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HERd management: A woman’s role in agriculture

Joanmarie Weiss Published on 18 January 2013

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Farm parents mentor their children – working side by side. And generations mature, as one teaches the other how to work with cows and the land. What dairy farm dad or mom has not been asked by friends, “Do you think one of the kids will take over the farm? Do you think they’ll keep the cows?” We teach, they learn, and the farm goes on.

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At the young age of 34 hours old, our daughter Margie entered our century-old dairy barn, watching from her manure-spattered stroller as Dad and Grandpa milked cows and Mom and Grandma fed calves and cleaned up.

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Flash forward two years: A gleeful Margie, dressed in a calico-blue dress, stands up to her thighs in Daddy’s chore boots, covered in manure and sweat from the effort of pulling them on her tiny feet.

Age 10: A grainy photo of Margie helping the hoof trimmer, yet again integrating manure into her wardrobe like a chic accessory.

Forward again: Dad and Mom, younger brother and sister leave for a three-day trip while 13-year-old Margie (and Grandpa) happily wave them on their way before going to the barn to do chores. Really, we were fulfilling her new teenage birthday wish to “milk cows all by myself.”

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Growing up, dairy farm kids absorb lessons each day, watching and working with older generations and the cows. Some kids demonstrate a propensity early on to master it all, dreaming big dreams.

A few years later, it’s us waving good-bye as Margie leaves for Michigan State University . Sure, she already knows everything about cows and is upset (read this as “mad as hell”) that I insist she can learn something from professors – a group she’d never met but described as “a bunch of people who only see cows in books.”

She mastered the rigorous MSU Ag Technology Dairy Management program and earned her associate’s degree in applied animal science at Lansing Community College with a 4.0 GPA. Two years later, she returned to our farm with great respect for the knowledge and dedication those dairy educators have for cows, the industry and their students.

In 2009, Margie attended Dairyland Hoof Care Institute , studying dairy cow hoof health and care with Karl Burgi; she was the sole woman in her training school session. She procured a Farm Service Agency young farmer loan and purchased a chute, tools and supplies, printed a brochure and went into business.

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In addition to hoof care, she does A.I. breeding for several farms in the middle of Michigan. A few times each week, she jumps in the 1995 red Dodge pickup (she bought it as her “first car” at 15) towing her chute or carrying an A.I. kit with her dog, Ruby, beside her.

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Most days, though, Margie is home on the farm working alongside her dad, following in the footsteps of five generations of Weiss farmers.

She has assumed management of the dairy herd. Johann LELY , our milking robot, thrives in her care, and she and the farm thrive on the reams of information the robot shares with her about “the ladies.”

She and her dad are a team, respecting each other’s opinions and together seeking ways to improve our herd in the 21st century. Margie concentrates her efforts mainly in the dairy enterprise while our son, Scott, works with Dad to maintain equipment and nurture crops.

Our veterinarian (he’s known Margie since she was a baby) respects her dedication to cows. He’s taught her to be midwife to pregnant cows, nanny to calves and first responder to sick animals. The nutritionist consults weekly with her about forage quality and herd rations.

Margie is a jack (or is it jill?) of all trades. She hauls manure, mows hay and unplugs the haybine, replaces frayed electrical wiring, pours cement, draws and builds sheds – cheerfully working with Dad to do whatever needs to be done in the course of a day.

She reads industry magazines to learn more about good dairy practices. This year, she serves as Michigan Milk Producers Association’s Outstanding Young Dairy Cooperator for Frankenmuth Local and District 10.

Other modern young women, like Margie, are preparing themselves to assume farm ownership and management. Dairy farming still requires physical stamina, but new technologies constantly evolve to make the work easier.

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Land-grant colleges educate young women, as well as men, to work in production agriculture and agri-businesses.

I think – and hope – as the American dairy industry moves forward, these young people judge the merits and achievements of each other based on personal successes rather than on gender.

I knew since Margie was an obsessed, cow-loving toddler that God had His own plans for her. She never embraced my visions of dance lessons and shopping.

Now in her early 20s, some of my friends ask another question: “Will Margie marry a farmer?” My answer: “I don’t know … it would probably make his life easier.”

This I do know: It’s not a prerequisite. Margie will not be the traditional farmer’s wife. My daughter is a dairy farmer. Her husband can be anything he chooses. Personally, I advise her and all our future dairy farmers to seek love … and then maybe money: The first will make each day more precious and the second will make farming more fun. PD

Joanmarie and her husband, Roger, have three adult children. Two of their children, Margie and Scott, farm with them. Lydia currently attends culinary school.

PHOTOS
Margie Weiss is a hoof trimmer and herd manager for her family's robotically milked dairy herd in Michigan. She is the sixth-generation family member at Weiss Centennial Farm. Photos courtesy of Margie and Joanmarie Weiss.

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Joanmarie Weiss
Dairy producer
Frankenmuth, Michigan

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