First-Generation Farmers Provide Insights to Farm Growth, Success

2/15/2014 7:00 AM
By Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade Special Sections Editor

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Dairy farming tends to be a multigenerational business. But Jon Gilbert and Bill Morgan of Scipio Springs Dairy in Union Springs, N.Y., are the exception. They are first-generation dairy farmers.

“Neither Jon or I were raised on a dairy farm,” Morgan said at the Pennsylvania Dairy Summit on Wednesday morning. “We chose a career in dairy farming.”

The pair spoke to about 300 dairy producers and industry representatives at the Penn Stater Conference Center in State College.

Morgan used to spend childhood summers on an uncle’s farm in Susquehanna County and started his dairy career working as a herdsman for several farms before joining the team at Oakwood Dairy.

Gilbert started his career in the Farm Credit system before he also joined Oakwood. Both eventually became partners at the Auburn, N.Y., farm.

After spending several years at Oakwood, the pair decided they wanted to strike out on their own, and Scipio Springs Dairy was born.

They took their experiences at Oakwood and broke ground on the farm in 2002, establishing a 500-cow dairy. Employing the Oakwood model of labor efficiency and high production, they focused on building a dairy barn on a crop farm, contracting for their crops and heifer raising.

With their limited capital, purchasing feed for their dairy made the most sense. “Until ethanol,” Morgan said. “When you are a purchased-feed dairy, you are going to compete with grain.”

As grain prices rose, he said, they had to adjust. Around the same time, they decided to look for a satellite dairy to improve their land base.

The farm had to meet specific criteria for location, facilities and soil types. They purchased Windsong Dairy near Watertown, N.Y., bringing in one of their herdsmen, Diesel Hitt, as a partner in the operation.

Morgan said it was a way to keep Hitt a part of the farm team. The satellite dairy has a double-16 herringbone parlor and a 500-cow freestall barn.

“As a startup dairy, you can’t spend extra money on labor,” Gilbert said.

The partners have worked to develop systems that are beneficial to the employees as well as the cows.

Today, Scipio Spring Dairy has 800 cows with a rolling herd average of 30,700 pounds of milk and 600 acres. Windsong Dairy has 600 cows with a rolling herd average of 28,920 and 1,400 acres.

The business is a member of the Cayuga Marketing Group, a farmer-operated milk marketing organization.

Gilbert said one of the cow management goals is to keep the systems simple. Cow moves between groups are minimized because they are hard on the cows as well as the employees. There are only two rations, one for the milking group and one for the dry cow group.

Gilbert spoke of the purchase of a larger feed mixer for the dairy, which helped free up employee time to “do more than just chores.” Both milking parlors are designed to be managed with minimal labor as well.

They also pay close attention to the benchmarks for their farm, reviewing milk production, breeding programs and cow culling. In addition to setting their own goals, they look at other farms in the Cayuga Group to see how they stack up. Their goal is to be in the upper third of Cayuga farms.

To better manage feed quality with their contracted growers, they purchase crops on a per-acre basis, not by tonnage. They also prefer brown midrib corn varieties for their nutritional value.

They work with their farmers to earn credits for their manure for its fertilizer value. To address field compaction, neighbor complaints and environmental concerns, they use a drag line and injection system.

Haylage and alfalfa contracts are handled in the same way. Morgan said they look at the long term of the contracts because cyclical challenges tend to average out over the long haul for both the dairy and their partners.

Morgan said land is a “tight commodity” in their area. When a neighboring farm came up for sale, they contacted a corn silage grower who was also interested in the property.

Instead of competing with each other, they established a limited liability corporation to jointly own the farm.

“It’s worked out really well,” Morgan said. “There are plenty of other farmers to compete with” for property.

In their heifer raising system, they focus on a high milk diet to get the calves started right, plus feeding a high-quality grain. The calves are gaining about 2 pounds per day.

“We are spending a lot on groceries for the calves,” Gilbert said.

Failure to get calves started correctly can be costly in the long run. Studies have shown that the production difference can range between 3 and 5 pounds per cow per day, he said.

They meet regularly with different teams of their partners and employees to review successes as well as challenges.

Gilbert said it’s important to remember that “little things are not so little. Some of those things can make a big difference, especially if employees are away from family.”

When employees reach a long-term goal, they organize a celebration. Gilbert said that when the farm hit 90 and then 100 pounds of milk per cow per day, they took the employees on a dinner cruise to celebrate.

They also celebrate employee birthdays, saying that those investments can help generate better buy-in and value to their part of the operation.

Cayuga Milk Ingredients <\n>Set to Open Plant in July

Morgan also spoke about the decision by several dairy farms in Cayuga Milk Marketing to spin off a new enterprise, Cayuga Milk Ingredients, and construct a milk protein concentrate and isolates plant in New York state.

A total of 21 dairy farms are members of the group, which broke ground in October 2012 to construct this plant.

“We wanted to be in a product with little marketing and transport,” Morgan said. When completed, the plant will have 600 million to 800 million pounds of milk processing capacity.

They are working with the French company Ingredia, are licensed to use its processing technology and have entered into a milk marketing arrangement.

Milk from the plant is destined for the international marketplace, Morgan said, targeting North America, the Middle East and North Africa among other regions.

Does milk have a lot of untapped potential in today’s competitive beverage market?

  • Yes
  • No
  • Unsure

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