Portraits in Progress: Cutting family ties to move farm 300 miles

BERLIN, Pa – A dairy farm is always in the process of being reinvented, changed, modernized.

But when the Stoltzfus family of Morgantown, Pa., decided to modernize, they picked up Pennwood Farm and moved it 300 miles, lock, stock, and dairy cattle.

With the move, the family went from milking in two tie stall barns to a rotary milker, more than doubled the size of their herd, and added computer monitoring of the milking herd – all at the same time.

They built and remodeled houses, constructed a new freestall barn and milking parlor, tore out the insides and remodeled an existing barn, combined herds, purchased 200 bred heifers, and resettled their dairy operation on 600 acres outside Berlin in Somerset County.

They saw it as the best way to ensure that the entire family – with six grandchildren, it now totals 16 – could continue farming together.

Started with 18.

Harvey and Mary Jane Stoltzfus started farming with 18 cows in 1962 on 50 acres rented from his mother. They gradually grew their herd to 250, but by the time their four sons joined the family partnership, there was no room to expand in the Lancaster/Berks counties area of eastern Pennsylvania.

The family now consists of Harvey and Mary Jane, their eldest son, Don, and his wife, Joanne, and their children Ashley and Collin; son Glenn and his wife, Gail, and their children, Justine, Madison, and Katarina; son Dwight and his wife, Melanie; and son Duane and his wife, Andrea, and their daughter, Elizabeth.

High land values, the encroachment of urban development, and the existing density of livestock in the Lancaster area made it impossible to undertake the kind of expansion necessary to support a five-family operation.

There are 300,000 dairy and beef cattle in Lancaster and Berks counties, another 390,000 head of hogs and pigs and 13 million chickens.

The search for a new location continued for seven years before Harvey Stoltzfus happen to run into an old friend at the Pennsylvania Farm Show who told him he should consider relocating on his land in Somerset County.

With prime spot.

Lewis Berkley, who had a small herd of 65 head, was ready to retire. He had 350 acres of good land, with a prime spot on top of a hill away from the houses where a new freestall barn and milking facility could be located.

The purchase of another 250-acre farm provided more land, another existing home, and additional barn space to house heifers.

In August 1999, the Pennwood herd was loaded onto trucks and moved to the new Pennwood Farm.

On the new farm, the four Stoltzfus sons are farming in partnership. Don is in charge of machinery and equipment, buildings and maintenance; Glenn manages the crop farming; Duane does nutrition and feeding, with his wife, Andrea, taking charge of calf feeding; and Dwight is responsible for herd health and breeding.

But the entire family is involved in the milking, taking their turns in the parlor.

Outside of the family, the farm employs only one full-time milker, one other full-time worker, and several part time people.

Problems in transition.

There were some problems of transition – for the Stoltzfus family and for their dairy cattle.

The cows went into a freestall barn and onto the 28 position rotary milker all at once. Some of the mature cows used to the tie stalls did not find the adjustment that easy.

While the freshening heifers will get the idea and walk right on to the platform of the rotary milker after one or two tries, the cows that came from Morgantown took several weeks to get used to the idea, said Andrea Stoltzfus.

And some of them never did adjust. There is a large special needs area behind the milking parlor where those cows are housed until they are culled from the herd.

According to Dwight Stoltzfus, the expansion introduced herd health problems he had not experienced with his smaller herd. Handling so many cows coming fresh at the same time was also troublesome at first.

With 40 to 50 cows freshening a month for awhile, a fresh cow protocol had to be worked out and put into place quickly.

New infections.

At Morgantown, Stoltzfus said they had almost never had calf deaths. But with the move to Berlin, the herd picked up new kinds of infections – rotavirus, coronavirus, e. coli – that caused the farm to lose a higher than normal number of calves. They started vaccinating the dry cows twice.

And that was followed by a case of mastitis that Stoltzfus said got nasty before he was able to bring it under control.

With two years behind them now, however, things have leveled out.

The family finds the 28-cow rotary milker highly efficient; it milks twice the number of cows in half the time, and can be operated by one person with a second person herding the cows. The entire 500-head milking string can go through the parlor in 41/2 hours.

It takes 10 minutes for the cow to complete the rotation, and since they are usually finished milking in 6 or 7 minutes, after which the milker automatically releases, they have several minutes to get themselves ready to back off the platform.

If a heavy milker takes longer than 10 minutes to milk, a chain can be fastened behind her when she moves onto the platform so that she cannot back off at the end of the first rotation.

Learn the routine.

Once they are used to it, the cows walk on and back off with little added encouragement.

Pennwood Farms been milking between 450 and 500 cows in the last year, and Stoltzfus said they are no longer buying heifers because prices have gotten too high.

He said they will probably be able to grow the herd from within, although that growth will be a little slower.

The original Pennwood herd was primarily registered Holstein and is well-known in Pennsylvania for its award-winning genetics. Some of the latest generation of heifers come from eight generations of Excellent and Very Good cows.

But Joanne Stoltzfus, who is also a Somerset County extension agent, brought Jerseys with her when she married Don Stoltzfus and joined the family.

With the introduction of a few Jerseys that milked like Holsteins, the family was convinced, and added a small percentage of Jersey. Their prize-winning Jersey has been flushed for embryos several times.

The high-yielding cows are milking about 95 pounds a day. The rolling herd average is 23,800 for the Holsteins and 17,000 for the Jerseys.

Young herd.

Right now, Stoltzfus said, half of the herd is only 2 years old. There are also 150 heifers.

The 350-by-110 foot freestall barn is situated at the top of a hill so the air flow might be compared to tunnel ventilation. Stoltzfus said they got through last summer without fans with no problems. But they have decided to add them for the few days when more ventilation is needed.

Manure is removed from the barn by gravity flow into a 2.8 million gallon holding pond.

The original barn on the farm was remodeled by taking out the interior and raising the roof to bring in more air and light. It is now used as the close-up barn.

Adding new barn.

And although it is sufficient for the dozen or so cows close to calving, the lack of a dry cow barn last winter brought the population in that barn close to packed-in conditions.

A new dry cow barn is currently under construction so there will be more housing when they come in from the pasture this fall.

Stoltzfus said there are no immediate plans for a new heifer barn. About half of them are housed in the barn on the second farm, and they contract the remainder out with a professional heifer raiser.

(You can contact Jackie Cummins at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at jcummins@farmanddairy.com.)

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