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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Faith, focus, friendships, fighting for each other’s survival: Dairywomen share insights, Part Two

AUTHOR’S NOTE: A dozen women from multiple generations, states and farm sizes respond to the same questions. Part one ran last week, here is part two.

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, November 23, 2018

BROWNSTOWN, Pa. — When asked what challenges and opportunities women see for dairy farming today into the future, “sustainability” comes to the forefront, but not in the way we often see this term used.

“The biggest challenge is, of course, sustainability… Can we survive!?” writes Joy Widerman, the youngest partner-owner of the second generation of the Hess family operating JoBo Holsteins, a 1075-cow dairy that grew to include multiple families and generations after her parents John and Bonnie relocated from Lancaster County to Adams County, Pennsylvania in the 1970s.

Joy is herdswoman and takes care of reproduction and genetic decisions, so she is continually looking ahead at the registered Holstein and Brown Swiss herd’s future.

“We are doing everything in our power to be profitable, but with so many unknowns in the dairy industry, it’s hard. From milk prices to feed prices, to weather — farming is one of riskiest jobs to have,” Joy relates.

She wonders how dairy farms will “make room for future generations to join.”

Profitability is the key to achieving that, and experts suggest diversification.

“But with the market as scary as it is,” writes Joy. “How do we do that? These are questions my family faces everyday… What’s next?”

Alicia Haag of Mohrsville, Pennsylvania also talks about the uncertainty. “We don’t know what tomorrow brings,” she says. “So we clamp down hard on our faith and try to feel the blessings of having this opportunity to grow up in America and be blessed with what we have at the moment.”

Alicia finds it difficult to see all the herd dispersals happening, and she tries “not to dwell on the bad” and to remain thankful to have children with a keen interest in the farm that has been in her husband’s family for seven generations.

She and her husband Mike milk 76 registered Holsteins in a tiestall barn. She takes care of the night milking with her daughter and occasional help from a neighbor. She is responsible for calf care and feeding, and helps anywhere else she is needed. She has also been working off the farm as a construction-zone flagger for a local contractor since 1999.

In the last year or two, Alicia has increased her off-farm hours, working two or three days a week, every week, to help bring income back to the farm. She often flags beside other local dairywoman on job sites all over.

“It’s hard for moms to find a job off the farm that provides good enough pay to make income after paying the help that replaces you at home,” Alicia notes. “There aren’t many jobs that also give the flexibility I need to be able to successfully be a mom and farm wife.”

She hopes other employers will consider flexibility the next time they consider employing a farm wife.

“If we want to help the farming industry remain here, having off-farm jobs that offer a little flexibility could be a key,” Alicia suggests. “Employers should know that when they hire a farmer’s wife, they are getting someone who is going to come in and give 100%.”

This year has been particularly stressful on farm families, she observes: “We are tired between the economic stress and the weather. It’s hard to get yourself out of the funk. Trying to get crops off when you know the income isn’t there with milk prices, so you’re trying to do the crops right to get by with the income you have.”

The Haags, like others, had extra expenses with replanting and not being able to get forages off the fields timely this season. In times of stress, she cites the special importance of family, friends and networking with others as a way to rejuvenate optimism — whether it’s getting together with friends, a hug from someone who understands, or the ideas and support gleaned in a network of other farm women.

While there isn’t much time for it, Alicia loves sitting on her front porch and talking with her kids. “Most of the corn is off, and the cover crops are just starting to peek through,” she describes the November scene as a metaphor. “This is life — looking out, everything looks dead, but I know that in this field there are seeds planted, and it will soon be green again.”

For Karen Hawbaker of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, living in faith surrounded with people who share her values have been keys to getting through the toughest of times.

“We can’t do life alone,” she says, noting the good in getting away, mentally and physically, even if just for a few hours. She believes dairy farmers need this, and sometimes the ‘one more thing to do’ can be replaced with ‘it can be done tomorrow.’

Karen started dairy farming with her late husband Rodney in the 1980s. Eight years ago, she lost him in a farming accident. Today, she operates the 200-cow dairy on her own with a team of employees and trusted advisors.

“If God helps get us through something, that’s another confirmation that we are where we are meant to be. We can’t do any of this without faith. It changes the whole outlook,” Karen explains, reflecting on how she felt the prayers of others in her loss. “I look around and see that I would hate to try to do this by myself. When we set ourselves apart, it causes divisions. We have enough divisions out there.”

Carol Williams of Madison, Georgia also observes how bringing people together — within and beyond the farm gate — provides what is her true definition of opportunity: “A set of circumstances that makes it possible to do something.”

She has been farming 42 of the 43 years she and Everett have been married. She has milked, fed calves, raised replacements, planted, chopped, hauled and spread crops for silage, fed cows, hauled cows, pulled calves, built fences, finished concrete, changed tires, done minor mechanic work all while raising four kids and being a homemaker.

Dairywomen balance a lot of competing priorities!

Today, their two sons take care of day-to-day management of the 1700-cow WDairy, and their two daughters help in the office and with dairy promotion and youth events.

“Being part of networks helps people to understand that they are not alone. Women on farms can be isolated, and with today’s economic atmosphere, they can be discouraged,” Carol observes, explaining how seeing other women go through the same things, getting tips on how to do things, and hearing encouraging words helps.

“When I was young, all the other wives were teachers, and I had no one to relate to. I would have benefitted greatly from a friendly network,” she recalls.

Without exception, dairywomen see the importance of reaching out beyond the farm gate as the percentage of the population in farming continues to diminish.

“All farmers have the same challenges of weather, low prices, high input costs, and labor shortages,” Carol notes, citing one of the biggest challenges as the amount of misinformation that is publicized daily about agriculture.

“Most people have no idea what is really involved in producing the food and fiber that they use daily. They believe that dairy farmers abuse their animals, that farmers purposely pollute streams and rivers, that we have 9-to-5 jobs with weekends off, that we are getting wealthy, that meat and dairy products are unhealthy, and that nuts can give milk,” she relates. “Even worse, they have been so brainwashed that you cannot hold a reasonable conversation to try and educate them about reality.”

These are the shared frustrations of many dairywomen engaging daily on the front lines of communication with consumers, their non-farm peers, at community events, while grocery shopping, by giving tours and on social media.

“Tours at the dairy are a great opportunity to show people just how much our animals mean to us, how their comfort and well-being are our number one priority and how complicated, technologically-advanced and exhausting dairy farming is,” writes Carol.

She tells about the Commercial Dairy Heifer Show Program in Georgia and the opportunity it gives FFA and 4-H youth — 95% of them not from farms. “Dairy farmers loan calves to the kids to raise, train and show. At the end of the show season the heifers are returned to the dairy farmer, and they can get another one for the next season.

“Not only are we teaching these youth about animal care and responsibility, we are educating them about dairy farming. By being exposed to this, many are choosing careers in agriculture,” Carol explains how it leads to more sharing opportunities to the family and friends of these young people.

In Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Joy Widerman agrees that public understanding is huge in the sustainability — the survival — of family dairy farms. As a mother of three, her quest for balance keeps her focused.

“I know that if I spend too much time worrying about the future of JoBo, then I start to forget what’s truly important — my kids and my family,” she writes, noting that the third generation shows interest in the farm. Some work on the farm after school or after clocking out of their jobs. “Our farm is the backbone of our family. I try not to sugar-coat it. My kids know how hard it is to survive… and that we need to work hard at being profitable.

“I do everything I can to educate the public, so they know what farmers are facing,” she explains. Joy gives tours at the farm, speaks at local meetings of civic organizations and stays in touch through the farm’s Facebook page.

She believes farmers need to stay connected to each other and to consumers.

“Any opportunity we have to talk to others about what we are facing, we should do it,” Joy suggests. “We all need to realize we aren’t in it alone. It’s key that we all lean on each other… to talk and let our voices be heard. We need to fight for each other’s survival.”

Look for more dairywomen wisdom as this Farmshine series continues next week.

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