Talk it out

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SANDY LAKE, Pa. – Several years ago, Dale Kepner was facing a tough decision on his 40-head dairy. Although he’d been keeping his cattle in old barns and using old facilities to do the milking, he never had any intention of doing a major overhaul with his system. But as time passed, the farmer began to realize he might have to make some changes in order to stay in business.
Kepner started asking around, looking for advice and suggestions on where he should go next. He had a feasibility study done on what it would take to double the size of his herd and build a new barn.
But even after asking around, he still didn’t know which direction to go.
“Basically we kind of stopped and didn’t really know what we were doing,” he said.
Determined. However, Kepner was determined to make the right decision for his farm in Sandy Lake, Pa. He spent some time visiting other dairies, checking out the barns and analyzing the operations.
Then he did another feasibility study. This time, for 100 cows, a four-row barn and a new milking parlor.
It looked like that was possible.
Construction on Kepner’s new facility broke ground in September 2004. At the end of March 2005, the dairy farmer used his new milking parlor for the first time.
One of the most noticeable improvements is cow comfort, he said. Air circulation in the new barn keeps the animals cooler and milk production in the 110-head herd has gone from about 22,000 pounds per year to 26,000 pounds per year.
The Mercer County dairy farmer also said milking is much easier now and takes about 2.5 hours with two people working.
Forums and tours. Kepner’s story was highlighted recently by the Center for Dairy Excellence. During August, the center is hosting six open forums and dairy tours at farms across Pennsylvania. The idea is to get dairy producers talking and exchanging ideas that could give the dairy industry a boost.
“It’s really difficult to make decisions in a vacuum,” said John Frey, executive director of the center.
Hopefully, the forums give dairy producers a chance to get out of that vacuum and take a look at how others have made big decisions.
The forums, like the one at Kepner Farm Aug. 2, are also a place for farmers to talk about how the state’s Center for Dairy Excellence and the Dairy Task Force can be more useful. Both organizations aim to increase profitability in the dairy industry and leaders hope the forums will give them feedback on where efforts should be focused.
The latest news. The six forums are also designed to provide dairy farmers with information on new programs in Pennsylvania. At the Sandy Lake forum, Gene Gantz, a USDA risk management specialist, talked about two new initiatives that could benefit the state’s dairy farmers.
Beginning with the 2007 crop year, Pennsylvania instituted a pilot program on hay and pasture insurance. The pilot program is available in 17 southwestern counties and offers loss payments when precipitation falls below the normal range.
The second initiative is a dairy insurance program. Although it’s not available just yet, the program has been approved by the state.
It will provide protection based on the correlation of feed costs and milk prices. For instance, if feed costs increase and milk prices stay the same, the insurance will cover the new gap between previous feed costs and new feed costs.
Manage risk. The idea behind these programs, according to Gantz, is to help farmers manage risk. He encouraged the group to take advantage of the opportunities as they become available.
“If we don’t make use of these programs, they may or may not stay,” he said.
(Reporter Janelle Skrinjar welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at jskrinjar@farmanddairy.com.)

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