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.
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.”