THOMASVILLE, Pa. — As this extended period of rising costs of inputs and lagging prices for milk production continues, seeking ways to stay in business has become a part of life for many dairymen.
One business recommendation has remained constant, both before and through the latest prolonged stretch of economic challenges and exits from the business of milking cows: seek good advice.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” said Leroy Walker, owner with his wife, Brenda, of Walk-Le Farms in York County. “And then act on it. Don’t just ignore it.”
After nearly 25 years milking cows at their Thomasville dairy operation, the Walkers are veterans of mining the know-how and expertise of others in the agriculture business. And they are quick to credit their “team” with having helped direct them down the proper paths and protocols as their operation has grown and developed over the last two dozen years.
Their adviser team worked with them through the latest upgrade to their facilities, the revamping of their old milking parlor earlier this year to a double-10 “parabone” style, designed to stand for milking at a 70-degree angle.
“Doug Gabel, with FSA, originally got us started on working with a team of advisers,” said Walker. While members of their advising teams have come and gone through the last dozen or so years, the basic premise of seeking — and taking — advice from experts in their field has never changed.
The Walkers moved to their Thomasville farm in December 1994 with a herd of 105 cows, built over prior years while working with other dairymen. Another 30 head was purchased from the dispersing herd of fellow York Countian Rodman Thompson.
“Brad was a senior in high school then and wanted to stay on the farm,” said Walker. “So when we started milking in early 1995, we went to 3X milking to enhance our cash flow.”
Like most farm buildings in use for a long time, the facilities they worked with posed some structural and equipment changes in need of upgrading.
“We had obsolete freestalls. Before ever moving the cows in, we lengthened the stalls seven to eight feet. It was one of the best things we did. Cow mats were just becoming available at that time and we added them, along with new stalls,” Walker said.
Five years later, with a growing herd, the Walkers added a piece to the original freestall barn, including a manure pack area for Brad’s string of show cows. As the herd expanded to 130 cows, then up to about 170, another 50 freestalls were added to accommodate increasing numbers.
As part of their management decisions, expanding numbers and investment, the Walkers continued to seek the advice of their trusted counselor teams. Meetings with their team generally including their herd veterinarian, nutritionist, usually a banker and sometimes an agronomist, continued to be held at least on a quarterly basis. In fulfilling their part of the team activity, the Walkers have always worked toward accomplishment of the goals and strategies collectively developed in those sessions.
“We use Extension service a lot; it’s a free tool available for us,” Walker said. “We have some of the best available people there to help advise.” He credits both Penn State Extension educator Tim Beck and engineer Dan McFarland for sharing their expertise over the years.
In 2010, team meetings picked up in frequency, as construction of a new barn became a priority in the operation’s development.
January 2011 ushered in herd moving into the “cow palace,” as their daughter Michelle Brumgard dubs the new barn on the farm tours which the Walkers now periodically host.
“Cow comfort is what we focus on,” said Walker. A key feature of the new freestall barn is an insulated ceiling, more aimed at summertime cooling than wintertime warmth. The ceiling insulation, along with some 50 large, overhead fans, keep the herd of now-300 head of cows comfortable year-round.
Cow comfort is the family’s focus, said Brad Walker, who manages the cows. The herd has a current rolling milk average over 28,600 pounds. “We have a lot of cows that are 7 and 8 years old, and bedding with sand has really helped their feet and legs. Our barn fans are on adjustable thermostats and there are sprinklers for summer to help cool the cows. During long, hot stretches of summer weather, it’s hard to get the cows to leave the barn for milking.”
Early on, while still in the expanded original barn, the Walkers began deep-bedding their freestalls to 10-12 inches of depth with sand. Along with cow longevity, they credit the management move for mastitis reduction and lowered somatic-cell counts.
“It’s just about eliminated coliform mastitis,” Leroy said, joking that about the time he said that, they’ll have a flare-up.
With the new barn’s flush system, about 75 percent of the sand is reclaimed and recycled, after drying out for an extended period of time on a concrete pad. Sand mounds are turned multiple times to facilitate sun/air drying and eliminate much of potential bacterial issues, before eventually being returned to bedding use.
All fresh cows are checked for mastitis problems at calving with a California Mastitis Test. Any testing positive are immediately treated, and production withheld until followup tests are clean.
As part of keeping in close touch with the herd, Brad generally milks the morning round of the daily 3X, five-hour shifts. His wife, Charlene, handles the night milking, and one employee is usually in charge of the afternoon shift.
As part of reproduction management, cows and heifers are eartagged with activity/rumination sensors, which transmit data direct to Brad’s cell phone when an animal is showing estrus signs. Recently, they added internet connectivity to the barn, for more efficient use of the technology. Mating selections focus on higher-type bulls, with good udder, feet and leg traits.
“If you have a good, sound cow, with good feet and legs, it will help her stay around a lot longer,” said Brad of his breeding philosophy. With milk pricing based on components, he takes a good look at those in sire proofs as well.
Leroy is the feeder, mixing rations and delivering them once-daily to their five production-groupings of milking animals, as well as young stock. In between feedings, feed is pushed back in several times over each 24-hour period. Corn silage is the main forage blended in their TMR, along with some triticale, dry hay, corn and bean meals, supplements and one rather unusual ingredient: fresh green beans. Including fresh snap beans in their TMR is a feeding tool that Walker has used for several years, with the product sourced from food processor Apio.
A love of showing cattle took hold of Brad during his early 4-H dairy club years. The Walk-Le show string is a familiar entry at district and state Holstein shows, Harrisburg All-American, and Pennsylvania Farm Show, where they’ve earned premier breeder/exhibitor honors. An 11-year-old Damien daughter, EX-94 3E, is a current show string favorite. Along with showing, they’ve marketed a few heifers, and hope to be able to capitalize on some breeding stock sales in future years.
“Even with the down milk prices, more exhibitors seem to take part in the shows,” Brad has noticed. “We all just need a chance to get away, to talk with each other.”
As they have always done, Leroy and Brenda continue to work closely together on farm financial management, so that both are always keeping a close eye on cash flow and account management. The family is also in the process of transition of ownership of the operation into an LLC with Brad and Charlene.
“We don’t plan to add more cows, but just to continuing focusing on the cows,” Leroy said. To that end, they do little field work, instead utilizing custom operators for planting, harvest and some manure moving. Some dry hay is made, much of it baled by their younger son, Greg, a career welder-fabricator who also helps keep the farm’s equipment fine-tuned and running.
Daughter Michelle Brumgard, a former county dairy princess, has been instrumental in helping to develop and host the farm’s tours, many of them aimed at youngsters. For several years, the farm has also participated in the “Made in America” annual weekend tour/open house of numerous manufacturing operations held annually in the county, telling the dairy story to dozens of visitors from the public.
Part of the continuing story at Walk-Le will be their ongoing search for borrowed know-how from industry experts.
“Meeting with our team helps us stay positive,” said Brad. “Over the years, our bankers have realized what changes we needed to make, like how much time milking was taking, and have been willing to work along with us.”
As the dairy industry continues to be challenged, Walker’s philosophy is sound: Seek out good advice. Borrow know-how. And then milk it for all it’s worth.