BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — The Chaney Farm is a welcoming place — and a hub of activity with the store, restaurant, ice cream, playground, self-guided farm tour, event-hosting and a corn maze — just outside of Bowling Green, Kentucky. The icons of the fourth-generation farm business are the little brown Jersey cows and America’s ‘happy food’ — ice cream. Both make visitors smile.
Known for their ice cream since the 2003 construction of Chaney’s Dairy Barn — a store, restaurant, ice cream parlor and agrotourism rolled into one — the Chaney family began bottling their own milk in June 2019, fulfilling a longtime dream of several generations after more than four years of active planning and preparation.
This is a story about a step-by-step process as one generation expected to phase out of the cow side, and the younger generation, with careers off the farm, decided that didn’t sit right with them, so they set about taking the farm’s diversification another step forward.
The consumer connections brought on by the ice cream business energized them to find a way to keep the legacy of the cows going.
The Century Farm in western Kentucky has been in the family since 1888. James R. Chaney, Sr., was born here, and it was he who started dairying with the purchase of the first two registered Jersey cows in the 1940s.
That led to the two ‘queens’ that put Chaney Dairy Farm on the map. Althea and Topsy are known worldwide by Jersey breeders and helped position James Chaney for his Master Breeder award from the American Jersey Association in 2003.
That same year, James’ son Carl and daughter-in-law Debra opened Chaney’s Dairy Barn. Carl knew the farm needed to diversify in order to survive.
Through the ups and downs of the dairy and crop markets, they had already sold three-fourths of their land and half the herd by 2003. So, they downsized to 55 registered Jerseys and looked for ways to preserve the small herd on their smaller remaining acreage.
While visiting other small dairies for ideas, they kept seeing ice cream. Their location on a main road near a college town certainly helped firm up the idea.
Carl took the Penn State Ice Cream Course, which gave him the confidence to move forward in 2003, carving out three acres for Chaney’s Dairy Barn along the road front, and in view of the farm buildings.
Voted number one for homemade ice cream in the state, the Chaneys have given the enterprise their personal touch — a scoop of love so to speak — with 32 perennial and seasonal flavors, including a local favorite they’ve dubbed Big Red Rumble for Western Kentucky University. It’s a decadent white chocolate ice cream swirled with red velvet cake and chocolate chunks.
Visiting with the younger generation in 2016, they shared their hope of one day pasteurizing and bottling their own milk too. Three years later, that dream is now a reality as Chaney’s milk is sold at Chaney’s Dairy Barn and is showing up in some stores in the area.
The Chaney family was deliberate in taking each new step without rushing into anything. The modernization of the farm with a new compost bedded pack barn and milking robot came in 2016 — 13 years after the ice cream parlor with a combination of food and agrotourism providing that second revenue stream for the farm.
“You do what you have to do to get the work done,” Carl says in the video shown to guests. But there also comes a point where “you just can’t keep fixing things anymore.”
Cow care was getting difficult for Carl on his own, especially over winter, and the children had other careers — Jessica with a family of her own helps Debra on the business side of things with the store; James Neale, a welder, has his own company, but builds things around the farm, and Elizabeth, the entrepreneur, has a job with Alltech. She helps with many aspects of the farm in her free time, including feeding the calves.
In 2012, almost 10 years after starting the ice cream business, Carl and Debra brought the family together and informed them it was time to make a change. They were going to sell the cows and just run the ice cream business. The milk from the cows was being sold into the fluid milk market, and the Chaneys could buy their dairy ingredients for the homemade ice cream. They could continue that part of the diversified farm business without the cows.
“We weren’t okay with that idea. The cows have been an integral part of our lives,” Elizabeth recalls. “From a young age, our lives revolved around them.”
Simpy put: The kids did not want the cows to leave, but neither did they view themselves as the cow people needed to take on the dairy responsibilities if they built new facilities and invested in new technologies for the cow part of the farm.
They knew that if the dairy legacy would continue here, it was up to them to figure out how. They spent four years looking at robots, but first had to figure out who was coming back to the farm to manage the deal.
They needed a cow person. And they found her in their cousin Dorothea ”Dore” Baker.
Dore relocated from New York and started as herd manager at the Kentucky farm in 2014, two years before robotic milking was implemented.
She grew up with registered Jerseys on the Chamberlain Dairy Farm in New York. When she got to Chaney’s in Kentucky, it was obvious to all. This gal loves cows. Eats, sleeps and breathes them, in fact.
Dore does everything cow-related on the farm. She tills the bedded pack 3 times a day, assists births, does all the herd health, the breeding, and stays after the fresh cows, being sure they are visiting the robot and getting milked as they establish their voluntary routines after the dry period.
“I just love it. The day-to-day interaction with these little brown cows is the best part,” she says. “I love seeing a heifer calf out of a favorite cow grow and develop, and to see the love and enthusiasm of young kids when they learn something new about cows or about the dairy industry.”
Within less than a year of operating the robot, the herd reached a voluntary average 3.3 to 3.5 times a day milking, with some milking 4x voluntarily. As cows get close to dryoff, they program the robot to limit them to 2x milking.
The modernization has increased milk production from 52 pounds/cow/day in 2015 when they still milked 2x/day in the parlor to 65 to 70 pounds/cow/day now, with the compost bedded pack barn and robot. Fat runs just shy of 5% and protein 3.7. All in all, their herd consistently improves under these conditions.
“We know the potential these girls have,” says Dore, noting that comfort after calving is a critical part of helping cows reach their genetic potential. She uses Udder Comfort on all fresh cows and heifers for the first few days after calving.
“It softens the udders and is beneficial for the skin,” she says about the product she has used for fresh cows ever since her high school milking days in New York.
With the robot, things are a bit different. During those first couple days after calving, she’s paying attention to those animals, making sure the recently fresh cows visit the robot for milking.
“I’ll spray each quarter as each cup is removed robotically, or, since we have a relatively docile herd and the spray involves little contact, I’ll apply it in the alley after they’ve exited the robot,” Dore explains. “By softening and soothing right after calving, our fresh heifers especially settle in more calmly, and their adjustment as first time milkers goes smoothly.”
Aside from “loving the minty smell,” Dore finds Udder Comfort to be effective.
As herd manager, cow comfort and milk quality are top priorities.
“The pack barn and robotic milker are big contributors to cow comfort,” she relates. “It’s a one-size-fits-all environment. The largest cow in our herd can sleep as comfortably as the smallest. We’ve allotted 116 sq ft/cow on the pack if our barn were at 60 cows, which is more than the minimum recommendation.”
Dore says that providing more space per cow means less frequent additions of sawdust to the pack, and the cows stay cleaner. “We like to keep our herd number at or below 60 cows, because we’ve seen more frequent milk visits (to the robot) with higher production when we’re not overcrowding.”
With the robot, cows no longer spend any time in a holding pen. They move about freely, waiting their turn to visit the robot.
Since going robotic in June 2016, Dore has also noticed a reduction or elimination of “flight zones” among the more nervous cows in the herd: “It’s pretty satisfying to find yourself petting a cow that last year wouldn’t let you near her.”
Thermostatically-controlled fans, sprinklers, and curtains are other amenities to keep the girls cool and comfortable. The calmness of the barn and comfort of the pack also led to what Dore refers to as “the quality and depth of cow-sleep…
“You can walk through the cows on the pack and have multiple girls sleep uninterrupted as you are walking directly in front of them,” she explains. “Another bonus is the cows don’t have to learn to use a pack like they have to learn to use a free stall, and that’s a stress reliever for me.”
Dore explains the initial process of training the herd to milk robotically: “We put them through the gate and fed them, but no milking. The next time, we introduced them to the robot and the third time we allowed it to milk them.”
Elizabeth notes that the tendency is to want to push the cows into the robot at first, but the experts kept stressing to “let the technology do its thing and let the cows get used to it on their own.”
Carl can’t really keep himself away from the cows completely, but he has put his trust in Dore who started managing the herd before the robot arrived.
While visitors get to see robotic milking and cows laying around looking like they take care of themselves, the wall murals and videos show what it takes to keep cows healthy and comfortable and the amount of work required to tend to their daily needs.
“We’re proud to be producers of a wholesome product,” says Elizabeth. “Our father, grandfather and great-grandfather gave their lives to this farm, so it is also important to us to keep that legacy alive. Milk production is not just a business, but a way of life that we love.”
— By Sherry Bunting