Berks Farm Family Wins County Award

7/19/2014 7:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer

MOHRSVILLE, Pa. — Mike Haag and his family have made a lot of changes since they moved to his family’s home farm four years ago.

They are milking more cows, the animals have more amenities, and the farm is more environmentally friendly.

The Haags — Mike, his wife, Alicia, and their children, Sara, 9, and Cody, 7 — will be honored as the Berks County Farm Family of the Year on Wednesday at the Reading Fair Banquet.

The family applied at the request of Steve Mohn, the fair president, Alicia Haag said. The fair sponsors the award along with the Berks County Pomona Grange.

Like many younger farmers, Mike Haag took more than a decade to get back to the home farm.

After finishing school in 1998, he worked off the farm. He started with a herd of 40 cows at a local farm, then moved up to 64 at a farm in Tulpehocken, and now milks 76 registered Holsteins on the 125-acre farm where he grew up.

Mike Haag is the seventh generation to live on the farm and the second generation to win Farm Family of the Year. His parents, David and Mary Haag, won the award 10 years ago.

Alicia Haag, meanwhile, grew up on a dairy farm 10 minutes away.

David and Mary Haag had been milking 32 cows and had started renovating the dairy barn, but Mike and Alicia extended the milk rows and the pipeline to accommodate the 76 cows.

In four years, they have built sheds for heifers and bred heifers, cemented the floor of the dry cow pen to reduce runoff, and built two manure pits. They got help from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service on many of the projects and are planning more environmental work with the agency.

“We kind of hit the ground running,” Alicia Haag said.

The manure pits saved her husband the chore of hauling manure every day, and automatic takeoff milkers have likewise helped the farm become more efficient, she said.

The family improved cow comfort by adding new mattresses and putting in four 72-inch fans. The mattresses take longer to clean than a bedded pack, but the Haags are saving some money on bedding costs.

“We truly believe, you take care of the cow, the cow’s going to take care of you,” Alicia Haag said.

The annual award, of course, is about honoring the family dimension of farming.

“It’s got its challenges and its rewards,” Alicia Haag said of working with her family.

Most people can go home from work and tell their spouse if the boss was crabby that day. “There’s no going home and leaving your job” as a farmer, she said.

Alicia and Sara work together on night milking, which has played a big role in their good mother-daughter relationship, she said.

Mike handles the morning milking.

“We both have a pretty good love of the animals,” Alicia Haag said.

All four family members have their own animals, but they all celebrate together when a new one is born and support each other when one is lost.

“You’re always here for each other,” Alicia Haag said.

They breed for type and production, and show at the Kempton, Reading, Kutztown and Schuylkill County fairs.

This is Sara’s first year showing as a 4-H’er, and she placed well at the Kempton Country Fair. She took first in showmanship, second in type, third in fitting, and reserve champion best bred and owned.

“That was kind of neat,” Alicia Haag said.

If Sara’s emphasis is on showing and handling the cows, Cody is fixated on tractors. The tractor on his T-shirt should have been a giveaway.

Cody bought his own tractor, a John Deere 140, to tend his pumpkin patch. He also cleans out Sara’s calf pen and takes the manure to the gutter for her, Alicia Haag said.

“He helps us out with bedding while we milk,” his mom said.

While Cody spent most of the interview listening obediently, he jumped in at one point to tell a story about his love for his grandfather’s John Deere.

In the story, then-2-year-old Cody told his grandfather, “You broke my tractor,” when the machine needed repairs.

Cody also helps his dad as much as he can in the field and the barn, Alicia Haag said.

Until last year, Mike Haag worked side by side with his father, grandfather and son. “It’s neat seeing four generations on the farm,” Alicia Haag said.

The Haags grow corn, alfalfa and double-cropped triticale after the silage. “We store everything in Ag-Bags,” Mike Haag said.

Farm Family of the Year candidates are judged by a scrapbook about their farm and by the farm-related activities they are a part of. The Haags help with 4-H and FFA and are members of the Ontelaunee Community Grange.

They help with tractor safety courses and stage a scavenger hunt on their farm. They have the students look for dangers on the farm “so they’ll be able to spot them on their own farm,” Alicia Haag said.

The family attends Mohrsville Church of the Brethren, and both youngsters are involved in several sports.

Alicia Haag sees the spotlight of the award as a way to present agriculture positively. “It’s kind of one way of getting out our views,” she said.

The Haags have more plans to improve the farm in the future, too.

“We’d like to, at some point, breed some excellent cows,” Alicia Haag said.

They raise all their calves and heifers on the farm, so they are hoping to build a dedicated calf barn to replace the calf hutches they currently use.

And of course, they hope to pass the farm on to the eighth generation — something Cody, a second-grader, said is definitely going to happen.

The herd is about the average size for Pennsylvania, but small on the national scale.

The couple said they thought of expanding to a 120-cow freestall when they moved to the farm, but they stayed with a tie stall and what they could afford.

“A freestall’s definitely in the plans,” Alicia Haag said. “At 76 cows, it’s kind of enough for right now.”

The cows all have names because they are registered, and the herd size allows more personal interaction with each cow. “We kind of know them,” she said.

“For us, this is kind of what’s comfortable,” she said.

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