia metropolis have consolidated rapidly against the backdrop of declining fluid milk sales and a big push by non-dairy alternative beverage launches from former and current dairy processors.

DFA owns two former Dean plants in Massachusetts, one in New York, all four in Pennsylvania, one in New Jersey. The 2019 merger with St. Alban’s solidified additional New England fluid milk market under DFA. In 2013, DFA had purchased the Dairy Maid plant from the Rona family in Maryland; in 2014, the prominent Oakhurst plant in Maine; and in 2017, the Cumberland Dairy plant in South Jersey.

More recently, DFA struck a 2021 deal with Wakefern Foods to supply their Bowl and Basket and other milk, dairy, and non-dairy brands for the various supermarket chains and convenience stores under the Wakefern umbrella covering the greater New York City metropolis into New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. This milk had previously been supplied by independent farms, processed at Wakefern’s own iconic Readington Farms plant in North Jersey, which Wakefern subsequently closed in January 2022.

The long and twisted tale begs additional questions:

As Borden has dwindled in short order from 14 plants to five serving the most populous region of the U.S. – the Southland — what will happen with the remaining five plants in Ohio, Kentucky, Georgia, Louisiana, and Florida? What will become of Elsie the Cow and Borden’s iconic brands and new products?

What percentage of the “collectively consolidated” U.S. fluid milk market does DFA now completely or partially own and/or control?

Will the “collective consolidation” in the form of closures, sales and mergers continue to push shelf-stable ESL and aseptic milk into Class I retail markets and especially schools… and will consumers, especially kids, like this milk and drink it?

What role are rising energy prices, climate ESG-scoring and net-zero pledges and proclamations playing in the plant closures and shifts toward fewer school and retail milk deliveries, less refrigeration, more forward thrust for shelf-stable and lactose-free milk, as well as innovations into evermore non-dairy launches and so-called flexitarian blending and pairing?

Looking ahead at how not only governments around the world, but also corporations, creditors and investors are positioning for climate/carbon tracking, ESG scoring and the so-called Great Reset, the Net Zero economy, there’s little doubt that these factors are driving the direction of fluid milk “innovation” over the 12 years that DMI’s Innovation Center has coordinated the so-called ‘fluid milk revitalization’ initiative — at the same time developing the FARM program and the Net Zero Initiative.

The unloading of nine Borden plants in five months under Gregg Engles, the CEO of “New Borden” and former CEO of “Old Dean” is also not surprising. Engles is referred to in chronicles of dairy history not only as “the great consolidator” but also as “industry transformer.”

In addition to being CEO of Borden, Engles is chairman and managing partner of one of the two private equity investment firms that purchased the Borden assets in bankruptcy in June 2020. Investment firms fancy themselves at the forefront of ESG scoring.

Engles is also one of only two U.S. members of the Danone board of directors. Danone, owner of former Dean’s WhiteWave, including Silk plant-based and Horizon Organic milk, has positioned itself in the forefront on 2030 ESG goals, according to its 2019 ‘one planet, one health’ template that has also driven consolidation and market loss in the Northeast. 

Not only is Danone dumping clusters of its Horizon milk-supplying organic family dairy farms, it continues to heavily invest in non-dairy processing, branding, launching and marketing of alternative lookalike dairy products and beverages, including Next Milk, Not Milk and Wondermilk. 

There is plenty of food-for-thought to chew on here from the positives to the negatives of innovation, consolidation, and climate ESGs hitting full-throttle in tandem. These issues require forward-looking discussion so dairy farmers in areas with substantial reliance on Class I fluid milk sales can navigate the road ahead and examine all lanes on this highway that appears to be leading to cow islands and milk deserts.

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Lancaster County ranked 11th as dairy industry consolidates to 54 counties shipping 50% of FMMO milk

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, July 2022

LENEXA, Kan. — Milk marketings through Federal Milk Marketing Orders (FMMO) accounted for 60.5% of total U.S. milk production in 2021, according to USDA FMMO statistics.

Last week, the Market Administrator for the Central FMMO 32 released its semi-annual report painting a picture of these marketings in the form of milk totals and FMMO-marketed percentages at the county-level across the U.S. — using the month of December 2021 as the “snapshot.”

Ranked 11th in the nation, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania remains the only county east of the Mississippi River that is among the top 13 counties accounting for 25% of the milk marketed through FMMOs. Seven of those top 13 counties are in California, two in Arizona, and one each in Texas, Washington and Colorado.

Of the top 54 counties accounting for 50% of the milk marketed through the FMMO system in December, Franklin County, Pennsylvania is included, along with four counties in New York (St. Lawrence, Genessee, Wyoming and Cayuga counties), four in Michigan, 12 in Wisconsin, two in Minnesota, six in Texas, four in New Mexico, two in California, and one each in Indiana, Iowa, Colorado, Kansas, Washington and Oregon.

According to the Central FMMO Market Administrator’s report, “the origin of milk marketings (through FMMOs) remains highly concentrated.”

In fact, it became more concentrated as the 54 counties that accounted for 50% of FMMO milk marketings in December 2021 was 59 counties in December 2016.

Those 54 counties represent just 3.9% of the total 1395 counties that had any FMMO milk marketings.

The report tallied more than 67 million pounds of milk marketed in the month of December 2021 by each of those 54 largest FMMO counties. By contrast, 624 of the 1395 counties marketed less than one million pounds each in December 2021.

Of the 1395 counties marketing milk through FMMOs, 57 increased their FMMO-marketed milk pounds while 1139 counties decreased in December 2021.

Twice a year, the Central FMMO 32 collects this data from all FMMOs to create these maps depicting milk production by county across the U.S. These maps illustrate the concentration of milk marketed through FMMOs within the 11 FMMOs for December 2021. 

Thus the accompanying charts and maps are monthly totals based on December 2021 FMMO milk marketings and are a ‘snapshot’ of milk production based on one month and based on milk marketed through FMMOs, not including the 39.5% of total U.S. milk production that was marketed outside of the FMMO system in 2021.

School lunch money scare tactics are holding up PA whole milk bill

Cousins Grace and Bella are my youngest granddaughters, pictured here in 2020 obviously enjoying their milk — mustache and all. They both started kindergarten in 2021, where for the next 12 years, their meals at school will not allow their choice of whole milk or even 2% milk — unless state and/or federal lawmakers act. Children consume 2 meals a day, 5 days a week, 75% of the year at school where they are denied the simple choice, even a la carte. A saddening and maddening state of affairs.

As adults, we should be ashamed of ourselves

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, July 8, 2022

I guess it’s true, good dairy bills – for more than a decade now – continue to be introduced in the Pennsylvania legislature, only to pass in the House but then die in the Senate. We’ve seen it with the many bills over the years aimed at amending the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Law, and now we are seeing it with the Whole Milk in Pennsylvania Schools Act.

HB 2397 was introduced by Representative John Lawrence, and it passed the State House almost unanimously (196 to 2) in April. It then passed the State Senate Agriculture Committee and was re-referred to the State Senate Appropriations Committee, where it sits today digesting the “scare tactics” of its opponents – causing some heartburn for lawmakers thinking USDA could withhold all free and reduced school lunch reimbursements in Pennsylvania.

USDA is the bully waving children’s lunch money like a mighty sword demanding submissive obedience, even suggesting in May that schools lacking appropriate LGBTQ+ policies for “gender affirming” use of locker rooms, rest rooms and sports participation could be denied their free and reduced school lunch reimbursements. USDA has since recanted this notion — saying they meant only to address discrimination associated with the provision of the food. That’s more like it. But that redirection of the Department’s prior statement did not happen until more than 20 states’ Governors and Attorneys General threatened to sue the Biden Administration for using the lunch money of economically disadvantaged children to implement federalized bathroom gender policies.

On whole milk in schools, similar scare tactics are being used to prevent the Pennsylvania state bill from being voted on in the Senate chamber.

Bow thee, oh Pennsylvanians, to King Vilsack and the Dietary Police.

Even a certain farm paper published in Lancaster County has made it their business to take every point of whole milk choice supporters, the evidence, the law, and tear it apart – piece by piece. A head-scratcher, for sure.

I have been digging into the original Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act of 1946 and the subsequent amendments through the 2010 Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act (HHFKA), as well as various memos from USDA to state nutrition program directors when the ‘Smart Snacks’ rules were implemented to govern a la carte beverages in 2012. I have also read through Pennsylvania Department of Education audits of schools, which are all publicly available. I can find no tie between a state law offering a self-select choice of whole milk (paid for with state or local or parental funds) to students as grounds for withholding free and reduced school meal reimbursements from schools. In fact, quite the contrary. 

Even the individual schools that would choose to provide the choice of whole and/or 2% milk to students could not be threatened with loss of their free and reduced lunch subsidy — as long as the meal pattern for the ‘served’ lunch is met; however, more importantly, it is clear that the only audit feature tied specifically to this reimbursement is that the financial eligibility of the recipients is properly qualified.

Here’s the key: Even if a school is deemed out of compliance on meal pattern or does not have a strong enough ‘wellness policy’ on ‘competing foods’ — as would be the case if whole milk was offered as a choice, USDA does not have the authority to yank the free and reduced school meal subsidy on that basis. This authority is linked to eligibility, financial eligibility.

Research into the 2010 HHFKA shows that the loss of this reimbursement is directly tied to how the students/families are qualified as financially eligible. There are extensive details on this in the law, and the auditing schools go through, the paper trail for eligibility, is extensive. This is a separate audit section from the meal pattern performance.

In fact, in passing the 2010 Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act (HHFKA), the U.S. Congress clearly stated — separately — that schools can receive a 6-cents per eligible meal ‘performance increase’ as an incentive to meet the new HHFKA-prescribed meal patterns and in addressing competing foods and beverages in school wellness policies per USDA. This ‘bonus’ is tied to the Food and Nutrition Board of the Academy of Sciences, not the Dietary Guidelines. (A 2018 National Academy of Sciences review was highly critical of the Dietary Guidelines process.)

In setting a 6-cent performance increase per eligible meal in the 2010 HHFKA, Congress also capped the total to be spent for this meal-pattern incentive at $50 million annually nationwide. This is over and above the separate free and reduced meal reimbursement, itself, which dwarfs the performance bonus at $14 billion annually nationwide. 

These are separate portions of the 2010 HHFKA. In Section E of the law, Failure to Comply spells out precisely what is at risk if a school is not in meal pattern compliance — the 6 cents increase per eligible meal, not the reimbursement for qualified free and reduced meals.

As for the ‘Smart Snacks’ rules promulgated by USDA and implemented fully in 2012, which govern the a la carte beverages and snacks that can be “available” on school premises during school hours? It is important to note that USDA’s own memos to state directors in 2014 clarified that the Department will “provide exemptions for certain foods that are nutrient dense, even if they may not meet all of the specific nutrient requirements.”

Whole milk is a nutrient dense food.

However, in playing ‘dictator’ with our children’s health, USDA chose its exemptions and ignored the nutrient density of whole milk. What did they use as an example in a memo to schools? “Peanut butter and other nut butters are exempt from the total fat and saturated fat standards since these foods are also nutrient dense… and we want students to consume more of these foods,” a memo to state directors stated.

Perhaps Impossible Burger is another ‘exemption’ given its calories, fat and sodium far exceed USDA rules, but it was so-impossibly approved by USDA in May 2021 for actual federal meal reimbursement. Impossible Burger is not particularly nutrient dense – but real beef is, and real beef is greatly limited in school meal pattern compliance, along with the ban on whole milk.

Bottomline, the USDA under Secretary Vilsack in 2012 took aim at beverages. In 2018, while working for DMI as one of dairy checkoff’s highest paid executives serving as President and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, Tom Vilsack was cheered and awarded during the dairy checkoff founded and funded GENYOUth Gala that year for his “success” in “finally” addressing the beverage situation in schools. 

Those were the words of former President Bill Clinton, a vegan, who spoke at length during the Gala about the beverage problem in the obesity crisis and how his friend Tom is the person who finally “got it done.”

What did he get done? He booted out the whole milk and paved the path for all of PepsiCo’s artificially sweetened and partially artificially sweetened beverages in school cafeterias – the Gatorade Zero, Mountain Dew Kickstart, Diet Coolers, Diet Cola’s, flavored waters – with that blend of high fructose corn syrup and sucralose that keeps them under 60 calories (the USDA threshold for an a la carte beverage per the Smart Snacks rules) and of course fat free – but also nutrition free. (PepsiCo got the GENYOUth Gala award the following year)

Sadly, the U.S. Congress also let dairy farmers down in 2010 by including the reference to the Dietary Guidelines in the one and only sentence on school milk in the HHFKA. All other nutritional references for the meal pattern are linked to the Food and Nutrition Board of the Academy of Sciences. 

Here’s what the HHFKA states under Nutrition Requirements for Fluid Milk Section 9(a)(2)(A) is amended to say: “shall offer students a variety of fluid milk. Such milk shall be consistent with the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans.” 

Even that milk sentence is ‘loose,’ and open to interpretation. Is the DGA recommendation of consuming ‘less than 10% calories from saturated fat’ a per-food, per-beverage, or per-meal ordinance or a whole-day allotment? 

We are told over and over that the DGAs are recommendations. Somehow USDA didn’t get that memo and decided to use DGAs to bully milk choices of children.

Never mind how counterproductive this is for children. When removing satiating nutrient dense fat from whole nutrient dense foods, kids compensate and replace this with nutritionally empty carbohydrates. 

Such were the early warnings of school foodservice personnel I interviewed over a decade ago as they piloted the draconian rules  before they were implemented. 

Such is also among the recent findings of the Milky Way controlled study by Australian researchers involving two sets of children — one having their milkfat consumption increased and the other having their milkfat consumption decreased. 

Care to guess which group saw a reduction in Body Mass Index percentile? Or which group had higher blood sodium levels? Or what the differences were in other biomarkers related to cardiovascular and metabolic health? (An article about this study appeared in the May 20 edition of Farmshine. It was the group of children who increased milkfat consumption that saw decreased BMI percentile and it was the group of children who decreased milkfat consumption that saw increased blood sodium levels! All other biomarkers for health were the same between the two groups.)

There are so many tentacles behind the scenes of how this whole school meal and school milk thing really work, that it boggles the mind – so much so that vested interests can come in and scare well-intentioned state lawmakers into thinking if they dare pass this bill and make nutrient dense flavorful whole milk available to schoolchildren as a CHOICE, that somehow the economically disadvantaged children of the Commonwealth could go hungry because USDA will take their lunch money. School foodservice directors are undoubtedly scared as well because the free/reduced reimbursements are a huge part of their budgets.

I’ve got news for the opponents of this bill, the State Senate Appropriations Committee, the Governor and the USDA: Our children are already suffering from hunger pangs in math class, and the absence of nutrient density in their school meals – on your watch right now, today. Do you care? Do the opponents of the whole milk bill spewing their scare tactics care?

The federal prohibition of whole milk in schools is the tip of a mighty iceberg that is failing our children while paving the path to an even less healthful future for America and a less economically healthful status for Pennsylvania dairy farms, the backbone of our state’s ag economy into the future.

We just celebrated our nation’s Independence Day, and yet our children cannot choose whole milk at school — even if their locally elected school boards want to offer it and even if their parents pay for it.

No one supporting this bill believes USDA will reimburse the actual whole milk, itself. Supporters just want the choice to be fully recognized as legal so that as parents, grandparents, farmers, citizens we can get about the business of next finding a way to provide this nutrient dense, satiating, delicious option to the children in our communities who consume two meals a day, five days a week, three-quarters of the year at school.

The issue spills out from the schools into other foodservice meals. It is heartwrenching for this reporter to listen to adults involved in dairy checkoff boast to farmers about how they are getting whole milk and cream into McDonald’s coffee drinks, into foodservice hot chocolate, into all of these trendy adult venues – while our children get a tiny fat-free chocolate milk in their happy meal because this school edict spills over into foodservice chains being bullied to do the same outside of school ‘for the kids’.

As adults, we should be ashamed of ourselves and reflect on our pathetic disregard for our children.

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Rebuilding ‘the dairy barn’ from the ground up

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, June 10, 2022

Grandiose plans centered on a globalist net zero economy were the furthest things from the minds of the more than 100 people who showed up on two southern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania Amish dairy farms and neighboring properties that took a hit from a May 27 EF-1 tornado. A week later, on June 4, the second of two destroyed dairy barns could be seen taking shape — from the ground up.

Many hands make light work. Farmers are quick to help. They are the ultimate ‘community organizers’ when faced with a big task. They ‘just do it’ instead of standing around talking about it.

Farmers don’t have time for nonsense. Working closely with seasons, land and animals, viewing themselves as stewards of God-given resources, farmers are practical. They are the first to show up when disaster strikes. 

They have a passion for their calling to feed a hungry world, and they don’t expect much in return – the ability to earn a fair price, a decent living, and a little respect. 

They show compassion for others, and gratitude in all things.

It is the farmers who show ultimate resiliency every day, in the face of hardship. They don’t waste food. They don’t waste time. They don’t waste money. And they don’t waste resources.

The world could learn a lot from farmers, if those making the big policy decisions truly listened. So many simple truths are ignored, simple positive changes are hard to get done, because they don’t fit the global agenda.

Why? Perhaps because there is an element of control now involved in food production that has changed the dynamic of “community” and changed the conversation between farmers and consumers.

The good news? Just as this dairy barn destroyed by a storm was rebuilt — board by board, nail by nail – through the efforts of a steadfast community, the same can be said about rebuilding the dialog between farmers and consumers, the sense of community, at the grassroots level.

Consumers are not as focused on the buzz terms of sustainability and net zero as the industry and policy makers and anti-animal activists would have us believe. 

The majority of the people in our communities around the world want to feed their families affordably and healthfully. The majority want to know more about farming and food. The majority want to support farmers. The majority love seeing cows. 

The majority still believe in the strength of local communities, of being there for one another in a time of need. The majority trust farmers because they see how they quietly live their faith.

We can all take part in rebuilding this proverbial ‘dairy barn’ — this connection with consumers at the grassroots community level. 

We’ve seen the storm clouds on this horizon for the past several years. The storm is here. The damage is scattered. The foundation has some cracks…

But the rebuilding is underway, and we are seeing it from the ground up, not the top down. We are seeing it in grassroots efforts, like 97 Milk, that engage others, share truths, and open eyes. The best way to shore-up our dairy farming communities in the face of a global agenda is to get after it — board by board, nail by nail. Many hands make light work.

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