Tag Archives: cow dairy

Feature Friday ~ Ruby

Every Friday, I will be doing a feature on one of the critters here at Barrows Farm. I want to be able to explain what each animal is like, how they came to be here and what’s important to us about them. Why do I think this is important? It’s important because as a farm, we wouldn’t be where we are today with each animal here. WordPress also gives me an outlet to hold open discussions with our fans that aren’t allowed on other blogging format. It’s important to us that YOU, the reader, have that ability.

This weeks feature animal is Ruby. Ruby is a Lineback/Jersey cross cow and the oldest in our dairy herd. She came to live with us at about a week of age. We got her from Rich’s uncles farm and was originally one of a set of twins. When we first started, we didn’t have everything set up the way that it should have been. The calves, three at that time, were in the main part of the barn. They had free movement and a large area covered in sawdust and bedding. Unfortunately, the bull calf that was with Ruby and her sister Scarlett was rather dominate. One morning, upon arrival in the barn for morning chores, I found Scarlett on her back, wedged under the four wheeler.

To those that don’t understand that cattle have issues with bloat, I will explain. Cattle need to have their heads up, not be facing down hill or rolled over so that the gases inside of their stomach have a place to escape. If left untreated or unnoticed, the gases start entering the bloodstream and literally poisoning the animal. We lost Scarlett because we just didn’t know she was in the wrong position for hours. I did everything I could to treat her, including burping her and propping her head up. It was too late, she was gone.

About a week later, I found Ruby laying in the middle of the concrete floor. It wouldn’t have been bad if it was summer but unfortunately, it was the dead of winter in Upstate NY and it was cold. She was barely responsive and very lethargic. I went into immediate action and moved her to the sawdust pile, grabbed blankets from the house and made a call to the vet. Upon arrival she was given vitamin shots to boost her and the vet and I discussed how to rewarm her. For two solid days, I didn’t sleep. Instead, I walked back and forth from the barn to the house every fifteen minutes to warm blankets and keep changing them out. I used soda bottles with hot water tucked along her sides and slowly got her warm.

I didn’t know if she would survive but I was giving it 110% to make sure she had every available treatment to get her over the hump. You have no idea how elated I was going into the barn the third morning to find her standing at the bale in the center of the floor nibbling on hay and drinking from a bucket full of electrolytes. I actually cried tears of joy.

Now it’s years later and I still can’t get that feeling of connection out of my system. She is my cow. My favorite in the herd. She shares kisses and hugs. There is no better feeling in the world when you ask for a hug from a thousand pound cow and she wraps her head around you. Or that moment when you ask for a kiss and she takes that massive, scratchy, cat-like tongue and licks your face. She is my girl alright.

Beyond her early life struggles, Ruby has developed into the perfect cow. She is easy to care for and hasn’t needed any treatments since. She has provided us with two healthy calves, one heifer and one bull. She gives us lots of milk, even with her calf still nursing. She’s a gentle and loving creature but is also the boss of the herd. She has no issues with keeping her body condition on an all grass diet, in fact she gets kind of fat.

Ruby has had two calves on the farm now and just celebrated her third birthday. Her first calf, Suri, was a heifer (female calf) who is growing up to be very much like her mother. Her second calf, Ramrod, was a bull (boy calf) that is currently nursing and growing very well.

Ruby is the first in the line of cattle we are really looking to integrate into future generations. In years to come, more of her offspring will come and they will become part of our herd. Her calves will take first priority in selecting which ones are used for the next generation because of the ability to do so well on our grass based farm. Her legacy will live on for many, many years to come and we look forward to have her around for many more generations of calves.

Ruby the day we got her. August 2011
Ruby the day we got her. August 2011
Ruby at a year old in 2012
Ruby at a year old in 2012
Ruby with her newborn calf (Suri) in 2013
Ruby with her newborn calf (Suri) in 2013
Two generations. From left to right: Suri, Ruby and Ramrod. Suri and Ramrod are Ruby's offspring from two years.
Two generations of calves. From left to right: Suri, Ruby and Ramrod. 2014
Just lounging around. Rich laying on Ruby
Doreen and Ruby sharing cattle kisses

Milk Money

This is lengthy and I apologize but, I think some things need to be air and discussed on the Herd Retirement Program.

I am a farmer. It’s in my blood. It’s my way of life. I know there are others out there in the world just like me. We are a tough breed who will live off making just enough money to cover the bills and sometimes go without for stretches not being able to make ends meet.

As a farmer, I think we feel we have a commitment to provide the world with food, including milk. Sometimes, our passions outweigh what we know. Losing businesses rarely stay in operation for three or four years without showing some ink in the black, profit zones.

I am also a consumer, one that pinches every penny possible. I am concerned over soaring prices everywhere and extremely concerned about other people making ends meet when soaring grocery bills are taking up a larger chunk of their paychecks.

A recent article called Milk Money in the City Pages has taken me back many years to my youth. It’s brought back memories of working with my Grandpa at a young age to assist all I could in the barn. I loved it. It was my one sanctuary in the world, that barn was my life line.

Back to the article, my spouse and farm partner was operating a 30 cow dairy at that time. His parent’s were also. Both farms were sold off under the program. Rich’s were sold off prior to the big government push in 1985 and his parent’s were sold off under the direct program listed in April of 1986. My grandfather, who had lost his home due to a fire and in turn his farm in 1982, was irate that he hadn’t held on long enough for the buyout.

I will admit I was too young to fully understand what was going on at that point. All I knew is that I loved spending time in the dairy barn and it was gone. As the years progressed, some people still refer back to those times. Even Rich was confused over why the USDA had even offered the program. Milk prices didn’t change. All he knew is that he no longer had a farm.

After talking with him about it at length last evening, nearly 30 years later, the only benefit he saw to the program was that his payment paid off all of his over-extended bills and provided him with an escape from his farm debt and the ability to keep his sixth generation farm land. He also stated that he received a payment of .40/hundred weight of milk produced and still received another .35-.40/lb for each animal sold. On a 30 cow dairy with a herd average of 14,000 pounds of milk produced, that alone was a payment of around $168,000.

Right now the milk prices are around $17-$18 per hundred weight of milk paid to the farmers. In 1985 when Rich sold out, milk prices were around $14 per hundred weight. It was a little cheaper for grains but only by about $60 a ton. Actual on farm production prices were actually higher than they are now. The newer fuel-efficient tractors that have come into the market place and advancements on machinery have changed drastically since those days. In 1985, most farms were still using small square bales for feeding. Now the use of large 3’x4’ square bales and round balers are prevalent. General speaking, the overall cost of production and feed inputs when including the labor involved probably ranked on a higher dollar value back in the early 80s.

One thing that needs to be understood about that program is the general concept. The concept was that we had too much cheese, butter and yes, milk in storage. At that time, we also did not have the trade agreements that we now have with countries like China either. China wouldn’t even talk to President Reagan. But, the question is, what was the purpose?

The purpose of the program was to limit the amounts of products that were going into storage. One thing people do forget is that all milk products are perishable, except for powdered milk. Times were different then, we didn’t have the advancements and extent of understanding that we do now about export markets and the commodity value of things like exported cheese. Here these perishable goods sat in storage, paid for by the government by tax payer dollars with thousands of tons being sent to landfills every year.

Did the program work? Maybe as a short-term program it did. The levels of items going into storage did reduce. But what happened long-term is that many small farms that were struggling to make ends meet got out of the industry and larger farms just continued to expand. You can almost pinpoint the spike in growth of large commercial farms in correlation with this program in the 80s.

Let’s jump forward to today. There are groups working as cooperatives to compete with commercial-scale dairies. We have lost the mentality of quality over quantity. Now, it’s all about who can produce the most milk with decent protein levels (because that’s the newest standard) for the cheapest inputs. It’s a tough, competitive world out there. I can name five small farms in my area that still can’t produce the amounts of milk being shipped from one commercial dairy. So, you might ask, who can keep feed cost down the best?

Commercial dairies around me have started getting in Mexican or Honduran farm hands about five to ten years ago. This actually keeps their labor costs down. Good farm help is difficult to find and especially ones that work like immigrants do. Smaller farms don’t have the accommodations to provide room and board for one, let alone more. They depend on local help and in turn those local folks want to get paid a fair wage. Which, I honestly can’t blame them, it’s hard work.

Now that you know the difference in labor, let’s look at crop production. Crop production for the small farm includes using smaller tractors which take longer to get crops done. A small farm might take 3 days to get in 50 acres of crops. Large commercial farms gather their drivers, their big equipment and blast out 150 acres in less than two days. On a pound per pound, the commercial dairy can produce chopped hay for feed for about .65 per cow per day while the small farm costs about .85 per cow per day. Over a 100 cows being fed the same amounts, that’s a total of over $7000.00 difference per year.

When feed grain prices skyrocket like we saw in 2010, which also cuts into the small farms profit margins. The large dairy can afford to have large loads brought in and have ample room for storage. But, the small farm might not have the room for storage and also runs the risk of grains souring prior to use because of the low amounts used daily. A quick comparison: Large farm orders in bulk at 7.15 per bushel (56 lbs) and the small farm ends up paying about 7.50 per bushel. At 8 lbs of grain per cow per day, that’s five cents more per cow per day. For each 100 cows, that’s another $1800 per year.

Why am I explaining all of these differences? I explain them because I think it’s important for the general public to understand the comparison of profit margins. Both of these farms are still getting paid the exact same amount for milk. They both still have taxes, insurance, tractor payments and electricity that are all about equal.

My question to all is now this: If you are and have been committed to something you love and do with a passion, what would it take to get you out? If you have the option of receiving enough money to pay off all of your debts and have a little bit left over, would you take it? Knowing the farmers mentality, I know it would take a lot for me to get out of farming and probably the only thing that would be is financial security.

As for milk price-fixing, I think that some of this does tie back into keeping the milk prices as stable as possible. I know people want cheap milk and I can see the argument that this isn’t a good policy. It is about how much money you spend out of your pay for the food you eat and the milk you drink.

But, one thing that seems to be missing is the understanding that farmers cannot continue to make milk with payments of $10.00 per hundred weight of milk like we saw in 2009, especially when milk production costs for feed, fuel, etc are at an average $11 per hundred. If a cow produced 100 lbs. of milk per day, that means the farmer loses a dollar a day, per cow! You cannot build profits doing business like that.

We have all got to work together and understand the system. I know many of you think that milk should just be produced on a day-to-day basis and the more produced, the cheaper it becomes. Unfortunately for farmers, even though we love what we do, it’s still a business and we still need to make money.

Milk is a commodity, not much different that the oil used to fuel your car. It works off the supply and demand system but sometimes, we have to add more units to storage to keep the prices cost-effective and sometimes we need to purchase more to keep up with the ever-growing demand. It isn’t an easy job to watch and predict the markets. Milk production is controlled through that same mentality. Right or wrong, the people who produce the milk from cows they own still have the ultimate decision to make.

There are a great deal of flaws with our system, with that I will not argue. But, in today’s markets everything is volatile. It doesn’t matter if it’s oil, milk, grains, meat or stocks. It all jumps around so fast it’s hard to keep up sometimes. As a producer, the volatility creates high risk for me when I am locked into just milk production. The retirement program allows a farm with what I like to call a niche market and singular product (and a system I need to clarify that I do NOT promote) the risk is huge to make profits on a continual basis.

Do I feel that in today’s market the retirement program is needed? The simple answer is NO, I don’t. With the droughts in the Southwest, meat prices are on a slow and steady incline, expected to raise beef prices approximately 8% in 2012. A little known fact too many is that approximately 1/3 of the beef on supermarket shelves is actually derived from cull cows from dairy farms. The price increases for cull cows has been tremendous over the past year. In 2010, we sold an animal at auction and received a check for $719. In 2011, we sold an animal at auction (two pounds difference in weight) for a payment of $1010. As a good producing cow, her worth is between $900 and $1200. Since cull cows are one’s that usually start having breeding problems, she is definitely worth more as beef.

There is a great deal of additional underlying issues to the retirement program as well. Many of these farms that are utilizing this program are not properly managed to begin with. Today’s dairy farms require extensive paperwork to track and maintain feeding programs, breeding protocol, animal health and animal welfare. The farms today that are prospering are not the farms we knew growing up. They run like well oiled machines with every consideration taken into account for overall farm production.

There is also the issue of the age of the farmer. These buyout programs offer them a way to retire. Unfortunately, as with the hiring of immigrants to do farm labor there just aren’t the people willing to work the life of a farmer anymore. With no one to transition into the farm, it makes it difficult for a farmer to just walk away. Remember the commitment of a farmer to produce food, that doesn’t leave us as we age.

As you can read, I sit on both sides of the fence on the herd retirement program. In some ways, for some folks, I think it is an option. While I sit on the fence, I also see an ever-growing demand for milk here in NY due largely to yogurt manufacturing in the state but, it isn’t like that in all states. I also see the consumers demand for cheap milk and I understand the issues of affordability. But somewhere along the way, we all need to decide that farms still have to make money to survive and we need to ensure a stable market with limited risk for new farms to develop.

I don’t have the answers and half the time the more research I do the more questions I have. My concern is that through these programs we are leaving out the small farms that make up the back bone of quality in this country. We are pushing toward the highest production costs for food in recorded history but milk prices have been staying within the same range for at least three decades. Where and how is our milk going to be produced in the future? Why would the younger generation come into a dairy farm knowing that they won’t get any type of raise (from profit) during the remainder of their lives?

Our biggest concerns should be quality and affordability for all. How can that be achieved without government buyouts? I honestly do not know.