By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, August 19, 2022
ROARING BRANCH, Pa. — It is likely to be the largest dairy herd dispersal in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania when the Bishop family has their two-day auction of 1500 head on September 1st and 2nd at Bishcroft Farm here in Roaring Branch, Tioga County.
The sale is managed by Fraley Auction Company, Muncy.
The Bishops have been dairying 83 years across three generations. Herman and Marianne are in their 75th year of membership with Land O’Lakes and were recently recognized for that milestone. They operate the farm in partnership with sons Tim and his wife Anne and Rich and his wife Nikki and are transitioning toward a more flexible future, while leaving open the option that another generation may want to milk cows on a smaller scale someday.
The closed commercial herd of sire-identified, AI-bred Holsteins is attracting interest with 580 first and second lactation out of the 750 total milking and dry cows selling Thursday (Sept. 1) and the 750 heifers selling Friday (Sept. 2), ranging 4 months old to springing, with 100 heifers due from sale time through December.
The herd makes an RHA of 26,146M 1021F 797P with somatic cell count averaging 138,000 on the sale cattle.
The sale list will note whether cows are bred to beef or sexed semen Holstein.
They started with Angus beef-on-dairy three to four years ago, primarily on the cows that weren’t settling — resulting in those genetics leaving the herd, Rich explains.
They use Holstein sires on the cows that are daughters from higher net merit bulls, and all bred heifers are due to Holstein sires with 90% to sexed semen, the Bishops confirm. Two-year-olds are also bred first service to sexed semen with a high percentage due to sexed-semen.
The Bishops are keeping all crossbred cattle and all calves under four months of age to raise and sell at breeding age, as they have forage to use up.
“We’re also keeping the bottom end of the cows to continue milking 100 to 150 head for a while,” Rich explains. That is until their valuable production base with Land O’Lakes is sold.
“Our base is listed on the Land O’Lakes website and must transfer through their system, but they don’t set the prices,” he explains. “The buyer and seller negotiate the price and quantity with a 1000-pound daily base minimum transaction.”
Bishcroft currently ships a trailer load of milk every 21 hours. They have worked hard to manage their production to their daily base of 64,352 pounds of milk, which can only be sold to existing Land O’Lakes members.
During a recent Farmshine visit, Rich’s son Peter, 13, was the one to say he’ll really miss the dairy cows.
“He’s never known anything different,” says Nikki. “He fed the calves with me since he was a toddler.”
At the time of the sale, the Bishops are milking 750 cows 3x, having peaked in January milking 820. They have always milked 3x, even experimenting with 4x, seeing 7 to 8 pounds of additional milk per cow, but finding it unsustainable in terms of labor.
The Bishops observe that smaller dairies and more diversified farms have more flexibility to navigate changes in weather patterns, markets, labor and policies.
“I don’t see ever going back to milking a large herd here,” says Rich. “Maybe a small herd. Maybe Peter will want to do something like that with direct-to-consumer sales. But I don’t see going back to what we have today.”
At Ag Progress Days last week, a panel of experts said Pennsylvania is the state with the second largest volume of direct-to-consumer sales of farm products. A relationship with consumers holds some appeal for the Bishops as they transition into cash cropping with some beef on the side and a limited amount of pork as well.
The Bishops have always strived to be near the top of the dairy pack. Progressive and forward-thinking, the brothers participated in industry conferences and geared decisions toward cow comfort, productivity, quality and efficiency.
In fact, that’s something they’ll miss most — the friends they would regularly see at dairy industry meetings.
“Things aren’t what they used to be,” says Tim.
“We see this developing to where larger herds like ours have to be in the top 10 to 20% or we are going backward,” Rich observes. “Dad is almost 77, and he’s doing the majority of the feeding. Tim and I want to spend more time with our families off the farm, and it’s getting harder to attract and keep employees that are willing to work these hours or to make enough money in dairy here to pay the wages and overtime competing with what is happening in New York State.”
The milk price jump of 50% this year was welcome relief after six years of tight margins and uncertainty. That’s when the Bishops really took stock of their position and decided to invest differently.
When asked how it feels to see the herd being sold, Herman, the patriarch, replied: “This is no different than what I did in 1970 when I increased my dad’s herd.
“It’s the way it goes. We made a change in 2004 and 2005 for another generation, not for me. I had a registered herd of 150 cows. We did a lot of research. The boys went and looked at 60 farms. They built this and expanded the herd (from 150 to 350 and from 350 to 650 and from 650 to 800). We changed things for the times, and that’s what’s happening now, a change for another generation,” Herman explains.
Rumors have run rampant, but the simple truth is this: The families are transitioning to options they see as more flexible and less stressful.
They began transitioning their cropping this spring, knowing they wouldn’t need the same mix of crops and forages. They had already been doing trial work for Syngenta. They started looking into utilizing the freestall facilities for beef to some extent, maybe converting to a bedded pack. They’ll still make some hay, but their investments now are in equipment for cash cropping the 1450 acres of land they own and rent.
They planted soybeans for the first time and handled the cover crops differently, harvesting some as small grains, and burning a lot of it down as ‘green manure’ fertilizer to minimize their need for purchased fertilizer.
This will also be their first year combining corn, Tim explains, noting that on-farm grain storage is something they are looking at as they planned to go to Empire Farm Days the day after our visit.
In fact, the brothers note the higher milk price this year allowed them to make some crop equipment investments from cash flow.
As the Bishops raise and feed-out their beef-on-dairy crossbreds, they realize they have a learning curve ahead of them if they move further into beef production.
“We hope to do some direct-to-consumer sales,” says Tim, “feed some of these cattle and bring in a few pigs, even look at doing a truck patch (garden).”
Nikki says the family has always taken time to educate and advocate with the community of consumers around them. Tim’s youngest daughter is a Little Miss U.S. Agriculture, and Nikki fields questions constantly from her colleagues where she works at a local hospital. They want to know where their food comes from.
“People are curious. I have explained cattle rations, comparing it to the ‘ages and stages’ diets we have for kids (at the hospital). The response I would get is ‘that sounds like complicated hard work, why don’t you just buy milk at the store like everyone else?’” Nikki relates.
“These are educated people, and they didn’t quite get it until I explained that if they went to Weis Markets, the milk they were buying might be ours!”
She also tells the story from a few years back when fellow nurses saw the rBST-free pledge on the little milk chugs in the hospital cafeteria and started asking what it was because they thought they were going to win a ‘free rBST.’
While young Peter said several times that he’ll miss the cows, others in the family said they’ll miss the fresh milk.
“We might have to keep a few to milk for ourselves and to have milk to feed to the pigs,” says Tim.
“Excited and nervous” were the two words he used to describe the transition ahead.
“It is nerve-wracking but also feels a little like seeing a bit of light at the end of the tunnel,” Rich adds, noting the stress that comes with price volatility and labor issues will now flip to adjusting to managing cash flow without the regularity of a milk check.
The children are still adjusting to the news, having learned of the decision just a few weeks before our visit.
Some have favorite cows they’ve grown and shown that will have to stay, but Rich also notes none of the kids were “dying to milk cows,” and if they decide they want to do that, some assets are here they can put to use on a smaller scale.
“We have ideas and thoughts about how to utilize what we have differently, but we want to walk before we run,” he says.
Toward that end, the brothers are participating in seminars and looking at beef programs that are coming along. Their main focus will be low input, feeding the current beef-on-dairy crossbreds, raising the 120 heifer calves under 4 months of age they are retaining to breeding age, seeing how the sale goes, maybe looking at buying some feeder cattle… Time will tell as they look and learn and adjust.
“When you realize what a huge world God has created and we’re out here trying to feed the world, you realize how fortunate you are to live here and to be farming,” says Tim.As Herman affirms, this is another chapter in the story:
“The farm and the family are here. As for the future, we never know what it brings.”