The cows are back and the focus is milk quality

Mike and Missy Cottrell look forward to seeing the DHI listings in Farmshine and go over their reports to keep track of progress. They restarted the Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania dairy farm in April. Coming through a flurry of calving heifers over the summer, their diligence paid with SCC declining to 100,000.

THOMPSON, Pa. — Around the kitchen table overlooking the farm that has been in the family three generations, there are contagious smiles and optimism during an August 2022 interview at Cottrell Dairy — especially bringing out the DHI reports and seeing progress on milk quality.

The smiles also reflect how they feel about having milk cows back in the barn again.

If there is a theme to the conversation, it’s that we never know what the future holds, so be diligent, be ready, work through the hard stuff, and have hope.

“You can be down and out and losing a match, but you keep fighting to that last second, to the end, because you never know what can happen,” says Mike, drawing an analogy from his years as a wrestler in high school. “You can catch your opponent in a move. It takes two seconds to pin, two seconds to win. No matter the score, if you keep wrestling, you have that chance.” 

That’s certainly the case for Mike and Missy Cottrell.

In some respects, they are starting out in dairy farming. In other ways, they are continuing the legacy of Mike’s father and grandfather, farming the land, taking care of the cows, and producing milk with a small herd in the mountains of Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania. 

In April 2020, Mike’s father Emerson passed away after contracting COVID-19. Mike says it was the worst day of his life and that he realized later the second worst was the day the cows were sold. It was another blow.

In April 2021, the collective decision of the family was to sell the cows — the herd Emerson’s father had started and that Emerson and his wife Hope had built up to have a good reputation through their many years shipping milk to the former Readington Farms fluid milk plant.

By April 2022, Mike and Missy were restarting the dairy, doing so as one of the few farms in the area without a gas well pad as a financial resource.

A neighbor mentioned the opportunity to get back in on a truck picking up milk from farms that went with National Farmers Organization (NFO) after Wakefern Foods closed its iconic Readington Farms plant in January 2022. The Cottrell herd sale had occurred just 8 months before the 150 farms in northeastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey received their letters of contract termination announcing the plant closure just before Christmas.

The Cottrells met with NFO’s Rylee Phillips, got prepared and saw “everything just fall into place.” Today, they are proud to ship high quality milk with NFO. Even more, they are thrilled to have milk cows back in the barn and pastures again.

Two years after Emerson Cottrell passed away and one year after the cows were sold, his wife Hope is proud to see her son Mike and his wife Missy and the children Xander, M.J. and Morgan all smiles with milk cows in the barn again. Emerson also loved his tractors. This one is special and carries the emblem “In Loving Memory of Emerson ‘Boss Hogg’ Cottrell”.

Mike works full-time as he has for the past 20 years as a senior installer with the local phone company, and Missy operates her practice as a chiropractor, part-time.

Mike grew up loving cows and helping his father milk them before and after work. It was his father who had taught Missy the art of milking.

“I didn’t realize how much I would miss the cows, until they were gone,” he reflects.

Missy says it got to the point where Mike couldn’t go down to the barn.

“He didn’t sleep. Now he sleeps like a baby – well, better than a baby,” she says, holding their one-year-old daughter Morgan.

To get started, the couple purchased 25 cows in April. They spent the summer calving-in the older heifers they had kept out of the sale of his dad’s herd, with younger heifers on behind. Their plan is to get up to milking around 50, where they want to cap it. 

Mike’s dad milked 70, but that meant using a second smaller adjacent barn that is not very efficient to keep clean.

In the restart, they are laser focused on milk quality. Mike’s father always wanted the barn and the grounds kept neat and clean, but SCC did run above 200,000. Before the herd was sold in 2021, Mike wanted to get those counts below 200,000, and on their very last test, they did.

Competitive by nature, he set a more aggressive goal as they started milking again this year. He looks forward to the Dairy One DHIA reports in Farmshine, to see where they measure up with the dairies in the area that they respect and look up to.

This year, despite milking a young herd — through a flurry of fresh heifers with counts going up and down — they were excited to see their tests hit 100,000.

As the cows come in from pasture for the 4:00 p.m. milking, three of the more than 15 first-calf heifers Mike and Missy have calved in from his father’s original herd are lined up with udders full of milk at Cottrell Dairy.

It’s the little things, say Mike and Missy, each offering their points on the matter. First of all, they focus on cow comfort, with cattle getting out on pasture as much as possible.

They are diligent about using the California Mastitis Test and about applying Udder Comfort on all fresh cows and heifers.

“We apply Udder Comfort prefresh, when we start to see swelling, and we keep applying it after each milking for a week after calving. Our heifers come in much calmer, and they milk out much better. We have seen what this does for milk quality and cow comfort,” says Mike. “As we became more diligent on this, our counts continued to decline.”

The Cottrells bed with shavings and focus on keeping stalls clean and dry. Even 6-year-old Xander and his little sister M.J. are quick to pick up a scraper to tend the backs of stalls, and of course they love when fresh shavings are delivered.

Mike and Missy pay attention to managing mineral status and nutrition and in using consistent milking procedures. The cows get out on pasture every day also.

They say the switch to automatic takeoff milkers has paid off too.

“I told him, if we are really going to do this, if we are going to start milking again, automatic takeoffs are a must,” Missy laughs.

“This did help. We avoid overmilking, and it speeds up the process,” Mike confirms.

“I have to say I did look at the Dairy One report and picked out a couple cows we could sell to bring that count down,” Missy adds with a good-natured nudge to Mike.

“They are good, high producing cows, but we are really focusing on milk quality. We try not to be mediocre at anything we decide to do,” he concedes. So, they had some cow decisions to make.

Taking note of the fact that their setup is “not fancy,” they say fancy is not a requirement for improving milk quality. 

It’s just like anything else worth striving for, the couple says. Improvement comes from keeping track, being focused and diligent.

As for the farming and feeding regimen here. It’s mostly all about the pasture and grass hay cut on 1000 acres of ground — 400 owned, 400 rented and some of it they mow for neighbors – a job they take pride in, to leave the properties looking good when they are done.

With the dry growing season in northeastern Pennsylvania this year, they’ll be down an estimated 500 bales, although the late August rains helped produce a third cut. They will have enough to feed the herd this winter but less to sell. They feed dry hay, haylage and grain and concentrate from their local feed mill.

On the business side, the couple looks carefully at farm investments and expenses.

Missy has her own part-time practice as a chiropractor and has used her talents on the cows at times. She subscribes to the KISS theory in management — Keep it Simple…

Mike likes to weigh every purchase. “Dad always said money is easy to spend and hard to make, and he’s right, so I try to keep that in mind.”

This busy couple would know because they milk at 4:30 a.m., get the children started on their day, head to off-farm work (Mike every day, Missy some days), and come home to the cows and milking again. They have even enlisted the enthusiastic help of one of Mike’s co-workers, Matt Ward. He has grown to love the cows and the farm too, and the Cottrells are grateful to have him be a part of it.

Mike’s mom Hope helps with the children, ages 6, 4 and 1. She fixes supper most days and lives at the farm. Mike and Missy live a mile away from the farm.

“I’m proud of what they are doing,” says Hope. “I like seeing cows in the pasture from my window again.”

“We asked mom what she thought about us getting back into it. Her response was we’re crazy if we do and crazy if we don’t, but it won’t hurt to try,” Mike recalls.

“Try to go back in without going into debt. That’s the challenge,” Hope says she told them.

If there’s one thing in the restart that Mike wishes he could change it would be to have back many of his father’s good milk cows that were sold in 2021. But having the heifers from those cows coming up through is a blessing.

The children enjoy helping take care of them, and eventually more will calve into the milk herd to replace some of the cows they purchased to get started.

Being part of this community — where farming, dairy cows and rural living are appreciated, where people help each other and enjoy good old fashioned competition, and where they have friends and mentors, those retired and those still dairying — is another blessing ‘in the neighborhood,’ they say.

— By Sherry Bunting

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