PROGRESS: Separate, but equal

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NORTH WASHINGTON, Pa. – The farm office at Smith Incredibull Farms is large, as far as farm offices go. It has to be to house the five partners’ desks, plus one for Dad.

One desk is Army barracks neat. One desk looks like the owner rarely sits there. Yet another is almost hidden behind a barricade of magazines and papers and boxes and equipment parts.

Each desk is as distinctive as the five brothers who split the responsibility of running one of Butler County’s largest crop and dairy farms.

The Smith brothers – Rick, Ron, Randy, George and Ed – are partners in the dairy started by their parents, Bill and Nancy. This year marks the fifth anniversary of the Big Leap, the farm’s expansion from 150 head on two farms five miles apart to a new freestall barn and parlor facility to house the current commercial herd of 600.

“We either had to get bigger or get out,” said Bill Smith.

Maxxed out. By the mid-1990s, Ron was milking one herd at one farm and Richard was milking at another. They had already remodeled every nook of both stanchion barns and had no place left to grow.

“Anything had to be better than what we were doing,” said Ron Smith.

“Ever since I was 10, Dad wanted to build a 400-cow barn,” said George, who was working in Florida at the time of the family’s big decision. “Dad was really the driving force.”

“It was always his dream,” added Randy. “Dad was always straightforward, ‘go for it.'”

Bill Smith downplays his involvement in the expansion, saying when the decision was finally made, “they were all in the kitchen and I just left.”

But it’s clear Bill and Nancy Smith, now retired and the farm’s official parts go-fers, built this farm.

Juggling jobs. They purchased their first 114 acres in 1965 and started milking 30 head in 1971. As Bill worked off the farm at a steel mill, Nancy handled the farm and raised her eight children (in addition to the five partner-brothers, the Smiths have another son, William, and two daughters, Jeana Ness and Jessica Buckley).

“Bill did very little sleeping,” Nancy Smith said. “He’d work midnights and plant corn all day.”

The boys learned to help out even as toddlers. “I learned how to drive a tractor before I rode a bike,” laughs Randy.

The herd doubled to 60 cows, then went to 90, then 120 and 150 head.

“He just always kept going,” Randy Smith said of his father’s ambition. “We were probably more leery about doing something like this [expansion].”

Slow and steady. The decision wasn’t made overnight. They visited farms. They read. They talked. They debated. They tried to find financing. Randy visited more farms. And in the midst of it all, Bill Smith had open heart surgery.

Finally, they broke ground in the fall of 1998 and started buying open yearling heifers, then springing heifers, to fill that barn whenever it was done. When those cows got closer to calving, the Smiths kicked their builder into high gear.

“The alley scapers weren’t installed and the gates weren’t hung,” said George, “but we were moving cows in.”

They’ve continued to buy heifers, but as they raise their own replacements, they’ve had to buy fewer and fewer each year.

Today, the herd includes roughly 600 milking, dry and prefresh cows milked three times a day. And the brothers added another 96 feet on to the freestall barn in 2001 to push the barn’s freestall capacity to 700 head and bring the dry cows inside.

Three years ago, they also built a calf barn, where calves are raised in individual pens, then group housing.

CAFO permit. At the same time as their expansion, the family sought a permit as a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) through the state, creating a comprehensive manure nutrient plan and other guidelines in accordance with state and federal regulations.

The farm is approved for up to 2,500 animal units, or roughly 1,200 milking cows.

Division of labor. The five partners equally share the farm’s management. Rick handles herd health and breeding; Ron manages the feeding; Randy and Ed split the field work on the 2,100 acres of owned and rented ground and Randy handles most of the equipment maintenance. George is the glue as the office manager and number cruncher.

They’re able to specialize what they do and focus their management in that area to best serve the farm. But none of the brothers milks unless he has to in a pinch.

“We all have our own little niches to work on,” said Rick Smith, who starts his day in the barn by 4 a.m. “I like it that way, and yet it’s nice having the family together.”

It’s a fine-tuned management machine, not that it doesn’t need an occasional overhaul when tempers flare as they inevitably do in any family.

“You have your disputes,” admitted Ed, “but we’re a very close family and when it comes down to what has to be done, you do it.”

“We all vote the same way, so that helps,” George joked.

Let good times roll. With milk prices peaking, each brother has his personal wish list for the farm: a new tractor, a new high lift, a new parlor.

But a skid loader is probably the only new purchase the Smiths will make during this run.

“Our main goal is to prepare for the next downturn,” George said. “We weren’t prepared the last time.”

‘This is a family farm.’ The family keeps a keen eye on federal and state programs that affect their livelihood. And they question programs intended to help “family farms” that are targeted to smaller sized operations.

“The government talks about saving the family farm, but they don’t ever think about farms like us,” said George Smith. “This is a family farm.”

And he’s got four brothers as partners to prove it.

(Editor Susan Crowell can be reached at 1-800-837-3419 or at editorial@farmanddairy.com.)

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