BERNVILLE, Pa. — A family dairy farm progressing into the future faces different decisions today. A key trend is toward diversification – whether that means adding artisan products, agrotourism, genetic merchandising, other crops, other livestock, custom services — whatever generates revenue, spreads risk and reflects varied interests of the next generation.
For families, like the Balthasers of Northkill Creek Farm near Bernville, Berks County, Pennsylvania, the path is rooted in relationships among three generations, and the junior showring forges those bonds.
Management practices that focus on cow health and input costs are also important, and diversification is emerging here with the sixth generation.
Randy and Traci Balthaser farm with Randy’s father Wilson and oldest son Mark. Randy’s sister Tammy and her husband Fred Weaver raise Angus cattle and crops on their farm near Ephrata, Lancaster County, where they also raise some of the replacements for the Northkill Creek dairy herd. Randy’s brother Jason works off the farm but assists with weekend chores.
Farming 400 acres means in most years they can grow all the feed they need for the 120-cow dairy herd. They make a lot of baleage and feed a diet that is almost 75% forage to control input costs and benefit cow health.
They prioritize breeding decisions for higher type cattle, especially focusing on mobility, because they want the cows out on grass. Even though it accounts for just five pounds of dry matter intake in summer, the Balthasers have been doing intensive grazing for 20 years. Traci says it makes more work, but the benefits in cow health and longevity are well worth it.
Cow comfort and milk quality are also important at Northkill Creek Farm. “We love Udder Comfort and use a lot of it before and after showing and when our cows and 2-year-olds freshen,” says Traci. “We got samples when it first came out and have used it ever since. There’s nothing better.”
Tammy agrees, noting that, “Udder Comfort works really well to soften udders, which keeps them healthy.”
The Balthasers have also gotten into some flushing and embryo transfers with their Brown Swiss. One of the elements in this is the relationships cultivated with other farm families in the junior showring.
They aren’t alone. Many young people today from dairy farms of all sizes are getting involved in junior shows. During the height of the Covid pandemic in 2020, when national shows were canceled, new venues sprang up because of the demand.
Youth competitions in dairy and livestock are important for young people today as they develop skills, confidence, resumes, and special animals, test their interests, even promote their home herds. In 2021, the major shows like Big E, All-American, World Dairy Expo and Louisville charted a slight decrease in overall entries, but an increase in youth participation.
Young people are tuning into the dairy show network — the enjoyment of tying in with bigger strings, the camaraderie of caring for cows, preparing them for show, and competing to see how their breeding, development and preparation measure up.
These networks attract the support of the animal ag industry, giving young people opportunities to make connections with their businesses, to think about their futures on and/or off the farm, to participate in mentoring relationships, job shadowing and internships.
Dairy shows also produce family friendships that make it a family vacation. That’s how the Balthasers and Weavers describe it.
At Northkill Creek, it was Randy’s first 4-H calf, Gilda, that got him into the Brown Swiss breed in 1980. She became their first Excellent cow, and they’ve bred 10 more EX since. Today, Gilda’s descendants are the foundation of a third of the herd, the registered Brown Swiss, with the balance being commercial Holsteins.
Forty years after that first 4-H calf purchase, the family had their first grand champion of a major show, and she did it twice this year. The homebred 4-year-old Northkill Creek Groovy, a direct descendant of Gilda, belongs to daughter Hannah, a high school freshman.
Groovy’s string of 2021 champion accomplishments includes two national venues, where she went grand in the junior shows and finished first in her class in the open shows.
She did it with grace in her working clothes, no special handling, and she’s on target in her third lactation to make 25,000 pounds of milk with a 3.9 fat and 3.1 protein.
“We only pulled her off TMR for the Louisville show due to having to transport feed for the week to get her used to a diet we could feed there,” says Traci. “For the All-American in Harrisburg, we just washed and clipped her right from the barn without changing her diet.”
The first time Hannah took Groovy to the All-American was as a spring calf. That year their photo in the ring made the cover of the Brown Swiss Bulletin. It was a highlight for Hannah, who has been showing since she was 6. That highlight was far surpassed this year.
“This was my best show year ever,” she says. Ditto for the entire family.
During the 2021 All-American Dairy Show (AADS) in Harrisburg in September, Hannah led Groovy to be grand champion Brown Swiss of the Premier National Junior Show (PNJS). A few days later, she was reserve grand as well as bred-and-owned champion of the open show.
Hannah’s cousin Hayden showed Heart&Soul Sammy Ricki, a 7-year-old Holstein bred by the Boops of Millmont, Pennsylvania that Hayden has been showing and bonding with since before she had an udder. Ricki was both the PNJS grand champion Holstein and the Supreme cow.
A couple days later, she was grand champion of the Pennsylvania State Holstein Show and reserve grand of the AADS open show. A week after that, Hayden showed Ricki at World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wisconsin, where she was honorable mention senior champion of the junior show.
Hannah waited until November to show Groovy again. In Louisville, she was grand champion of the Brown Swiss junior show and honorable mention senior champion of the open show at the North American International Livestock Exposition (NAILE). At NAILE, the Weaver kids took their beef animals.
It was definitely a successful fall for the melded families on the show circuit, including Hayden’s sister Madison, who crowned her last year of junior showmanship earning the prestigious Judi Collinsworth outstanding junior exhibitor memorial award at the AADS.
Traci credits her sister-in-law, Tammy, for being the one to push them five years ago. She encouraged them to be involved in showing at levels beyond the county fair and state 4-H show. Previously, Madison had champions at the state junior shows, and Hayden had done well showing Holsteins, Red and Whites, Jerseys and Brown Swiss. This year’s showing with Ricki was his best, and it happened alongside cousin Hannah’s best with Groovy.
“It feels good. It’s nice to celebrate the positives, seeing the next generation develop a love for this industry and the dairy cow,” says Tammy, a former state dairy princess. “There is nothing like watching these kids learn as we did, to develop a passion for this.”
Traci describes the “cool part” about showing at this level: “I just love the time spent with the kids and the cows. There aren’t too many things the kids want you to go along and help with. This is one.”
Some of the cousins show dairy, some beef, some both. Some of the cousins don’t show cattle at all, but all the cousins showed pigs together, including Mark whose persuasion is more on the crop side of the farm. He is preparing to get into raising broilers at Northkill Creek — a diversification move as the sixth generation comes of age in dairy and agriculture.
“It’s a way of life,” says Randy. With that in mind, the decisions the families make revolve around the business end of preserving that way of life.
As the cousins live in different counties, different school districts and 4-H clubs, with different interests, it’s the conversations about shows and cows that form a common bond and offer close interactions with aunts and uncles that are not directly farming together on the same ground but consider Northkill Creek a home-base.
“Sometimes, it’s easier for Hayden to take direction from Traci or Hannah from Tammy,” says Randy. “We call that third party intervention.”
As for distant shows, like World Dairy Expo, Hayden traveled there with the Boop family. He has been going since he was 8 when he took his first Holstein, Rachel.
“They go and tie-in with other strings and help each other. That’s what it’s all about,” Tammy says. “Now the bug has bit Hannah so she tied-in with Boops at Louisville. Traci went down and cooked for everyone, and I stayed home and watched from the computer. The big thing is they all have fun together, meeting other kids from other states. The older kids are influencers, and they all learn from each other.”
The shows also open doors to consider options for the future, figuring out what they might want to do, or not do, and developing a love for the dairy industry, for taking part, and having a voice.
One example of that, says Hannah, is a writing assignment for school, to choose an issue in the world and write about it. She chose to write about the issue of not having whole milk in school, noting all the reasons why this should be changed.
For Hannah, the excitement of her “Groovy” 2021 show year is still fresh.
“She was my first actual cow, bred on the farm, that I have showed since she was a calf and got to experience this journey to see her do extremely well,” says Hannah of her moderately framed EX-90 Brown Swiss recognized for her beautiful udder.
“You’ve got to respect her because she does well in her barn clothes,” Traci adds. “She is ‘Groovy’ in the showring and in the barn. That’s a great combination.”
By Sherry Bunting