In tough times, dairy graziers group together

North Central Dairy Grazing 2019
Attendees and vendors at the North Central Ohio Grazing Conference.

MOUNT HOPE, Ohio — With the many challenges of running a profitable dairy farm — especially in this market — it may be in a producer’s best interest to team up with other producers for ideas, and for moral support.

That’s what many dairy graziers are doing, and at this year’s North Central Ohio Grazing Conference for dairy, Jan. 24-25, farmers spoke about the benefits of farming in small groups, which share records among the members, and experiences of what worked and what did not.

“You don’t have to be ashamed to ask for advice,” said Vernon Mast, who milks 40 head seasonally and farms 92 acres with his family in Wayne County.

Sharing information

Working together in groups of six to 10 members, farmers at the conference said they are able to share their records, their costs of production, and help each other in ways they were unable to do alone.

Norman Miller, who milks 30 head with his wife and family, said forming a group with other dairy farmers helps provide him with “real people, real numbers and most importantly, real friends.”

Each group is different, but the idea is to hold meetings and share information that is kept confidential among members, but that is beneficial for each.

Norman’s group helps keep him motivated, he said, with regular meetings and pasture walks, where results can be reviewed.

“We cannot see our own mistakes and shortcomings as easily as the others can see ours,” said Roman Hostetler, who milks about 40 head of Jersey cows and ship milk to Smith Dairy, in Orrville.

Cash flow

Ray Yoder, a dairy farmer from Middlebury, Indiana, said he’s doing a better job of creating and following cash-flow statements, of where his money goes throughout the year, what he needs for living expenses and how much it takes to be profitable.

The conference, now in its 18th year, had a business focus, as farmers endure one of the longest stretches of low milk prices in recent history. Although organic and grass-fed milk programs often receive premiums, all dairy producers are struggling with lower prices, and high input costs.

One of the key points the first day of the conference was to challenge farmers to identify how much it costs them to produce a 100 pounds of milk, the unit by which most are paid. That figure ranged from $12 to $28 per 100 pounds, depending on the type of operation and whether equipment depreciation was also figured in.

When depreciation — the wear-and-tear on equipment — is figured in, the cost of production can go up significantly.

Social benefits

Hostetler said forming a group also has social benefits, and that it helps lift dairy farmers’ spirits when they get together for social events, and even when they get together to work or share services.

Groups can be formal or informal, and some vote on decisions and pass basic bylaws of operation. Some also keep minutes, so they know what was said and done at previous meetings.

Pete Lehman, an organic farmer who spoke in the afternoon, has been a part of a grazing group since 2008. He said each member of a group has a strength and a weakness, and the beauty of working together is getting to help each other.

He said groups should not be formed to criticize an individual farmer, but at the same time, each farmer should be open to criticism, and welcome the opportunity to learn and examine the blind spots.

Improving numbers

Those who spoke said they have seen their production numbers improve since joining a group of other dairy farmers, although the numbers vary from farmer to farmer.

They said it’s not necessary to have everyone in a group be the same, because each member can benefit from looking at different size operations, and comparing what works and what does not.

Sharing similar goals is important, however, and so is attendance. Some groups will not meet if more than one member is absent.

The farmers also said it’s important to use averages when looking at group numbers. Although one farmer may have a low cost of production, which is good, those same numbers may not be practical for everyone in the group.

Each farmer had a different situation as to where his or her financing came from. Some rely on bank loans, some use family and community loans, and some said they do a combination. The important thing, they said, is to use debt carefully and not create a situation that hurts the family, or the future generation.

The conference also featured sessions on milk quality, nutrition and pasture improvement. The attendance topped 600 people both days, including vendors, and was sponsored by The Small Farm Institute, of Millersburg.

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