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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