COCHRANTON, Pa. — Nestled between two valleys in Crawford County are a husband and wife operating a dairy farm, striving for the day when milk prices rebound.
Cinda and Tom Oakes bought 100 acres and 40 milking Holsteins in 2003. They bought the land off of Cinda’s parents, Ernie and Janet Oakes. Their goal is to build the herd to 60 milking cattle but that will take time, patience and the hope for a better milk pricing future.
Changing their mind
Cinda said she and her husband had worked on her parents’ dairy farm until 2001 when the herd was sold.
“We had no intentions of farming. We had taken jobs off the farm, but we changed our mind and decided we wanted to do it ourselves,” Cinda said.
Now the Oakes are milking 40 Holsteins and have a combination of 40 heifers and feeders. The farm is selling their milk to the Marburger Dairy in Evans City, Pa.
The couple is learning how to make cuts and what it is necessary to succeed as a smaller dairy farm.
“We have learned smaller is better for us. We were bigger, but that wasn’t working for us,” Cinda said.
She added they have learned the lesson that “quality is better than quantity.” They have gained higher protein levels, increased butterfat and now have a low somatic cell count in their herd. In addition, the veterinarian bills have been reduced.
“The things we are doing don’t work for everyone, but they work for us,” Cinda said.
Cinda said one important lesson learned was hiring a feed consultant.
“Our cattle are in better shape and the right feed has cut costs elsewhere,” she said.
She attributes the right feed to lower veterinarian bills and fewer visits from the hoof trimmer. The biggest change was felt in the breeding program with more successful pregnancies.
The dairy price roller coaster ride has taken its toll on every dairy farm, and the Oakes Valley View farm is no different. However, the Oakes are learning how to cut corners and live on what the milk check gives them every month.
Cinda said their sense of humor is what keeps them going during the tough times.
“We keep going because this is what we like to do. You have got to pay the bills, right? And faith. It will get better. It just has to,” Cinda said.
Tom shares much of the same philosophy. “You’ve got to figure someone above you has a better plan than you do,” Tom said.
Making ends meet
One lesson they would share is to establish good credit and build on it.
“You must keep your good credit once you build it. Once you have that, then people will work with you in the expectation that when the market rebounds they will get paid,” Cinda said.
Another lesson they share is one that many have learned as a result of the recession. They shop around for everything.
“You have to look for the lowest prices on everything,” Tom said.
They also admit they are living frugally.
“You learn to make a dollar out of a dime,” Cinda said.
One cut they made this year that they are not considering making next year is in the use of lime and fertilizer on their hay fields. The couple didn’t use either this year and they admit that is not a cut they can keep making because it will cost them more in the end.
“If we have good quality hay with a high protein level, that means less money is spent on corn and soybeans for feed. So if we keep making that cut, eventually the hay will suffer,” Tom said.
The farm also switched to purchasing grain and feed monthly rather than making a large purchase in the fall in order to spread out the cost.
Another item slashed in the budget was the purchase of equipment. The couple are hoping that next year they will be able to afford a new round baler.
Generating additional income
One area the Oakes have expanded into is selling the township gravel off of their farm.
“There is no money in the timber market and the oil wells are not around here anymore, so this is another way we can create income,” Cinda said.
The Oakes maintain a closed herd and they are raising their own bulls and using their semen in their herd for now.
Both Cinda and Tom admit farming today requires a different way of thinking and doing things in order to keep running. However, both the Oakes know the turbulent milk market is not over and worry about what the future holds for their farm. Although it will be tough, both are searching for off the farm jobs in an effort to supplement their milk checks.
There is one thing obvious about this farming couple: They are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to keep their dairy going even in the roughest of times.