Quiet perseverance: Her faith feeds passion’s purpose

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. — Against the backdrop of the Tuscarora mountains, a half mile from the busy road into town, she’s out to the barn by 3:00 a.m., milking by 3:45 while herdsman Anthony Yeager feeds and scrapes. By 7 a.m., the milking is done and calf feeding begins… all before breakfast, of course. Mid-morning, it’s time to push up feed. She’ll do this a few times a day while checking the prefresh cows. Then it’s back in the parlor by 2:45 to try to be done and cleaned up by 5:30 p.m. Another trip to the barn to push up feed at 10 p.m., and repeat.

Sound familiar? 

With two full-time employees, some part-time help and custom operators for the crops, Karen Hawbaker’s life is the cows that have been her dream and passion from an early age. Dairying is something she has loved since growing up in southern Lancaster County and following her uncle around his nearby dairy farm.

It was through FFA that her future blossomed, and after high school, she attended Penn State, where she was president of the Dairy Science Club in 1985. After college, she traveled around Pennsylvania working for Master Mix, and that’s how she met Rodney. They married in October 1988.

“Owen was 4 and Kirsten was 1, we were on a rented farm, milking and accumulating cows,” Karen recalls. “We did everything ourselves. We made this our life.”

By April 1995, they had purchased Warm Spring Dairy, and as the herd expanded from 60 cows to 200, they hired Anthony Yeager as herdsman so that they had flexibility to get away. 

But in January 2011, everything changed. Rodney passed away from injuries in a tragic accident on the farm. What started as the dairy life and business she and her husband were building and sharing for 23 years became a life and business in which she had to find her stride, her identity, her way forward, after losing Rodney nine years ago.

A humble person with a bright smile, subtle sense of humor and quiet confidence,  Karen doesn’t view herself as “anything special.” Of the recognition in February 2018 as Pennsylvania’s Dairywoman of the Year, she gives credit to her team. She was recognized in part for her herd’s high production and high quality milk, and in part for her work after Rodney’s death to keep alive his dream of seeing the Bolivia Dairy Project completed at a children’s home there — Andrea’s Home of Hope and Joy — through Love in Action Ministries.

Karen on one of her visits to Andrea’s Home of Hope and Joy where she and others helped complete her husband’s dream of a dairy at the orphanage, now providing milk and dairy products for the children and an opportunity to learn valuable skills.

While the Bolivia Dairy Project was important, Karen also had the 200-cow home farm to keep going. Warm Spring Dairy was her livelihood. This was her children’s home. This was the fulfillment of a passion for dairying she developed as a youth. Both were links to her husband, now gone.

People say big decisions should not be made in a time of great emotion, but when there are 200 cows in the barn, no feed in the bin, heifers everywhere to take care of, a difficult financial situation, and the routines of cows to milk and calves to feed…

“Whether you should or you can, you immediately must make decisions,” Karen recalls. “The community was so wonderful to me, I couldn’t allow them to keep helping in those early weeks and months without a plan to keep the farm going.”

She had to work at pushing aside the fog of grief that enveloped her, and she’s quick to point out the biggest thing she has learned is “we can’t do life alone.”

Karen is grateful for the advice and kindness of others helping to spirit her and the team of employees to the task of moving forward.

“A lot of people thought I would sell out, but my children were in so much shock, I didn’t want to add another big change to their lives. I was in shock myself. I didn’t want to do something else,” she recalls.

Item by item she began to organize an approach. Anthony had already been with the farm 10 years. Within two months of the accident, Roger Negley, a retired farmer, was suggested for a job. “He’s our jack of all trades,” says Karen.

They are her sounding boards — along with nutritionist Dave Pullen, veterinarian Cory Meyers, crop man Jeremy Yeager, and accountant Wayne Brubaker.

Karen recalls how they “helped ease me into that role of making decisions by making some of those initial decisions easier for me while I was still in that fog.”

But she knew she had to engage — as soon as possible — if she was going to successfully keep the farm: “At first, I wanted to just stay on autopilot and do everything the way Rod did, and then I got to the point that I just couldn’t do that anymore.”

She recalls the example of picking bulls on her own for the first time. “I was out of semen and I had to pick,” she reflects. “That was a grief thing, that hits you in the heart, but at the same time I knew I had to establish an identity. That second year is when the ‘firsts’ start kicking in.”

She is thankful for friends who helped distract her or celebrated the hope and faith that were guiding the journey, that it’s okay to make decisions, to have them turn out well, and be happy about it.

She had to be open up to allow her faith to feed her passion. At first it felt dishonoring to be happy about a decision she made to do something different. But as she gained her confidence, she realized it’s okay to be happy about successes coming from a desire to do what’s best for the cows, the employees and her children — “it comes from the place of ‘we’ not ‘me,’” she explains.

One of her first aims was to streamline. She moved the heifers off-farm to a custom-grower. Jeremy hooked her up with a custom crop operator. She worked with her accountant to pay down debt. And she further focused on milk quality.

Together, she and Rodney had achieved the Land O’Lakes milk quality bonus a year before he passed away, and the team has kept this going and improving ever since.

Today’s somatic cell counts average 40 to 50,000 and the rolling herd average is 26,500 pounds of milk. Her herd maintains 90 pounds/cow/day when forage quality is what it should be.

For Karen, cow comfort is a pretty big deal. She likes being in the parlor, working with the cows, seeing them reach their potential to produce high quality milk. She believes a comfortable and content cow is a happy cow, and it shows in this Land O’Lakes Tastemade video .

It’s all about having good help, focusing on the basics, paying attention to details and having protocols that are clean and simple, says Karen.

Stalls are deep bedded with sand, routinely groomed, and two loads of fresh sand are added every other week. Fans move the air over the cows in the barn, and intermittent sprinklers keep them cool when it’s hot. Alleys are scraped when cows are brought up to milk.

Everything at Warm Spring Dairy is geared to cow comfort. Comfort and cleanliness are evident.

“We just don’t have a lot of cows with issues. Udder Comfort is part of that. We love it for fresh cows, to quickly soften udders,” Karen relates, noting that she likes the results she has seen using it over the past six years.

On the feed side, getting the ration and crops streamlined was another goal for Karen. The farm’s 275 acres, owned and rented, is mainly planted to corn that is double-cropped with triticale and oatlage forage for the rations. Karen has mostly given up alfalfa, but still buys some first-cut haylage from a neighbor who makes horse hay the rest of the year.

“It made me a little nervous putting all the eggs in one basket, so to speak, and we did get caught a little last spring with the weather, but the cows milk best on this ration,” she says.

Through it all, her quiet and steady way with the cows and employees is inclusive. “I like when employees take ownership. We’re a team,” she explains. “When I hear them say ‘our cows’, it feels good because there has to be a point to this beyond a paycheck. We’re asking ourselves to work odd hours and take on tough responsibilities, so it feels good when we’re a team.”

Karen keeps coming back to mention those who’ve been with her through this journey, her friend Rhoda has been her rock.

Today life seems to be moving fast. She’ll slow it down with a walk, a video chat with her grandchildren in Oklahoma, a check-in with her daughter teaching English at an international school. She takes time to plan Sunday school lessons, and to lead a grief support group.

“It’s good to get out of our own world and into another,” says Karen about the importance of getting away, mentally and physically, even if just for an evening or a few hours. She believes dairy farmers need this, and that sometimes the ‘one more thing to do’ can be replaced with ‘it can be done tomorrow.’

Surrounding herself with people who share her values has been the key, and a guiding value for her decisions is doing well in all things for God’s glory.

“My accountant says I raise too many calves,” she smiles. “But it is tough to make a decision without giving that calf a chance to develop. That’s the dairy farmer mentality. To wait until that heifer is fresh and look forward to what she can be.”

The same optimism can be applied to these tough economic times in the dairy business.

“If God helps get us through something, that’s another confirmation that we are where we are meant to be. We can’t do any of this without faith. It changes the whole outlook. Find people who share your values and be thankful,” Karen explains, reflecting on how she felt the prayers of others in her toughest moments of loss.

“I look around and see that I would hate to try to do this myself,” she says. “When we set ourselves apart, it causes divisions. We have enough divisions out there. I want to have a productive herd and not to be regarded for that because I’m a woman, but rather because I’m a dairy producer doing a good job with the cows or management.

For Karen, it’s this quiet faith that feeds the purpose in her passion for dairy. As for the future?

“I don’t know the purpose God has in using my passion for dairy. That I’m here doing this may have a purpose I can’t see,” she says. “All of my life this is all I have ever wanted to do. God instilled this in me, so I keep looking to Him for where it goes from here.”

— By Sherry Bunting, portions reprinted from Progressive Dairyman with links to stories previously appearing in Farmshine

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