Cutting costs, connecting consumers, striving to keep joy in dairying: Dairywomen share insights, Part Three

AUTHOR’S NOTE: It’s the last week of November, the month to celebrate women in dairy. A dozen women from multiple generations, states and farm sizes responded to the same five questions in this three-part series. Part One “Being Real” ran in the November 16 Farmshine, Part Two “Faith, friendships, fighting for each other’s survival” ran November 23 and this is Part Three, which ran in the November 30 Farmshine.

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Even our animals know that no matter where or who is your support group, the important thing is that you have one. They, too, are counting on us to tell our story, we all have one.

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, November 30, 2018

BROWNSTOWN, Pa. — Communicating with dairywomen about the challenges and opportunities in dairy today continually circles back to the economics. On many large and small family dairy farms, there is some diversification, so the low prices right now for all commodities are trying. But these women also see opportunities for better pay prices in the future through communication with consumers, changes in dietary recommendations and reaching out into the world of specialty markets.

Answering questions while attending a Penn State cheesemaking course recently, Amy Brickner in south central Pennsylvania says she “feels strongly that the only way small farms are going to continue is through the processing and marketing of premium dairy products locally, which also ensures that people are invested personally in where their food comes from.”

She describes herself as a “slightly unconventional dairywoman.” She still acts as herd manager on her family’s 160-cow dairy while moving to her fiance’s 100-cow dairy farm in charge of herd management and records and looking to add a milking robot. Both farms are three and four generations in dairy farming, and like others, dairying is both a business and a heritage that brings a passion for cow care and quality milk to the table.

In south central Wisconsin, fourth generation dairy farmer Cindy Krull Begeman also cites the generational passion for dairy in families like hers. But, like others, she views the future with heavy doses of practicality.

“Low milk prices are making it very hard to want to pass the farm on to the kids,” says Cindy. “As a parent, we always want better for our kids. Even though we love our cows, it is pretty hard to want our kids to struggle like we are now.”

Pulling in a positive direction during difficult times is something Cindy is no stranger to. After the death of her husband eight years ago, she talked with her children about what to do with the farm and the cattle.

“This farm had been in Brian’s family for three generations. The kids were 17, 14 and 10 at the time and very involved in 4-H and FFA. They wanted to at least keep a few cows around to keep the cow family lines going after their father and I had worked so hard to breed them,” she recalls. They sold half the herd at that time and slowly started to rebuild with embryo transfers out of their favorite cow families. They milk 50 registered cows in a tie-stall barn and run 350 acres of crops along with some pasture.

While Cindy still owns and manages the farm, her daughters do the matings and are involved in the genetics and her son is working in the industry. Last year, she took a job as herd manager of a 300-cow robotic dairy in northeast Iowa where they bottle milk and make cheese and ice cream. Having remarried and relocated near Sioux Falls, her youngest daughter attending Iowa State and with her younger brother and his family helping with the cows and crops on the home farm in Wisconsin, the situation works, and her lifelong involvement in the dairy industry gives her both a broad and narrow view of the future.

Specifically, she says they have taken many practical steps in this down market — cutting back on everything extra that they can from the feed bill and the vet bill. They take extra jobs off the farm, sell extra equipment, clean out the closets and sell extra clothes to buy new.

Terri Hawbaker has also sharpened her pencil at Grazeway Dairy in central Michigan. Having worked full time on the farm as she and her late husband Rick purchased it from her parents in 2002, she also went through a transition when Rick passed away nearly three years ago. Her children will be the sixth generation on the farm and the third on the homestead. She and the children operate the farm, along with employees, and Terri’s parents manage the heifer ranch rented for youngstock and hay.

“This allows (my parents) some additional income in their retirement years, yet they can travel when they want,” says Terri, adding that her parents help when needed in hay making, parts running and food preparation.

“Each dairy will have its own unique challenges and different opportunities, depending on their goals and vision… and available markets,” she points out, noting their current ongoing challenge is “to be as efficient as possible with the resources available without taking all the joy out of dairy farming.”

Like Amy, Terri also observes that with markets being limited, “quality is a must in order not to lose the market you have. Opportunities for a dairy of our size include more out-of-the-box thinking, such as A2 genetics, suppliers for specialized products, agritourism, and educational and training opportunities for others.”

She also believes it’s important to do what is right for the individual farm, not necessarily what the recommendations are from others.

“Every farm went into this slump in a different financial situation, and that will determine, somewhat, their outcome,” she says as a matter of reality. While she has taken very specific actions in 2017, she says “it boils down to continuing to work on efficiency.”

She is quick to point out that what is efficient time-wise and what is efficient financially can be different. “At the end of the day, it’s money-in vs. money-out,” she says, and she weighs the money-in / money-out with the “comfort and convenience” before making a decision.

One example is her reduction of custom work costs by taking more of that on themselves. “For example, hauling the hay from our rented farm takes twice as long doing it ourselves, but remember, it’s money-in vs. money-out.”

Other advice she takes seriously is to challenge how things have always been done and rethinking things that don’t have a good “why.”

One area she is most open to is different ways to feed the cattle that may be more financially efficient. For her herd, it’s grazing, and simplifying the grazing system has been a key to it.

Terri is also set on “clearing the clutter.” She says it helps to simplify, to sell excess machinery, to clean up the scrap pile. “Clearing the clutter not only brings you down to the core of what you actually need, it creates a more clean and peaceful work environment.”

And when it came to replacing a full-time employee, she opted to split responsibilities and take more on for herself by rearranging her work day. “I don’t get paid by the hour, so I am driven to get the work done, yet gentle on equipment because repairs come out of my pocket, essentially.”

Along with that, she evaluates the skill of her employees working on equipment and believes in communicating not just the how, but also the why, when explaining the importance of being gentle on equipment. She explained to employees that a recent skid loader repair of $4777 leaves less “in the pot” for raises and bonuses.

For Jessica Slaymaker of northern Pennsylvania, the challenge is real after she and her husband built the freestall barn three years ago milking 150 cows. She works mainly on the cow side “a herdsman who knows how to run a skidsteer,” so to speak. Before marrying Dan, Jessica was herdwoman at her parent’s nearby 600-cow dairy.

“I don’t think anyone thought this downturn would last so long,” says Jessica. “It is making us try to think smarter and be more efficient, but it is mentally, physically and emotionally draining.”

But she sees the opportunities for the future, “When things finally do turn around, I think we have a lot of potential here. We have good genetics and can hopefully market extra replacements. We also breed the lower 25% of the herd to beef bulls and that boost in income is helping too.”

In Mississippi, Tanya Rushing sees the challenges in market access after plant closures. She partnered with her father in the 80-cow dairy until she bought him out in 2017. She’s the third generation to dairy there, and her husband works off the farm but helps with mechanical work and wherever else he can while their son now works part time on the farm with the intention of carrying the farm into a fourth generation once he’s out of school.

As sole owner and operator now, Tanya has two employees to help with milking and other labor. She, too, relies on good grass management and hay.

“To me, the challenges and opportunities facing the dairy industry go hand-in-hand,” says Tanya. “The difficulties are forcing many farmers to close their barn doors, and I hate to see it happen. But I also feel that a change in economic policies, as well as new dietary recommendations concerning butter and whole milk will improve on-farm pay prices in the future.”

She cites the need for positive agricultural and animal advocacy, which “forces farmers to stepout of their tractors and tell their farm stories to the public,” says Tanya. “Consumers want and need to know the voices behind where their food comes from. Advocacy is an integral part of the future of dairy, and we all must strive to educate people every chance we get.”

For Tricia Adams in northern Pennsylvania, it’s easy to identify the challenges in dairy right now, and she spends a lot of her time working on the solution side. “You feel helpless and disappointed to see milk sold as a core staple while watching so many other products like soy and margarine replace your product to where now we have to defend our product and can’t seem to backpeddle fast enough,” she says.

Tricia and her three brothers own and operate Hoffman Farms as the transition is in process from her parents Dale and Carol Hoffman who moved from Snyder to Potter County with 35 cows in the 1970s. Today, they are milking 800. In addition to her many roles feeding calves, managing employees and working in the office, Tricia helps educate consumers through the farm’s Facebook page and giving school and community tours for many years.

The questions come into the page and even to her personal facebook page. “Even my friends start questioning things that dairy farmers do that they don’t understand. I explain what we do and try to be upbeat.”

She also has worked on ideas to get better milk in the schools because when the school tours come to the farm, the kids always say “Oh, it’s the GOOD milk.” They always serve whole white and whole chocolate milk on their tours to put dairy’s best and most nutritious foot forward, and she finds that she has to order it ahead of time from the grocer to make sure there’s enough whole milk for her events.

“There has got to be better access to our products,” says Tricia. “I go to a restaurant or on college visits with my kids and look for the milk. I go to the store and find whole milk few and far between, but plenty of 1% milk. Our teachers in the schools want to change the milk also, but run into the red-tape.”

At Hoffman Farms, the second and third generations are starting to look deeper at what they can do to become more self-sufficient. They, too, are using beef bulls on some of the herd and recently began marketing custom beef, locally.

“As farmers, I think we have to take charge of our livelihoods again and come back full-circle to marketing our products,” Tricia observes, explaining their recent diversification into selling beef. “We have consumers. They want to buy from us as farmers. So we are thinking a lot about how to build even more relationships with consumers.”

The scariest part of the future, says Tricia, is “not knowing when to make the critical decision to stay in or exit. We’re in this so far. It’s our life and our livelihood, our family homestead. The time to retire out has come and gone, so we’re at a point where we will keep going. Our backs are against the wall, and that is forcing us to look at other ideas.”

She relates something her father always says. “Everybody has to eat, meaning farmers will always have a job, but sometimes it seems not to be the case. If we can’t have our products where they need to be and are losing future milk drinkers because the milk at school isn’t filling and yummy anymore, it makes things more difficult to shape that secure dairy future.”

Having middle-schoolers read The Omnivore’s Dilemma as part of the New York curriculum is another hurdle, but it also gave Tricia’s daughters the opportunity to speak up and invite the class to the farm to see how modern dairies really do take care of their cows.

In every aspect of life, Tricia sees opportunities to tell dairy’s good story, and she embraces that challenge. “It’s essential because the consumer is bombarded with so much misinformation and we have to be active in turning it around.”

Cindy sees this too. “One of the best things as a woman dairy farmer is that we get to tell our story to everyone, every chance we get. Whether it’s coffee hour at church, or some other opportunity, we can take milk and ask if anyone needs it, then bring up how important milk is and how bad things are for farmers across the county,” she relates. “We have to tell our story. We all have one.”

She also finds real value in networking with others. “We all need to learn, to get out and talk with other farmers,” she emphasizes, “because we are all in this together, and we all understand each other. We are not alone!”

Socializing with like-minded individuals is also important to Tanya. “It helps me to feel not so alone with the day-to-day challenges, to blow off steam with ladies who ‘get it,’ and discuss the fine lines between being a farmer, a business owner, a mom, wife and daughter.”

For Jessica, Dairy Girl Network has been “a Godsend. It is a lifeline to women who know what you are going through and deal with day-to-day,” she says. “Being involved so heavily in the daily activities on the farm can make a person feel isolated; however, with Facebook and the Dairy Girl Network page, I can go there while eating lunch, or milking a slow side of cows, and interact with women from all over the U.S. To me, that’s amazing. Everyone is there to answer questions, offer guidance, or just to listen and comfort. It’s an amazing group of women that I am proud to be a part of.”

Tricia also gets on the DGN page. “I love it because there is nothing negative on there,” she says. “We may complain, but it’s not a negative pointing of fingers.” She also wants to start a group of women meeting in her area because “we have other things in common too. It’s good to find the fun things, to share pictures of our kids on the farm, or a new ice cream recipe or collaborate on what kids can take to school for snacks or even inspiration for designing farm logos. It helps to be connected.”

For Amy, being part of the Dairy Moms facebook group has been one of her best support teams. “It is 100% the most positive group of women, and no matter what kind of day you are having, or what struggle or triumph any one in the group is having, we are all supportive and understanding, and ready with positive comments and help,” she notes.

Terri follows different networking groups through social media, as well, and she focuses on groups that cater to the grazing systems. “I view farming as a business, and just like other industries, there are males and females and the percentages vary,” she says, noting that the important thing for her has been having “a few very close friends that have gone through all the trials and celebrations with me… and a few mentors that I call upon.

“No matter where or who is in your support group, what matters is that you have one.”

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Blessings counted in Irma’s wake, challenges ahead

Damage to dairy buildings, but people safe, livestock losses minimal. Processing and distribution channels challenged. Biggest issues: Power. Fuel. Communications. 

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By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, Friday, Sept. 15, 2017 (Photos courtesy of the dairies)

FLORIDA – “Four freestall barns are damaged, one completely collapsed, but amazingly not one cow was hurt. God had his hands on us,” said Jerry Dakin in a Farmshine phone interview Tuesday morning, 36 hours after Hurricane Irma hit Dakin Dairy, Myakka City, Florida, just 20 miles east of Sarasota as the eye wall nudged inland after traveling up the west coast of Florida to continue its trek up the center of the state. The more than 300-mile-wide hurricane — packing winds in excess of 100 mph — produced widespread damage as well as loss of power to over 5 million homes and businesses across the entire state of Florida and into Georgia and South Carolina.

The reports are still rolling in and the stories we heard are similar in the South — from the Rucks family of the Milking R in Okeechobee and Dakin Dairy in Manatee County, east to the Wrights in Hardee County — and north — at Alliance Dairies and North Florida Holsteins in Gilchrist County — all the way to Hillcrest Farms Inc. near Augusta, Georgia.

Dairy producers were in high gear preparing for Hurricane Irma last week, and while it appears that dairy buildings have sustained substantial damage throughout the Sunshine State and beyond, producers are counting their blessings in Irma’s wake: People are okay, livestock losses are minimal, second crop corn silage largely held its ground.

The most pressing concern in rural areas is the same as in urban — no power, limited supplies of fuel, spotty communication capabilities and a breakdown in the normal processing and distribution channels for food and other necessities, which means, for dairy farmers, where to go with the milk?

Of the four dairies interviewed early this week across a 250-mile stretch from South Florida to North ranging 1200 to 10,000 cattle and representing over 25,000 cows, just four animals were lost — a milk cow euthanized for injuries at one farm and three young heifers at another were found quite possibly hit by lightning or electrical shock. Among the social media posts of additional farms throughout the region were similar stories and responses of appreciation for the prayers and encouragement of others while focusing the first 24 to 36 hours post-Irma on getting generators going and getting cattle fed and milked and watered and then settling in to sort, evaluate and prioritize additional special needs.

Perhaps most important, however, are the stories of encouragement. Dakin said he spoke with fellow dairymen in a show of support before the storm and that it has been the encouragement of others “even folks from up north texting us and letting us know they are praying for us” that has gotten them through it.

“I have an unbelievable team of employees,” said Dakins of the over 60 employees who work for the dairy he built in 2001 and the dairy plant and store that were added in 2009.  “I am only one man, but it is this team of family and employees that is getting things done.”

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Dakin was feeling fortunate Tuesday morning after the cavalry arrived Monday night — five utility trucks got the dairy, and its milk plant and store, back on the power grid. Since then, the plant has worked overtime separating and pasteurizing milk for multiple cooperatives. In some cases, the skim is being dumped because milk channels are backed up due to plant, supermarket and school closures and other infrastructure issues.

“It’s a big deal to have our plant processing because we are able to unload tankers and get them back to farms,” he explains that they are processing 20 more loads than normal since the storm. “When it comes to a disaster like this, we’re all in this together.”

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They milked their own 2200 cows at 6 p.m. Sunday evening ahead of the storm, and then shut everything down, planning ahead to skip the night milking. They had boarded things up, pushed 1200 dry cows and heifers two miles away from buildings into pastures with wooded windbreaks, and parked large equipment all around the house where 25 family and crew hunkered down “like we were going to war.”

“We were so boarded up that we didn’t feel the true impact, until we opened a door, and it was wild. I decided not to walk outside, to stay calm, pray and rest because I knew there was nothing I could do during the storm and there would be a lot to do when the storm was over,” Dakin recounted.

The storm hit with all its fury at 10 p.m. Sunday evening. By 3:00 a.m. Monday morning, the winds were still blowing, but the core, or eye wall, had passed.

“I didn’t want to walk out of the house, scared about what I was going to see, but I knew I had to face it,” Dakin recounted. “I went straight for the barns, and I saw the buildings down and the cattle out where the gates were knocked down by the collapsed building. Cows were standing in the holding pen bellowing.”

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He cranked up the generator and got help and got to milking. He had already pulled grain concentrates from the ration in the days leading up to the storm to slow milk production, but even so, the pumps could not keep up with the initial milk flow after missing the night milking. “We couldn’t milk them fast enough,” Dakin related, adding that this is the first hurricane his farm has ever seen and that his brothers’ farms in the county were having similar experiences for the first time.

Northeast of Dakin, about 50 miles as the crow flies, Joe Wright was hunkered down at his dairy in Zolfo Springs. He was in the same closet in the same concrete building he took refuge in at the dairy during Hurricane Charley 13 years ago. Of the four hurricanes his farm has weathered, three were in 2004. Irma, the fourth, was second only to Charley in terms of its impact on Wright’s dairy, but he says Irma is the worst in its broad impact on his state and the region’s dairy industry.

Wright looked at the Weather Channel “spaghetti models” ahead of the storm and had a feeling it would track up the nearby Peace River, like Charley, so he didn’t let his guard down when he heard it was heading in a northwesterly direction. True enough. Once the eye wall got close to St. Petersburg, it’s northwest track bent east, putting the edge of the eye wall near Wright’s dairy. The structural damage to buildings tells the tale.

“Right now we are just milking and feeding and trying to return to some normalcy to begin evaluating cows,” he said, explaining that in 2004, they lost cows. The barn fell in on them when Charley came through. Since then, they have converted to modified grazing and so one of the things they did ahead of Irma was to intentionally push the cows out of the barns and lock them out and away from the buildings.

“We thought they would be better off in pasture, and it appears so because the roofs and ends of our freestall barns were just ripped off by Irma,” Wright said Tuesday from his son’s cell phone as they drove 100 miles for a backup generator after their primary generator sustained voltage issues that were impacting pumps and motors on the farm. Fielding a call from a roofer on his own phone, Wright said another pressing concern is getting a roof over the milking parlor, and if possible, the cattle working areas. “The rest of it will wait for winter.”

Confessing he hasn’t slept, really, since Friday or Saturday night and hasn’t been to his home 10 miles from the dairy, Wright shared that, three big oak trees were down at home that he couldn’t deal with. “My neighbors in town know what we’re up against with the dairy,” he said. “They came and cut them up and hauled them away. It’s hard for me to explain what that means. It’s uplifting.”

At Dakin Dairy, the milk cows had remained in the freestall barns, and survived. Dakin observed how difficult it had been to move 2200 cows from the barn to the milking parlor as the storm was within four hours of reaching them. They milked quickly and cows literally wanted to run back to their barns.

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Like Wright, Dakin did make the decision to move his pasture cattle away from buildings, and apart from clearing sheet metal and removing safety hazards around the collapsed areas of the barns, rebuilding will be put off until winter.

“We’ve got a month and a half yet of the real hot weather,” said Dakin. “If anyone is looking for construction work in sunny Florida this winter, we’ll have it.”

Another 180 miles north in Trenton and Bell, the Sunshine State’s two largest herds – Alliance Dairies and North Florida Holsteins – were also in line for hurricane force winds. By the time the eye had traveled inland those nearly 200 miles, Irma had been downgraded to a Category 1 hurricane but still packed high winds, spin-off tornadoes and significant rainfall on the back edge.

“We survived it pretty well and have enough generator power to milk cows, cool milk and pump water. We’ve been able to keep enough manpower to get things done,” said Don Bennink of North Florida Holsteins in a phone interview Monday night from the darkness of his home without power. He was thankful to be just four hours behind in the milking schedule after hearing of others being as much as a full day behind and said all of the generator power is devoted to the dairy. His home can do without power for now.

“We got hit, but south Florida got nailed,” said Bennink. He had spent the days leading up to the storm making sure the generators were backed up and operable, having extra feed and fuel delivered and double checking everything he could think of.

“The worst of the storm, for us, was from 1:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. Monday morning,” he said. “We shut down when it got bad and restarted Monday afternoon. We had a crew here because we provided shelter for a lot of our people.”

The dairy’s office, where the former milking parlor had previously stood, was sturdy, and 50 people, including employees and their families, weathered the storm there with provisions while the winds blew roofs and debris.

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Newborn calves at the time of the storm were stowed safely in the herdsman’s office near the calving area.

 

The storm had its impact. While the tunnel-ventilated barns for the milk cows are intact, the large tunnel fans were ripped apart. The estimated 20 inches of rain that fell in a short time at North Florida Holsteins created substantial flooding in the heifer yards.

“We expected this much wind, or more,” said Bennink, “But we did not expect this much water.”

Like the incidental reports from other dairies on social media that had found a few individual animal losses, Bennink said of the 10,000 head of cattle at North Florida Holsteins, three calves were lost.

He was counting his blessings Monday evening, and thankful for his “reliable people.”

Just west of Bell in Trenton, Florida, Jan Henderson at Alliance Dairies had spent the days leading up to the storm pleading with fuel suppliers to get fuel to them. “We wanted our tanks full for gasoline and diesel, and we even filled our choppers so we could siphon if needed,” she said in a phone interview Tuesday. Being responsible for over 10,000 cattle between the main dairy and two grazing operations at other locations, Henderson relied on her managers, quarterbacked plays they had run through and filled in hands-on wherever she was needed.

“We tested our generators to operate under load and made sure our mobile generators were working. We had multiple meetings with our managers on the course of action to make sure cows get milked and fed and youngstock get watered and fed,” she explained.

Before the storm, Henderson was in people prep mode, bringing in plenty of food and energy drinks for employees. Once the storm hit, she was communicating with managers and filling in the gaps on shifts bringing cows to the parlor.

“We are very blessed that Irma weakened from its earlier strength, and we had already determined we would go to 2x milking the day of the storm. We kept going until 6 p.m. when everyone needed to be wherever they were going to shelter,” she said, noting that Saturday’s crew was smaller than normal, and managers from all areas of the farming enterprise helped cover milking shifts — hunkering down at the dairy.

Two days after the storm, one of their grazing dairies has power and the other is still waiting. Alliance Dairies, where 5200 cows are milked, is expected to be without power until next week.

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“We are able to milk and cool milk, and we can provide water, but we are not able to operate our fans,” said Henderson. “It was cool and comfortable the day after the storm, but the heat and humidity is returning.”

“We have very committed people here, and I am awestruck by what our people have been able to do,” said Henderson.

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Like most dairies in Florida right now, they have milk accumulating on trailers with 10 full trailers sitting as of Tuesday morning. One of the grazing dairies was completely full when two milk trucks pulled in, one without a trailer and the other with an empty trailer just in time on Tuesday morning.

While most of the plants are closed and reopening on differing schedules, Henderson notes the power outages and evacuations mean that, “There are 6 million fewer people drinking milk right now, so processors are not feeling the need to process milk.”

Bennink also noted that as processors have been closed with two to three days of milk in silos, milk is also backing up on farms with no place to go.

“It will go from one extreme to the other. When they start needing milk again, they won’t be able to get it fast enough, but we can’t just hold it for them. They will want fresh milk,” he explained, adding that while the coop management is doing a “fantastic job” handling this difficult situation, there will be milk dumped in Florida.

“There’s a lot of milk out there (nationally), and we don’t have the over-order premiums we used to have here, so we’re not going to get sympathy from our customers over the costs our cooperative has to bear to deal with the situation,” Wright observes, adding that in addition to fuel shortages, milk transportation is also hampered by availability of trailers and the ability to wash them down.

More will be known in the coming week, but the Southeast dairy producers will bear the brunt of the costs of handling these issues and it’s unclear what insurances may or may not cover such market conditions that are exacerbated by a natural disaster.

Fuel shortages, plant closures, power outages and evacuations have changed the dynamics in the region.”

Dakin’s plant and a Dean’s plant are currently operating. Some plants are flooded, others have generator problems and some are light on staff to operate. Supermarkets are also having refrigeration and power generation issues.

Restoration of power and fuel to the area will go a long way to immediate needs in this recovery.

Notes Henderson: “You prepare for the worst and hope for the best, and we certainly got a little of both. It was bad enough, but if it had not weakened from earlier forecasts, I don’t want to think about what we might be seeing.”

Wright observes the basics: “If we have feed, fuel and a generator, we can get through this. If we get power, we can do a lot of this cleanup. But without power, it wears on you, and it’s tough on the equipment with the voltages.”

Bennink said it will be a long while for the state of Florida to pick up the pieces, and yet he was feeling fortunate to have his people around and to be able to provide food and shelter during the storm. “One hand washes the other,” he said.

Adds Dakin: “Prayers lifted us up. It is amazing to hear from people in so many other states and to know they have been praying for us down here.”

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Life after cows.

 

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

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

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

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

Love never fails. 1 Corinthians 13:8

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, Nov. 4, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Looking back… and forward: Troxel dairy herd dispersal 10/20 at 10:20 at farm.

By Sherry Bunting (portions reprinted from Farmers Exchange 10/14/16 and portions reprinted from Farmshine 10/14/16)

HANNA, Ind. — Amid the difficult economics of dairy and beef production these days, many farm families are going through tough decisions about the future — along with uncertainty about the interest or ability their next generation may have for continuing the business. America’s dairy and livestock farms have raised generations of cattle that nourish our bodies, our rural economies and the land… not to mention raising generations of young people with the skills, work ethics and passion that take them far in their on-and-off-farm pursuits.

Herd dispersals are on the rise among family farms of all sizes. And while it is sad to see some of these farms mark an end to an era, there is reason for hope. The largest obstacle, in my view, is the current pricing systems and the concentration of power in a more vertically-integrated marketplace for both milk and beef. Consumers can help change this direction by caring where their food comes from and asking their grocers to identify country of origin as is done with fruits and vegetables — but that is a story for another day.

Today, I want readers to know about the Troxel Dairy Farm and their upcoming herd dispersal sale on Thursday, October 20th at 10:20 a.m. (10/20 and 10:20!) taking place at their farm at 17808 S 600 W, Hanna, Indiana.

Having known Dr. Tom and LuAnn Troxel for several years and having benefited from their hospitality through all seasons of the year on trips West, I am always in awe of the morning pace at their farm, which is also homebase for Dr. Tom’s South County large animal veterinary practice. And I admire the joy they have that rises above these tough decisions.

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Mornings here have always kept me stepping as I would be out and about with my camera while Dr. Tom was busy in the milkhouse and cleaning pens or putting fresh bedding and feed out for the cows, LuAnn would be back and forth tending calves, answering vet calls, taking second rounds of coffee out to the barn, keeping a breakfast skillet moving forward… and so much more.

Busy mornings are to be expected when two busy people love what they do and when what they do is dairy farming alongside a large animal veterinary practice. Both can be demanding 24/7 jobs, and for 33 years of marriage, Dr. Tom Troxel has pulled double duty — wife LuAnn right there with him in the trenches and taking time to advocate for agriculture.

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On this particular sunny autumn morning last week as we talked about the upcoming dispersal, veterinary customers stopped by for supplies, the milk truck backed into the lane for what will soon be the last daily pickup, workers made sale preparations, cows curiously spectated, while the resident peacocks strutted their stuff, adding their own brilliance to the splashes of color in LuAnn’s gardens that frame the cow pens, milk house and calf hutches.tom-troxel-dvm

LuAnn says she is thankful that after next week, Dr. Tom will have only one job to do.

The cows will be gone, but the South County Veterinary practice continues.

“Dairy isn’t something you just do, it is something that defines you,” said LuAnn during my visit last Monday morning, as she and Tom and son Rudy were finishing chores and preparing for the Oct. 20 complete dispersal of the milking and registered herd.

Her easy smile hid the uncertainty of the transition ahead. “Part of me is really sad, and part of me wonders about new opportunities we’ll find in this next phase.”

Tom confessed: “We’ll miss it. I’m kind of a workaholic so I’ll have to rethink things and find things to do that are more valuable than work.”

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The sale plans were set into motion a year ago, when Tom and LuAnn knew that of their four sons — Rudy, Ned, Josh and Jackson — there would be no next generation to take the reins.

Rather than sell the herd immediately, they waited to calve-in some of the genetic progress Rudy made in his work with the herd over the past four years. This way they are able to sell animals of known value with genomic testing behind them and see some two-year-olds freshen and milk to get a glimpse of what would have been a great foundation herd for the future, that Rudy had developed — before passing the animals on to their new homes.

The Troxel Dairy herd dispersal is slated for 10:20 a.m. CDT on Thursday, October 20 at the farm. About 215 cattle will sell, including 113 cataloged cow and heifer lots, plus half-lot calves and embryos. Many are registered Holsteins, with solid genomic numbers, especially for productive life (PL), daughter pregnancy rate (DPR), somatic cell count (SCC), and milk components.

In fact, this milking herd of 140 cows produces high quality milk with somatic cell count consistently under 100,000. The current average is 75,000! Healthy animals and high quality milk have always been high priorities here.

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The sale includes a unique range: predominantly registered Holstein cattle of all ages, including Polled, dominant/variant Red and Outcross genetics, as well as over a dozen Jerseys of all ages, some type Holsteins and 100 commercial grade milking cows and springing heifers.

“The genetic improvement has been quite something, considering that four years ago we had just one registered Holstein, and today we have 130 that are registered,” said Dr. Tom, crediting son Rudy’s skill and zeal for genetics. “With good genomic tests, these animals would have been a good foundation for the future, but now they can be a benefit to someone else.”

Rudy’s philosophy in transitioning the herd from grade to registered dovetailed with his parents’ longstanding emphasis on healthy cattle and preventive care. He bred not for show, but for working cattle “to exemplify the true working Holstein,” he explained the science-driven approach to breeding a true commercial cow. “We have rarely bred a cow under 1 or 2 in their DPR, and we have cattle at 5, 6, 7, even over 8 in productive life.”

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While Rudy finds some satisfaction in having built a young herd with a few cow families that hold a lot of promise, he noted that around 30 of the registered animals are milking and over 75 are “the best that was yet to come.”

He points out the Ross cow they purchased from Clear Echo at the Summer Event Sale in Wisconsin in 2012. She is lot 13, with over 20 direct descendants selling, plus additional calves. The Dreamar cow is another he identifies as he thumbs through the catalog. She has nine direct descendents selling right along, plus embryos.

“Rudy took the (genetics) ball and ran with it,” said Tom with a smile.

With sale day fast approaching, LuAnn reflects on the decision to discontinue the dairy. “It was something that took weeks, even months to accept,” she said.

“We’ve ridden these cycles up and down for over 30 years,” the couple agreed. “We haven’t invested in new facilities. The dairy needs infrastructure and improvements. Our next generation made their family decisions not to buy the dairy farm.”

“We weren’t ready for the next generation,” Tom interjected. “Look around. We have lean to’s, not a new 21st Century building.”

Together they wondered, aloud, if investing in new facilities years ago may have produced a different outcome.

“We were so busy working and raising a family that we didn’t really take the time to plan that,” said LuAnn when asked what advice she might have for other farm families with next-generation uncertainty. “We always wanted our sons to make their own decisions on this. We love our four boys, their wives and their families and respect their decision to do what is best for their families.”

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Planning for the next-generation is a challenge, “but I would recommend long term planning, not waiting like we did when it was too late for the planning to help,” she says.

Rudy, who graduated from Purdue with a degree in ag education, has taken an area sales manager position with Genex-CRI to follow the genetics path, which was seeded in junior high with his poultry projects and blossomed with his hand in the dairy herd over the past four years.

“This farm has been going since 1949 and has raised two families,” said Tom. His parents, Phil and Mary Troxel, started farming here almost 70 years ago. His mother was raised on a dairy farm and ahead of her time as a “dairy girl,” taking predominant care of the herd. Tom, one of eight children, was immersed in the farm early after his father suffered a stroke while he was still in high school.

Tom and LuAnn eventually took over the dairy after they married, and have operated both the dairy and Tom’s large animal practice here ever since.

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Standing in the October sunshine discussing the upcoming sale, the curious cows walk right up and LuAnn reflects on the bond between a dairy producer and the cows. “I fed every one of these individually as calves,” she said, noting that while they can seem like children or grandchildren at times, “there’s a difference.”

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“But you do spend more time with the cattle than the grandkids,” Tom interrupted, grinning at the reality of daily cattle care.

For years, the dairy has hosted media, consumer events, school field trips and trainings for vet tech students. (Below: On the left, LuAnn is constantly promoting and advocating for the dairy industry. Two years ago she snapped a photo of twin Jersey x Holstein heifers. Both heifers calved this past July. They and their calves will be sold in the Oct. 20 dispersal. On the right, Rudy shares information about dairy cows with local schoolchildren during a tour at the farm last fall. He will miss the farm and the cows, but is excited to get more involved in genetics as he takes a position with Genex-CRI.)

Both Dr. Tom and LuAnn have served on numerous boards over the years. In addition to serving as a past president of Indiana Dairy Producers (IDP) and currently on the board of the Dairy Girl Network (DGN), LuAnn also serves on the American Dairy Association-Indiana board — a position that will end when the milking ends, as has Tom’s former position on the Foremost Farms cooperative board.

While there may be fewer opportunities to be involved in organizations that promote dairy, the Troxels want to be involved wherever they can in the dairy industry they love. “The people in this industry are special. With few exceptions, dairy producers are honest, hardworking people who care about things other than themselves,” LuAnn points out.

“People say ‘it’s in your blood,’ and I guess that’s because dairying is systemic. It will be a little challenging to define who I am because everything from family relationships to daily routines to friendships and service have been within the context of the dairy farm. I’m not sure what it will be like, but I think it will be fine.”

The Oct. 20 dispersal is managed by Courtney Sales. The Troxels’ church will provide a delicious lunch, prepared with love, for a free will offering to benefit the Harvest Call Haiti Dairy Program.

All are welcome. For more information about the sale and the farm, and to see a catalog, visit www.troxeldairy.com.

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The Troxel family from left Jackson and Paige, Dr. Tom and LuAnn holding Olivia, Maryana, Rudy (holding Nolan) and Rosario, Nathan, Ned and Alyssa, Josh (holding Declan) and Chelsie. Photo by Chelsie Troxel

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Determination defined.

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, Sept. 23, 2016

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Before the March homecoming, Reese Burdette told the medical staff “I’ve got to get home to my cows.”

And so she did. Her cow Pantene, in fact, had just had a heifer calf she named Pardi-Gras. It was Mardi-Gras time of year and she was looking forward to a homecoming party.

When Reese Burdette did come home to Windy-Knoll-View farm after those 662 days at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU), she was so anxious to get back to her cows and the dairy industry she loves that she wanted to get right out on the gator with her papap to look them over.

Reese03That didn’t happen immediately, but not long after she was home, she sure did.

A few days after her March homecoming. Reese was already setting new goals for herself.

Sitting at the kitchen table on the day of our visit in mid-March, taking a break from “virtually” attending school, Reese said, matter-of-factly, and with a radiant smile (as her mother and momo exchanged glances):

“I want to be walking good enough to lead Pardi-Gras in Harrisburg in September.”

And so she did. She sure did.dsc_1142

reesepeptalkdadIt was something she had worked for daily with the support of her family, friends, therapists… and a last minute pep talk from dad, Justin Burdette.

In fact, not only did she lead Pardi-Gras to a 4th place finish in her class Monday, Sept. 19 during the All-American Dairy Show at the Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg, Pa., she also led Pardi-Gras’ dam, Reese’s prize 4-year-old cow Pantene to a 1st place finish in her class… and the honors that followed as Reserve Grand Champion Holstein of the Premier National Junior Show.

Perhaps Pa. Holstein Association executive director Ken Raney put it best in a post acknowledging all of the great people and families the association works with across Pennsylvania. “It’s been my goal to share the accomplishments and recognize many people for what they do for the dairy industry, but today was different,” he wrote. “Today, we got to witness a young lady who has shown great determination and a will to not only survive but return to the industry and cows she loves. Congratulations and thank you Reese Burdette for showing us what true determination is all about.”

reesepantenereschampReese was surrounded Monday by her support team of friends and family, including friends from Johns Hopkins, who came to Harrisburg to witness how much Reese loves the dairy industry and how this dairy industry family continues to support her and her family. Her ever-faithful cousin Regan Jackson and friend Lane Kummer helped make it possible to also lead her cow Pantene.

In a video interview with The Bullvine, Reese’s mother Claire Burdette said that people wonder how they can be so strong through this journey of over two years. She said, “It’s people surrounding us that make us strong.” She described Reese’s sense of humor and tenacity that stayed with her throughout this journey.

00aareese0022As for Reese, her family, favored cow Pantene, and all who continue to support and love her… the joy of the day and its milestones was plain to see.

As expected, this tenacious 10-year-old has already set the next goal for herself (and loves to think in timelines): To attend school without the part-time assistance of the wheelchair by the end of the year.

We continue to root for this amazing and inspirational young lady and agree wholeheartedly with Ken Raney’s comment: “You made us all proud ‘Miss Tuff Girl!’” as she is affectionately known these days.

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Thank you to Laura Jackson, Jean Kummer and Randy Blodgett for some of the photos above. Below, Reese’s Pantene also made the Supreme parade lineup Thursday as Grand Champion Holstein in the open competition, shown by her mom Claire Burdette.00aaPantene9930.jpg

 

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‘I’ve got to get home to my cows’

With courage and grace, Reese comes home after 22 months

By Sherry Bunting, reprinted from FARMSHINE March 25, 2016
Reese03Author’s Note: It has been almost a month since Reese’s homecoming and she is getting back to the precious rhythms of life on the farm: Greeting her little sister off the bus on sunny afternoons, feeding her prize cow’s new calf, riding the gator with her grandfather, having tea parties with sister and cousins on Sunday afternoons, getting together with school friends, still attending school virtually via “Double,” her robot, even going to the dentist! Her journey continues to inspire. I am grateful for the opportunity to interview Reese and her mother and grandmother on the quiet first Monday after her arrival home Friday, March 18, 2016. Get ready to be inspired by this young lady, and by her family and the local farming community and worldwide dairy community who continue to think of her. Thank you to Jean Kummer, Laura Jackson and Jennifer DiDio for providing some of the photos here.

 

MERCERSBURG, Pa. — Nina Burdette tells the story of granddaughter Reese teaching her cow Pantene to lead when she was a calf five years ago. Reese was four at the time, and Nina told her “Don’t let go.”

“That calf pulled her around, and at one point she was flat on her back holding on, until that calf wrapped itself around a post,” Nina recalls she had rope burns on her hands.

Reese never let go.

So it was two years later, on May 26, 2014, when Reese arrived at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, where she would spend the next 662 days in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) recovering from burns over 35 percent of her body and smoke damage to her heart and lungs after a fire at the home of her grandmother Patricia Stiles, who also recovered from significant trauma carrying her from the burning room.

Reese never let go.

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Today, she is back home at Windy-Knoll View farm in rural Franklin County, Pa., with her sister Brinkley and their parents Justin and Claire Burdette, and of course her cow Pantene and her three heifers Pretzel, Panzee and Pardi Gras.

Over and over, Reese told her doctors: “I’ve got to get home to my cows.”

Words spoken from the heart of a true dairy farmer. “Oh she has her mind set on that, just like her mom and dad,” says Nina. “We call her the junior manager.”

Driving through Mercersburg to the Burdette home on Monday, purple still proclaimed Reese’s homecoming parade from the preceding Friday. Purple and white cows stood in yards and driveways, purple balloons, welcoming TeamReese banners, home-made signs of love and support, purple bows tied to trees, poles and fence posts all along the route of young Reese Burdette’s drive home from Baltimore to Mercersburg — the 200-mile trek her family has traversed between the home farm and their second home at Johns Hopkins for nearly two years.

Reese had set a goal to be home for her 9th birthday, which she celebrated with family and friends — at home — on Sunday, March 20.

“Friday was surreal,” said Mom, Claire, during Monday’s Farmshine interview as Reese sat in the next room attending school via her robot, screen and headphones. Brinkley, 5, had also gone off to school that morning, and Reese was eager to be on the porch in a couple hours to see her little sister get off the bus — something she had envisioned for months.

A return to the ordinary rhythms of life on the farm is just what this child has longed for as she recovered from that fateful day.

Friday had dawned brisk and sunny as Claire and Justin and Brinkley waited with Reese for morning rounds. “When the doctor said ‘you’re free to go,’ it felt so good to hear those words we had waited and prayed to hear for so long,” Claire recalls.

A sendoff party was attended by hundreds the night before at Johns Hopkins where Reese has become quite the celebrity in what everyone referred to as “the sunshine room” where there was no room for worry. She shared her games, was known for her aim in shooting foam darts at a deer on the doorway, and had a machine for making snowballs and popcorn for sale with lines out the door to her room some days. Her PICU room had been transformed into a rehab that looked as much like home as possible for the past year. Toward the end of her stay, Reese surprised her family with a video of her journey.

“She’s not afraid to talk about the fire,” said Claire, noting that the hospital has learned from Reese as they tried processes for the first time with her burns. Jim tells of the time she consoled a grandmother whose granddaughter was getting a tracheotomy, explaining to her there is nothing to fear. She had become quite the advocate for her own care, face-timing Dr. Kristen Nelson about medicines and earning the name “Dr. Reese” among the residents in training (RTs).

In fact, Dr. Kristen, as she is known, is quick to point out that, “Reese has surprised me in so many ways about perseverance and strength and hope and grace and bravery, and I am forever a part of her life.”

On Friday morning, an entourage of 25 doctors, nurses, RTs, and custodians, escorted her to the white SUV sporting the large purple bow.

And so, they began their journey back home to a new normal.

Claire said the sight was “amazing. There are no words to describe riding up and seeing people after people after people.”

A sea of purple lined the streets. “There was so much joy… and tears. People were waving and hugging each other,” she said.

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The local fire company brought every piece of equipment for the homecoming escort. They drove through the high school, where the band played, and then through the middle school and through two elementary schools where children and adults lined the streets and filled the parking lots and rooftops with banners and balloons and smiles and waves.

In town, the First National Bank closed for 15 minutes as every employee, donning purple, came out to cheer Reese homeward as the Burdette family drove by. The John Deere dealership, car dealerships, and other businesses decorated profusely in purple to welcome their hometown hero.

“I thought she was going to jump out of the car, she was so excited. Of course, we had to stop at the barn first,” Claire said with a smile. “She wanted to see her cow Pantene, and the new heifer calf she had on Tuesday.”

Reese had already named the calf Pardi-Gras because she was born during Mardi-Gras, and last week was a ‘Pardi-Gras,’ of sorts, for the two dairy families of Waverly Farms and Windy-Knoll-View… Reese was finally coming home.

“Only Reese would get another heifer calf,” her mother noted. That’s three heifers in a row for Pantene. Reese smiled at the thought. “Ha! My dad’s been getting bulls!”

Her Momo and Papap — Jim and Nina Burdette — had spent much of the past two years at the hospital. Jim says he had envisioned Reese’s homecoming a thousand times.

“It is such a great relief to have her home. We went up to the parade in town, and then beat it back home quick,” Jim said. “I wanted to be here on that porch looking down and seeing her pull in.” After which, he says, “I promptly beat it down the stairs to see her.”

He had spent some time getting Pantene all cleaned up. “We knew that’s who she’d want to see first,” Jim said. “It was too cold to take Reese into the barn, so Justin brought Pantene out to the car.”

It was a poignant moment for Justin as a father to see his young daughter greet her special cow — the cow she had shared with hundreds of Johns Hopkins staff through a photo book Nina made and through a visit by Pantene, along with coolers full of chocolate milk, at the hospital last year during June Dairy Month.

Having seen Pantene and her calf, it was time to get home. Within minutes, she was sitting proudly in her purple chair, reading with her sister, talking of everything she wanted to do.

“She fell right back into life here, as though she never left,” Claire observes.

Having ‘face-timed’ from the hospital during milking, Reese knows her cows and fought to come home to them.

“I spoiled Pantene,” a smiling Reese admits. “She leads good for me, but not so good for anybody else. You know, once a cow gets to know you, she really likes you.”

The purple sign proclaiming “Keep calm and love cows,” that hung in her hospital room, now hangs at home, next to the words from a song the medical staff would hum before every surgery: “Every little thing gonna be alright.”

The dairy community, local community, faith community and the medical staff that have become like family, have all rallied to support Reese not just because her injuries were so severe, but to celebrate the inspiration of the toughness and grace with which she has persevered, and the way God has worked in her life and through her to help others.

“It feels really good that maybe we have given something that people want to give back,” Jim says with emotion. “So many people have done so many things to help this family. We knew Justin and Claire needed to be with Reese and we would do whatever was necessary to keep the farm going for Reese to come home to.”

Their part-time employee went full-time, they hired another helper, and Nina got back into milking again, sore knees and all, but they would never have made it these past two years, says Jim, without the help of others.

“We are part of a good and kind dairy industry and the best small-town America you can find,” Nina adds. “People taking care of people.”

Claire tells of the thousands of letters and messages her daughter Reese has received. Letters that told stories of how Reese’s battle back from the fire inspired others to face their own battles. She tells of three women in the tri-state region who each sent a card to Reese faithfully every week for nearly 100 weeks. In fact, Reese asked the nurse to check her mail before departing Friday. Claire said every piece of mail has been saved, and as Reese faces new goals and challenges, the letters will be read and re-read.

And the way people rallied to help with medical bills through selling and re-selling cattle, and the various groups and clubs and fund drives too numerous to list here.

The challenges will continue. “We’ve closed one chapter and opened another,” says Claire of her daughter’s journey which continues now at home.

Getting her completely off the ventilator will be the next challenge. But she is home and off to a good start. By her second day home, she was already pestering her Papap to get her back out on the Kubota to pick up her driving lessons right where she left off two years ago. She wanted to ride through the fields and tell him every weed she saw. She wanted to walk through the cattle, and tell her Dad and Papap what they should do with this one or that one.

Her next goal? “I want to be walking good enough to lead Pardi-Gras in the All-American at Harrisburg in September,” she said with a radiant smile.

Asked what she would want to say to readers more than anything, she replied: “Thank you so much for thinking of me.”

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All smiles, Justin and Claire Burdette bring their daughter Reese to the front door of home after 662 days of surgeries and recoveries at Johns Hopkins. Photo by Jean Kummer

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First stop before stepping over the home threshold, was the barn to see Pantene. It was a bit cold Friday, so Justin brought his daughter’s cow right to the car window. Photo by Jean Kummer

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Getting back to the rhythms of daily life at home, Reese takes a break from the screen that transports her to school via robot every day for a picture with her mother Claire Burdette. Photo by Sherry Bunting

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The families of Windy-Knoll View, Mercersburg, Pa. and Waverly Farms, Clear Brook, Va., join the crowds of hometown folk lining the streets of Mercersburg for Reese’s homecoming parade. Photo by Laura Jackson

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Jim Burdette envisioned this day thousands of times over the past 22 months. He knew he wanted to be on the second story porch watching his granddaughter come home. But then he beat it down the stairs for a hug. Photo by Laura Jackson

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Reese’s cow Pantene had a sign of her own for Reese’s homecoming. Photo by Laura Jackson

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Pantene’s third heifer calf Pardi-Gras was born just three days before Reese came home. Photo by Jean Kummer

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At the one end of Reese Way (left), put in between the two home farms when she was born, is Reese’s home. At the other end of the lane (right) is the entrance to Windy-Knoll View. When the Fast Signs company that made all the TeamReese signs came to put this one up, Jim Burdette told them, “Don’t cover the farm sign, Reese will love seeing Pledge, Pala, and Promise here to greet her.” Photo by Sherry Bunting

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The land is awakening. Cattle are out grazing. A special cow has a new heifer calf. And a special young lady — ReeseBurdette — has returned home to the joy of her farm and everyday life after 22 months of recovery at Johns Hopkins. Photo by Sherry Bunting

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Reese and Brinkley share a special moment at the hospital on the morning of Reese’s homecoming. Photo by Jean Kummer

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Justin and Claire Burdette with daughters Reese and Brinkley before Reese’s most recent surgery before Christmas. Photo courtesy Jennifer DiDio Photography

 

 

 

 

Innovative milk. Innovative dairy.

By Sherry Bunting 

NASHVILLE, Ill — It came hopping in a month before Easter, and was more popular than Prairie Farms could have imagined. The first run sold out immediately and away they went. Sold only in quart cartons and made with 2% fat milk, the Peeps-flavored milk even has its own hashtag on Twitter: #peepsmilk! Peeps-Milk3597

The chance for tasting came on March 21 while touring Finke Farm’s totally automated dairy — with its Galaxy Astrea 20.20 milking robot and its Trioliet automatic feeder. Craig Finke (right) ships his milk to Prairie Farms. He is pictured with Carbondale area Prairie Farms’ field rep Jim Donahue (left).

wfinke3650I gave all three flavors a thumbs up — my favorite being the actual Peeps flavored milk that tasted a bit like a sweet, but creamy, marshmallow. Chocolate marshmallow was like the ice cream by the same name, with just the right amount of sweetness for a milk. The Easter eggnog was pretty much just another chance to enjoy that super-rich beverage.

wfinke3655 Local FFA students poured samples for hundreds of open house attendees, many of whom said the flavors were more enjoyable than they had imagined.

Kudos to Farmer-owned Prairie Farms — a cooperative that covers portions of the Midwest and Midsouth — for thinking outside the box and drawing consumers to milk via flavor curiosity. The Peeps Milk is available seasonally through spring and only in the Midwest markets.

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Now… about the automation at Finke Farm… FINKE FARM has been in the family at least 5 generations, with Craig and Tricia’s two children Natalie and Hayden being the sixth generation to live here. wfinke3663

Today, the dairy business complements the 1300-acre crop business as Craig is able to operate both on a skeleton crew with the automation of the milking and feeding routines. Robotic milking and feeding also free Craig from the rigid milking schedule.

wFinke9514wfinke9628   Integrated sensor technologies throughout the facility — and as part of the milking and feeding systems — provide the needed information to manage the herd. The herd expanded from 80 cows in the parlor to now 117 cows currently milked by the robot — and capacity for up to 130. Cows milk an average 2.7 times per day giving an average 85 lbs/cow/day.

The Finke herd moved into the new robot barn Nov. 18, 2013. First, Craig introduced the cows to the new barn and started up the feeding system. He walked the cows through the automatic milking system, without milking them, to get them used to the environment. A couple days later, the automatic milking system was started and has milked the herd ever since.

Before Thanksgiving 2013, a neighbor lost facilities in a devastating tornado. Craig offered his empty barn and parlor while they rebuilt. This delayed calf modernization. Calves here will eventually be group-housed with Urban CalfMom automated calf-feeders.   wfinke3606

The total project stemmed from needing to install a new manure handling system. Craig opted for a flush system, which launched the idea for a new freestall barn and feeding system. His family has worked with Unverfehrt Farm Supply for over 35 years.They introduced him to the Trioliet Triomatic Automatic Feeding System. After looking at all robotic milking systems, Craig found he liked best the Galaxy Astrea 20.20 Automatic Milking System (AMS).

wfinke9645   “Galaxy Astrea’s 1/arm, 2-box milking system made the most sense,” he said, seeing in Holland how well the Milking and Feeding Robots complement each other. “The adapting of the cows has been seamless. Surprisingly, they were not the least bit scared of the Triomatic feeder on that first night. They took right to it,” says Craig, describing the Triomatic T30 as “an extremely accurate and consistent, flexible, fully programmable twin screw mixer on a track that feeds the milk cows 7x/day, dry cows and bred heifers 4x/day and the calving pen once a day.”

The T30 mixes and delivers TMR after gathering from 4 bunkers containing corn silage, straw, alfalfa hay, corn gluten and either of 2 stainless steel mineral bins (one for milk cows and one for dry cows/bred heifers) and a bulk bin outside for the base grain ration and a programmable water station to adjust TMR dry matters.

When it comes to the milking, Craig says the Astrea 20.20 is cow- and user-friendly. wfinke9675 He notes its reliability and lower maintenance costs: “We maintain 1 robot arm, 1 camera, 1 laser, and we are spreading the lower cost milking twice as many cows with 2 boxes.”

Focused on comfort, Craig likes the air quality and openness of the Clear Span building and the comfort of the sand-bedded GreenStalls. “It’s amazing how relaxed the cows are,” he says. “They are so much calmer with the flush system because it doesn’t interrupt them doing their thing.”

As for the robots, Craig says he “absolutely loves both systems: The most important difference today is the ability to be more proactive rather than reactive. There is a plethora of information to be gleaned from Galaxy’s Saturnus software. It can tell me a potential problem exists with a cow before I am able to see it,” he says.

“With Galaxy Astrea 20.20 AMS, consistency of the milking routine is much improved. Triomatic T30 Automatic Feeding has enhanced my ability to deliver a consistent ration to the cows day after day. And the PLC-based system that operates the rest of the building’s functions (lights, fans, curtains, flush, garage doors, etc.) and the camera system allows me to respond to changing weather, low feed levels in bunkers and other situations with a click of the mouse or smartphone without having to be present on the farm,” Craig explains. “This has allowed me to be more flexible with my time.”