12/1/2012 7:00 AM
By Chris Torres Staff Writer
BARTO, Pa. — When Shawn and Mary-Ann O’Rourke woke up on Sunday, Nov. 18, they knew what happened the day before on their dairy was something special.
In a span of six hours, one of their cows gave birth to three healthy heifer calves.
It’s a rare feat. According to Holstein World, a dairy cow has a chance of 1 in 8 million of giving birth to healthy heifer triplets.
You have a better chance of becoming a movie star or getting struck by lightning according to the website The Daily Beast.
But the fact that Holly, Dolly and Polly are alive and kicking two weeks later makes perfect sense to the O’Rourkes, given that they have been trying to beat the odds and become successful dairy farmers for the past five years.
The two bought the farm in 2007 right when the dairy market was hitting a peak. Since then, they have seen the worst dairy market in decades and the highest corn and soybean prices on record.
But they don’t regret it.
“I wish that I would’ve started dairying earlier in my life, because I really do enjoy it,” said Shawn O’Rourke, who grew up just outside Pittsburgh and met Mary-Ann, who grew up outside Philadelphia, in the early 1990s.
The couple married in 1997 and have two children, Emily, 13, and John, 11. They bought the farm, which is near the Montgomery-Berks county line, in 2007.
It was always Shawn O’Rourke’s dream to have a dairy farm. Even though his parents weren’t farmers, he’s been working on farms since he was a youngster.
After graduating from high school, he enrolled in Delaware Valley College and started a custom farming operation. The business became so successful — he harvested as many as 2,500 acres of grain at one time — that he dropped out of college to focus on it.
In the mid-1990s, O’Rourke started a construction business, Environmental Landscaping Services, which specialized in cleaning up federal superfund sites. He later got into housing excavation work.
But he always had an urge to get back into farming full time and in particular, dairy.
When the farm in Barto became available in 2007, the couple decided to go for it and bought the 100-acre property.
It had a fairly new freestall barn, milking parlor and manure management system, all built in 2000.
The only thing that was missing was the cows.
The couple worked with other farmers and dairy breeders to find animals to start the business.
“We went a lot of places in order to finally find the herd, the cows that I liked,” O’Rourke said. “And if you’re going to spend the money, I say you have to go and buy the best you can buy to get started.”
After visiting several farms between Maryland and New England, they settled on the Willet Dairy in Locke, N.Y., a 6,000-head operation.
“We went up and picked out 150 out of the herd and brought them down here and started dairying on Christmas Eve 2007,” he said, describing the herd as a good mix of fresh cows, dry cows, midlactation cows, and young heifers and calves.
Safe to say, the past five years have been a roller coaster ride.
“We got into dairy when prices were at the highest point,” he said.
Then prices collapsed.
“And so, in my five years of dairying, we’ve seen the highest point, the lowest milk prices and also the highest inputs,” he said. “Just like anything else, farming is a business and you have to run it like a business. Financially we’ve been against some major challenges the last couple of years.”
Getting heifers bred, he said, was initially one of the biggest challenges — just as it was with the cow that later gave birth to the triplets.
After attempting to get the cow bred by artificial insemination, the couple turned her over to a Red Holstein bull.
Shawn said it was a matter of timing, as he suspects the cow was too late to be artificially inseminated and was a little early to be bred by the bull.
Still, the cow became pregnant and on Saturday, Nov. 17, she started calving two days earlier than expected.
Employees routinely check the pre-fresh pens and dry cows before and after milking. Nothing happened after the first milking, which started at 1 p.m. But when employees came back at 3 p.m., the cow had given birth to a calf. She was later moved to a “hospital pen” and within two hours, a second calf was born.
Two hours after that, a third calf was born.
Within a span of six hours, three healthy heifer calves were born and the mother cow seemed perfectly healthy, with no complications.
“The chances of them living through all of that night and her (cow) not having complications was amazing if you ask me,” O’Rourke said. “Most dairy farmers never see triplets born in their lifetime or their career in milking. For us to see triplets and three heifer calves, we’re really excited about it.”
The couple said they plan on raising the calves and perhaps giving them to their children as 4-H projects.
The triplets have brought a lot of attention to the couple the past couple of weeks.
But the challenges of running a dairy remain.
O’Rourke said he’s still recovering from the 2008 milk price collapse, even after four years.
“I still don’t know that we’re all the way through it. You dig a hole and you have to keep on moving forward and paying off the hole that you dug,” he said. “It’s a challenge and it’s a tough, tough industry, especially when you haven’t inherited anything or have had anything handed down to you and your lack of experience in the industry.”
The couple have made several improvements to get more efficient, including building new feed bunks and renting out acreage to grow enough feed for the entire herd, which numbers around 350 head.
They used to employ more than a dozen part-time students from Delaware Valley College to help milk. Now, they employ a full-time herd manager and a handful of migrant workers, which O’Rourke said has made it easier to meet payroll.
Knowing the costs of making a hundredweight of milk is key, he said, because it has enabled him to forward-contract what he gets for his milk through cheese contracts.
The farm’s rolling herd average is between 21,000 and 23,000 while the somatic cell count hovers around 200,000. The milk is marketed through Land O’ Lakes.
Working with a good banker, he said, is also critical.
“Getting to work with a good financial institution is probably the best key that you have because it really is important. Treating farming as a business and not just farming is really important,” he said.
The farm is preserved, and the couple hope their children will one day take over. Dairy farming is a lot of hard work and little pay, but the couple see a good payoff at the end.
“The way I look at it, if you can give them (children) a good direction, everything else will be worth it in the long run,” O’Rourke said.