HARTVILLE, Ohio – For many farmers, life is an endless cycle of days milking in the parlor and nights poring over the checkbooks.
Why aren’t those cows producing more milk? Will the price of milk hold steady? What else can I do? With questions like this, farmers often feel like they’re alone.
Not if they have Don Kurtz as their nutritionist.
He sells minerals and seed, but it’s the whole package that makes him indispensable.
Don’s the one who stands in the pastures, analyzes production, sniffs the feed and screens the manure. He’s the one with his cell phone on his hip all day, in case a farmer runs short on mineral. He’s the one planning rations by 7 a.m. He’s the one still stopping at farms when the farmers are going inside to call it a day.
He’s the manager farmers don’t realize they have.
Don backs his Ford up to a barn in Stark County on a chilly May morning and starts unloading mineral from the pickup. As he heaves the 50-pound brown bags out of his truck, he makes small talk with the farmer.
“Boy, the sun shines in Louisville, doesn’t it?” Don says.
“It’s sure wet, though,” the farmer answers.
Don hears despair all day long. Too hot, too cold. They need rain, they don’t have enough. Milk prices are bad. Or good … but it won’t last.
It seems like every farmer Don visits reminds him of the late date, the eight-day weather forecast calling for more rain, and nothing is in the ground yet.
Everyone’s on edge, including Don. He works with these people every day, and not only does their livelihood depend on uncontrollable forces, his does too.
“Especially last year, farmers were so blue. I want to be the encourager, that happy face. But I can’t make everything pie in the sky. I have to be the listening ear, the sympathetic ear. But I also have to bring in some optimism. Somebody has to.”
Again, the Stark County farmer mentions time ticking away. “It’s the fourth of May and I’ve still got a winter coat on.”
“Better today than the fourth day of June,” Don says.
It’s a job
After dropping off bags of mineral at another farm in Stark County and checking on the cows, he heads to the parlor.
Over the chugging of milkers, Don tells the farmer everything is looking good. But as he talks, he notices two small foil packets of a feed ingredient sitting on a chair. He didn’t bring them, they’re a competitor’s product.
“Unbelievable,” Don grimaces. “Did you ask to see the research? Do they have research on this?”
The young farmer doesn’t turn away from the cows he’s milking. “I couldn’t get it. I asked. But I saw the company’s data and testimonials.”
That’s not good enough for Don. He wants independent research, not farmers paid to claim some product works.
“A lot of guys are running up and down the road making claims. Sometimes I shake my head at what some farmers swallow.”
Don doesn’t blame them, though. So many voices are coming at farmers, telling them what products work, what will increase milk production, what will make cows more comfortable. And farmers don’t have time to take it all in.
But Don can do what they can’t; he can get away. He goes to the conferences, pores over the data, calls the experts.
He has time to examine the rations, observe the cows, sift through the manure, sort the feed.
It’s his job. Whether farmers realize it or not, he works there, too.
Dairy, one way or another
The bed of Don’s pickup is empty, which means it’s time for another trip to his rented warehouse.
He backs the truck to the loading docks and brings out skid after skid of the mineral bags Renaissance Nutrition delivers weekly. Hoisting 100 pounds at a time, he stacks them in the truck bed until they’re even with the top of the cab.
He should be a body builder after heaving literally tons of bags on and off his truck each day. But he isn’t.
Instead he’s a 41-year-old whose first love was dairy farming. As little boys, Don and his cousin Dan swore they would farm forever. And it looked like that was going to happen.
Even after a fire destroyed the dairy barn while the boys were in college, they didn’t lose sight of their plans. Within three and a half months, state-of-the-art facilities were built and the cows were back in the parlor.
But another fire, just months later, was too much; it burned their dairy dream.
Just like most things in his life, Don embraced the twist of fate with a smile. He decided to study agricultural business and married his long-time love, Karen.
In 1987, both Don and his cousin landed jobs as Renaissance consultants and have been there ever since.
‘We’ and ‘our’
After a few more stops, Don’s back in his metal office on wheels – the only office he’s ever had outside his home. The cell phone Velcroed onto his dash rang all morning but now it’s quiet. It’s after noon so maybe it’s dry enough for some farmers to make a couple passes through the fields.
As he drives up to Geauga County, he finishes his coffee and half-priced blueberry cookies. Another Dairy Mart lunch.
Between bites, he talks about his next stop.
“Last year we had some problems with swollen hocks. It was probably because of our bedding. We’ve made some changes, so we’ll see.”
“We” and “our” are words Don uses a lot. In his rubber boots and navy coveralls, he is more than just the guy who sells minerals and seed. He’s more like the farm manager.
Often, before Don even says hello to a farmer, he goes to the office to find the hoof trimming sheet and then to the bulk tank to note the tank averages.
He finds the farmer and asks: Any new problems? When’s the next herd check? Has the vet been here lately? Hoof trimming go OK?
Then he heads to the pasture or barn to observe the cows.
Are they lying down? Are they chewing their cud? What’s their body condition? He swipes his boot through several piles of manure. Can he see corn that wasn’t digested? He picks up handfuls of feed and inhales. Does it smell fresh?
He’s the manager checking in. These are Don’s cows, too.
“The way my herds perform reflects on me. I want my guys to do good.”
Don walks through the thick pasture at the Geauga County farm. It’s the first day the Holsteins have been out all spring. He’s silent as the cows graze and plod through the grass, oblivious they’re being scrutinized.
Minutes pass before he walks back toward the farmer, smiling. Don may say “we” when he talks about the cows, but when it comes to giving credit, he says “your.”
“Your cows look good. No beat up or swollen hocks or abrasions like last year. Just keep on rolling. You’re doing a good job.”
At a recent conference, Don heard about the advantages of milking fresh cows four times a day for several weeks. He’s hooked on the idea and is eager to get farmers as interested as him.
At almost every farm today, he’s mentioned the idea, but so far no one sounds eager to spend more time in the parlor.
Farmers don’t always want to listen to a lot of Don’s suggestions. His recommendations usually require time and money – two things farmers are short on.
“It’s frustrating because deep down in your soul you know it would make them more money and make their cows healthier.”
“Sometimes it would be easier to just tell them to give the cow a shot or sprinkle some magic dust to get the cows to produce more milk.”
Most of the time, though, farmers just need convinced.
He starts slow, making subtle recommendations that they should buy some high-quality Western hay or grind their corn finer.
He’s so good at the technique, most farmers don’t even notice. He makes a suggestion, lightly pushes his point, backs off. “You have to sow the seeds, get them thinking,” he says.
Every farm has its own set of problems to work through. Don knows he can’t change everything, so he finds the farm’s weakest link – what’s hurting production the most – and makes that the main priority.
But usually this is also the hardest thing to change.
“You’re making recommendations that mean more work for them. I say, ‘You should really be milking those fresh cows four times a day,’ and they say, ‘Well, what shift do you want to take?'”
Although farmers are worried about the weather today, he isn’t hearing grumbles about the milk prices. It’s been awhile since prices have been this high, and Don is grateful.
But he still worries.
“Some farmers spend their money like the price of milk is going to be at $20 forever. Those who are disciplined and wise will save some of that cash.”
Now he’s heading south again, toward home. Although there’s no sign, he brakes long before a bump jostles his truck. Only a man who travels these roads often would know about it.
Don sighs and says the last few years were hard for farmers, but they’ve been hard on him, too.
“My account receivables are through the roof. I extend him credit so he can keep milking, in hopes he’ll be able to pay me. Some do, some stick it to me.”
Last fall when the milk price dropped, some farmers wanted to scrimp on rations to save money.
“Save? Did we save money or did it hurt us when milk prices went back up and our production could’ve been even higher?”
“I sort of blame myself because I get caught up in emotion, too. They say, ‘If you don’t make me a cheaper ration, I’ll find someone who will.'”
So he does it, knowing that now with the higher milk prices they’re not reaping the full benefits of the increased prices.
“These things weigh heavy.”
After all, he is the farm manager.
(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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