‘I want the business to be successful so we can keep milking cows‘
STEVENS, Pa. — Chris and Laura Landis are starting their three young children early on the chores of their dairy farm in northern Lancaster County, Pa. “They come out to help before milking and can get to bed while I finish milking. Usually I’m in the barn before them, but yesterday, they got started before me,” Chris says with a laugh.
It’s a familiar routine that begins every afternoon around 5:00, a familiar routine on many small and mid-sized family dairy farms under threat as a recent USDA report identifies dairy as the most rapidly consolidating sector in agriculture today.
However, Chris has learned that even family farms like his. with fewer than 50 milk cows, can benefit from regional projects and resources to fund improvements that help the farm business while also improving its environmental footprint in Chesapeake Bay watershed states like Pennsylvania.
Chris is the 5th generation of the family on the land where Worth the Wait Farm sits today, part of the tract originally deeded to predecessors even earlier by William Penn.
He is countering the current industry trends by embracing the future.
After graduating from Delaware Valley College in 2010, Chris purchased a 38-cow herd in western Pennsylvania to start his own dairy farm. Today, he milks 44 and his children are the first to grow up dairying here since his grandfather sold the cows in the 1990s and an uncle sold his cows some time later. For almost two decades, the farm was leased to another dairy producer until Chris came back with a dream and a business-first mindset.
Even with a small herd, he has adopted a commercial mindset, watching the farm’s bottom line vs. production and”breeding for calving ease and positive numbers for test on fat and protein, says Chris of the 100 cattle on 200 acres that make up Worth the Wait Farm. The 44 milk cows are largely grade Holsteins, along with a few Brown Swiss, Jerseys, Holstein-Jersey crossbreds and three Guernsey cows — owing to his wife Laura who hails from Coon Brothers Dairy in New York State.
He admits he enjoys the numbers-crunching side of the operation.
“I appreciate a good cow as much as the next guy, but I’m a numbers guy, and I like watching inputs vs. production and figuring out where to cut and how to keep margins as good as they can be based on the market,” he explains.
An example of money well-spent, says Chris, is the gallon of Udder Comfort he buys each month. “We use it on all fresh cows. When you can soften the udders and provide a little comfort in that whole process, especially for first-calving heifers, it is a huge benefit,” he says.
“I’m a firm believer that what you do for the cow in those first 5 milkings will have a major impact on the rest of her lactation. Udder Comfort absolutely helps our milk quality, and it is worth every penny,” Chris affirms. Hard to believe that with somatic cell counts consistently at 70,000 for many years now, the farm struggled in the very beginning with counts well over 400,000.
“Udder Comfort played a big part in turning that around 10 years ago. Now our low SCC earns $1 premium every month. Milk quality is something I take pretty seriously. We always knew it paid. When Covid-19 hit, and milk went to $10 per hundredweight, our quality premium was over half of our advance check. That is money left on the table if we are not going after it.”
He admits he tried knockoffs to cut costs. “But I kept coming back to Udder Comfort, so I don’t even bother to try other products any more. We are sold on Udder Comfort, and it gets used a lot here. We tend to use it heaviest on the first 5 milkings of every lactation,” says Chris, adding that he also likes the color of the blue spray to form a line of communication for some of the part time help.
“Today’s dairy industry is a totally different industry. It used to be that if you worked hard and made good milk, you could make it,” he says. “To be successful now, we have to run the farm as a business. It must be a business first.”
One area Chris and Laura work on, that they see missing today, is the connection between consumers and farmers. Worth the Wait Farm is one of 150 members of Maryland-Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative that are involved in a clean water project with Turkey Hill Dairy and the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Alliance. It has given the couple something to talk about in making those connections with the public. In fact, that project is one of the annual dairy industry Sustainability Award winners for 2020 announced in June. It was recognized by DMI’s Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy as an award-winning supply chain collaboration.
The Turkey Hill Clean Water Partnership funding helped the Landises build new calf and heifer facilities a year ago that are state-of-the-art compared with what they were in before. They are seeing healthier livestock because of the new barns, and it’s easier to collect manure, manage stormwater runoff, and control the flow of nutrients.
The farm also secured funding from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to build a new manure storage facility.
Not only did it feel like the right thing to do, Chris sees it as helping their own children in the future by being part of something that helps the environmental progress of the farm today.
Chris and Laura have done farm tours and through social media, they spread the word about the things farmers do to improve and to demonstrate commitment to environmental stewardship.
He also helps with whole milk education outreach. A charter member since the first meeting of what became 97 Milk LLC, Chris sees the impact.
“The 97 Milk effort has had positive results. Laura and I are on social media, sharing information, so we see what 97 Milk is accomplishing more than some who are not on social media,” says Chris. “We see so many comments like: ‘Oh, I didn’t realize… fill in the blank.’ It is opening eyes about milk.”
This is another illustration of how deep the void is between producers and consumers. “A generation or two ago, most people had a relative in their past who once had a farm. Now there are most people who do not know of anyone who farms, so we have to come in and fill that void,” says Chris.
He and Laura have taken the approach of using social media more than blogging. They personalize their posts toward their farm and their family. They want to give others a personal relationship to a real farmer, to help them see what a farm family sees.
Celebrating his 10th year in June since starting Worth the Wait Farm, Chris says one key was he diversified by bringing commercial broiler houses into the mix. He also maximizes the productivity of the land by double cropping all the ground. This increases his forage supply and decreases his feed costs, with a little cash cropping on the side.
“Even though we milk only 44 cows, I have a commercial mentality about it. My wife calls me the farm businessman who happens to milk cows. I guess that’s true because I want the business to be successful, so we can keep milking cows,” explains the young dairyman who likes to think outside the box, and though his herd is small by today’s standards, his approach is to be proactive and progressive.
He observes too much focus on promoting high production doesn’t always work out for the bottom line in today’s times: “What we do has to be about more than production per cow.”
In fact, when milk prices fall to the precipice of $10, Chris is one to accept that challenge, to buckle down. He sees high quality milk as a priority. Having SCC always under 100,000, averaging most of the time around 70,000, has yielded a $1.00/cwt premium that was half of his advance milk check recently. That’s money he doesn’t want to leave on the table.
“One of the joys of dairying is there’s no one right answer for everyone. There are some wrong answers, yes, but no one right answer. You can personalize management to your own operation. What works for you may not work for your neighbor,” he affirms.
Compared with the broilers, which are vertically integrated, Chris likes that dairying offers the opportunity to change things and measure the impact. Even so, he is quick to acknowledge that having a diversified farm helps his young family weather the ups and downs.
Another key, says Chris, is to be willing to outsource important responsibilities that aren’t his strengths. “I let the feed company do the nutrition, and I don’t breed my own cows. I know where my strengths are.”
What he loves is the number-crunching. “I’m a numbers guy,” he admits. “I like figuring out where to make changes and how to keep margins as good as they can be based on the market. I enjoy the challenge of being able to figure out how to make something work that statistically should not work.”
What has been important for him is to ask questions, to admit he doesn’t know everything, and to ask for help, education or professionals. He looks for ways to utilize resources that are available – like in the example of the Turkey Hill Clean Water Partnership and NRCS.
Another good example is the transition-planning his family has been doing through the Center for Dairy Excellence. The farm had been leased for a long time, and when Chris came back to start his own dairy, they used the resources of the Center to help work through a transition plan for some of the land.
Chris had already invested in improving the facilities and he is always on the lookout for ways to keep that up.
“When I started here, it was like stepping back in time. Nothing had been renovated since the late 1960s, so I gutted the tie stall barn, put in new stalls, and developed a TMR system,” he reflects.
Ten years into building his dream, at the age of 32, Chris relates what he has seen in farm situations where sons in their 50s can’t afford to buy what they spent their whole lives working for because there was no transition planning.
There are so many emotions and entanglements when this is left to be done after a landowner passes away.
“That’s not the time to do it. The time is when you can sort through the business decisions and the emotions, without an emergency or deadline,” Chris relates. He is thankful that he and Laura and his parents have been engaged in this process. Chris’s parents are not involved in the farming operation but are silent partners in two-thirds of the associated land.
“My family got here in the early 1700s. That’s some pressure on me to not be the one to let it go,” says Chris. “We are being proactive on transition-planning, so we don’t have a knee-jerk reaction come up when there is emotional change. We want to figure out how to retain this by forward thinking when everyone is of sound mind and there is no time crunch. A lot of emotions are tied to transitioning property, so starting early gives us the time to think, back off and rethink ideas as we move forward.”
As for the youngest generation – Leslie, 5, Jacob, 3, and Ava, 18 months — Chris already sees personality differences in how they approach things. “Leslie is already the scientist, who is all about understanding the hows and the whys. Jacob doesn’t care why. He just loves the work.”
While the Landises would love it if all their children want to somehow be involved in the operation in the future, that future is a long way off. For Chris and Laura, however, it is a future they already think about.
“We are phasing everything we do towards a robot or parlor system and forward-thinking about everything we do to become an operation that can incorporate multiple generations,” says Chris.
In the meantime, Leslie and Jacob already have their own timecards to punch. They get 25 cents to help with pre-milking chores. They have their giving, spending and savings jars.
“They feel like they have purpose,” says Chris. “Laura and I feel that if they have purpose and involvement at an early age, they will know if they want to do this, not do it because dad wants them to do it.”
And yes, Chris says, the children each have their barn favorites. “My wife grew up with Guernseys in New York, so she tries to sway them to the Guernsey side,” he laughs. “The three Guernseys in the herd are currently their favorites.”
— By Sherry Bunting, portions reprinted from Farmshine, August 2020