ZELIENOPLE, Pa. — The blueprints for an expanded dairy operation are in the desk drawer, but the owners are no longer in the dairy business.
At the close of 1998, John and Wendy Cooper made the toughest decision of their young lives: to sell their top-producing dairy herd, replacement animals, farm equipment, tractors and even the forage and feed inventory.
The couple held a complete auction, except for real estate, at their Beaver County farm in late February. And after the last heifer and the last piece of equipment were loaded up, John admitted, “The emptiness might be more than just the cows being gone.”
John Cooper, 40, is like many hard-working farm operators. The only life he has ever known is the farm — by his junior year in high school, he took his first Farm Credit loan and bought three registered cows. He joined the farm operation immediately after high school, rented the family’s 115-acre farm in 1987 after his parents separated, and then purchased the farm in 1994. In addition to the dairy herd, he cropped as many as 600 additional rented acres. His father, John (Jack) Cooper Sr., helped with the field work.
Although she wasn’t raised on a farm, Wendy Cooper embraced her husband’s life and quickly became the main milker and herdsman. Their 70-head Holstein herd has been among the county’s top producers for the past 10 years.
“We were at 20,000 pounds in the mid 1980s,” said John, “and our goal was to be at 24,000 pounds by the turn of the century… and we would’ve been there.”
Along the way, the Coopers kept looking at their goals — and their future. Limitations of their current tie stall setup were obvious. “I felt we were as successful as we could be with this operation,” John said. “We felt the cows were at their max.”
So they looked at expanding, even had the blueprints drawn up for a drive through freestall barn and double 8 or 10 milking parlor to accommodate 250 head. They got pre-approved for financing. But something just didn’t feel right.
“It cash flowed out fine, but we’re working on too much rented ground,” John said.
Then the young couple looked at moving the entire operation somewhere else. Over the past two years, they’ve looked at several locations and even put a bid on one farm.
“But we would hit roadblocks when looking at other places,” Wendy commented.
The Coopers thought about reducing their herd and then about reducing their acreage and just buying feed, but what do you do with the capital tied up in equipment you’ve already purchased with an eye toward expansion?
Finally, they realized the decision wasn’t going to come from their own efforts.
“We prayed about it a long time,” said Wendy. “God had control of this situation all along,” John added. “Once we turned it over to God, it became a lot easier.”
After they made the decision to sell their operation, the first thing John and Wendy did was talk to their three children, Amanda, 13; Chelsey, 11; and Blake, 9. Then, the couple told their own parents and extended families, lined up auctioneer Howard Hammond and prepared for the Feb. 27 sale.
“If we were going to do it, now was the time to do it,” said John of setting the date for the auction. They weren’t in the middle of a cropping season; rents were paid up; there were no outstanding crop loans to hurt cash flow; John had produced very high quality, sellable crops; and producers were coming off high milk prices in December.
“We felt we were coming off the peak, as far as the farm economy,” he added.
John had made the decision to exit dairying without having another job lined up. One of the people he had to tell about their decision was the owner of Lake Forest Gardens, a local Christmas tree farm, nursery, landscape company and garden center, which used some of the Coopers’ excess manure as fertilizer. The company made John an offer to join them as retail business manager, which he accepted.
The decision to leave the dairy industry was not an easy one for John and Wendy Cooper, but the decision to exit while still financially and physically healthy was the right one, they say.
“Everything was right for us,” explains John. “You really just have to put your trust in the Lord and it will happen.”