FREDERICKTOWN, Ohio — Before he returned to the family dairy farm full-time, Knox County dairyman Chris Phillips spent his days traveling to dairy farms across the eastern half of Ohio.
As a salesman for Semex, he helped at the family dairy outside Fredericktown, but was off each day helping other farmers improve their own herds.
Getting up as early as 4 a.m., he balanced barn work with road work, and missed out on time with his wife and two children.
Phillips worked for Semex from 1998 to 2013, when he decided if he was going to make a full return to the farm, it was time. He was 37, and wanted to return to the farm while he still had the energy to take it over.
“I loved my job, but I loved this farm, too,” the fourth-generation farmer said.
This is the first year that the 42 year-old farmer has hit “the sweet spot,” maintaining a milking herd of 130 that he plans to hold steady, and the first time that he’s able to take on some extra activities — personal interests — off the farm.
Starting this fall, he will be the percussion instructor at the local high school, allow him to relive some of his love of music, which included playing snare drum in the band at Ohio State University.
“This is the first time I’ve been back here in five years milking the same number of cows as the previous year,” said Chris, who farms with his father, Scott. “We’re in that sweet spot right now, so I’m trying to find some life outside of the barn.”
But Phillips doesn’t regret the busy days and nights of his early years, and the hustle of working two jobs in the beginning. Traveling to all of those other farms was time well spent, he said, because he learned things that are helping his own farm today.
“It allowed me to kind of see what worked and what didn’t work on a whole bunch of different farms,” he said. “You can’t visit enough farms. You can’t talk to enough people. You need to see what’s going to work, but more importantly you need to see what’s not going to work.”
He designed two barns when he returned to the farm, a new cow barn in 2012, and a new heifer barn in 2016. Both were built with knowledge he acquired as a salesman, and also from his educational experience at Ohio State, where he majored in ag economics.
At first, Phillips wanted to study architectural engineering, figuring he’d land a good paying job. But he was attracted to his rural roots, and the opportunities that the family farm offered.
Inside his milkhouse office are pictures of the farm during his parents’ and grandparents’ generations, and seeing them each day reminds of him of the family legacy.
“When I walk in this office in the morning, that’s the first thing I see,” he said. “You just tell yourself every morning — just don’t screw it up.”
There is a sign in the milkhouse itself that reads “A cow is only as good as her home.” The Phillips are constantly investing in cow comfort and care, and he said it’s made a difference in production per cow.
Although the 130-cow herd is not making the family rich, Phillips said that was never the intent. He’s just happy that the farm is profitable at the level where it’s at, even with the low milk prices.
He tried to do what he was taught in college — budget for the lowest prices likely — and that wisdom paid off.
There are still some improvements he’d like to make, including to the relatively small double-four milking parlor. But at the same time, he said he enjoys the time spent in the parlor about as much as anything else on the farm.
“To be honest with you, that is my most enjoyable part of the day,” he said. “Standing in that milking parlor drinking coffee, watching the news and listening to the pulsators chirp.”
They farm 300 acres and still do most of their own work, but in recent years have hired out some of the planting and harvesting, to cut down on time in the field and wear-and-tear on equipment.
They’ve also invested in some newer farm equipment, finding that it’s more reliable when they need it.
“Yes, that equipment is an expense, but the downtime is more expensive,” he said.
Although the milk market is in a significant slump right now, Phillips said sometimes farmers just need to get away from of the bad news, and focus on the positives.
Over Christmas, he tried to tune out Facebook and the news for two weeks, because he was tired of all the negativity surrounding dairy farming, and he felt that it helped.
“I think what we’ve dealt with in the dairy industry the past couple years is the new norm,” he said. “I think a guy just pretty much needs to figure out how to make a go of it with where prices are at right now.”
While he’d prefer better prices, he said the low prices are also beneficial, to an extent, because they force farmers to think critically and realistically about what can happen.
Looking ahead, Chris said he wants the farm to remain viable with about the same number of cows currently being milked.
He could see growing if his children decide to return to the farm, but he wants to keep a herd that is manageable with the equipment and labor that the family already has. Chris and his wife, Kerry, have two children. Lucas, 12, and Micah, 10, help where they can, and show dairy projects at the Knox County Fair.
Although Chris’ dad, 65, helps on a regular basis, Chris said he doesn’t want to create a situation where the labor becomes too intensive or where it drains his dad’s retirement years.
“I would like to be milking the same number, but better cows and crops,” Chris said. “I’d just like to be doing a better job of what we’re doing right now.”