HERd management authors speak up on today’s challenges

PD Editor Emily Caldwell Published on 19 November 2012

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In our March 21st issue of this year, Progressive Dairyman launched a new column written by dairywomen. The first contributor of what we now call “HERd management” was Emily Zweber of Elko, Minnesota. Over the past eight months, we’ve featured an additional eight female voices through this column.

We asked our contributors to open up about their farms and their opinions about a dairywoman’s role in the industry today.

See responses from Terri DiNitto of Marcy, New York; Ellen Durrer of Modesto, California; Karma Fitzgerald of Shoshone, Idaho; Kim (Wilson) Grewe of Cumberland, Wisconsin; Brenda Hastings of Chardon, Ohio; Holly Hull of Preston, Idaho; Ashley Messing-Kennedy of Bad Axe, Michigan; and Joanmarie Weiss of Frankenmuth, Michigan.


What is your dairy background?

DINITTO: I live on a 1,000+ acre dairy farm in central New York. We have just over 1,000 Holstein and Holstein crosses. We milk 540 cows three times a day.

DURRER: As a fifth-generation dairywoman, I grew up on a dairy farm located about 45 minutes north of San Francisco, where my parents still farm today. I met a fourth-generation dairyman while attending college and together we are raising our boys on our family farm in the Central Valley. Our herd consists of approximately 620 Holstein cattle, one-third of which are registered under the Lorita Holsteins prefix.

FITZGERALD: I married into the dairy business. My father was a farmer and I learned early to appreciate hard work, land and livestock. The first time I visited my now-husband’s dairy, I said, “It smells like home.” He says that’s when he knew he would marry me.

GREWE: I was born and raised on a family farm in Neosho, Missouri, with registered Holstein and Jersey cattle. I then later got into Guernsey cattle. We exhibited our cattle every year at Missouri State Fair – and then here and there we would exhibit at World Dairy Expo and NAILE .

Just a couple years ago I got engaged to a dairy farmer who lives in Cumberland, Wisconsin, and I made the journey north to be with him. My husband is primarily a registered Guernsey cattle breeder. We wish to continue with Guernsey cattle but will incorporate Jersey cattle later on as we soon hope to be the owners of the farm.

HASTINGS: Hastings Dairy is located in northeast Ohio, approximately 40 miles east of Cleveland and 20 miles south of Lake Erie. Our family farm is home to 580 milk cows. We grow corn, grass hay, sudangrass and rye on 500 rented acres.

Three freestall barns house our cows. We also have an agritourism business where we host visitors at our dairy. My husband, Lad, and I are third-generation dairy producers who started this farm in 2004. We have two sons: Garrett (10) and Jack (7).

HULL: We are a fifth-generation farm located in southeastern Idaho. We farm along with my husband’s parents. We milk 80 head of Holstein cows and raise all of our replacement heifers and raise our own feed on about 250 acres. We also have a small produce farm that we sell via CSA and a roadside stand. For a peek at our farms, check us out by clicking here or here .

MESSING-KENNEDY: I am the third generation on my family’s current farm but I have several more generations of dairy farmers behind me. I am now a part owner with my parents on our 250-cow dairy farm. I have my dairy management certification and my bachelor’s degree in animal science from Michigan State and have interned and worked as far from Michigan as California.

WEISS: My dad had dairy cows until I was 12 years old. (He traded 100 cows for hundreds of acres of tomatoes, cabbage and peppers.) I have been married for 25 years to Roger M. Weiss. We attended a MSU dairy short course in 1989. I learned a tremendous amount of information in the six weekends of classes about cow health and production. We now have three adult children. Margie, 22, and Scott, 20, both work on the farm, while Lydia is studying at the Culinary Institute of Michigan.


What challenges do you think dairywomen face today?

DINITTO: I think the challenges are trying to keep a positive outlook with the changes and challenges dairy farmers are facing today. We also struggle with being accepted as equal partners when dairy farming has been predominately a male occupation, along with trying not to spread ourselves too thin.

DURRER: I think the biggest challenge facing today’s dairywomen is the divide between the farmer and the consumer. I think it’s incredible that there is a greater interest being taken in where our food comes from, but it seems like that conversation is not reaching the farmer as often as it should.

While we are forced to be more efficient, produce more with less – less land, less water, fewer cattle – it seems that consumers are less likely to be open to the technologies and advances in the world of agriculture as they are in the world of computers and phones. The challenge is to find and remain at the forefront of the conversation.

FITZGERALD: Sadly, I think it’s still hard for dairywomen to be taken seriously as owners and managers. From sales reps to fieldmen, people are still looking around for the male who makes decisions.

GREWE: In my opinion, dairywomen are facing less and less challenges every day. Today you see more and more women involved in the dairy industry. We just currently changed our nutritionist to a woman. There may always be challenges for women in the dairy industry – but as of today I feel this has decreased.

HASTINGS: The same challenges many women face: balancing work, family, kids’ activities, community/dairy industry involvement and managing a household. Dairy farms operate 365 days a year and have many variables from animals to equipment to staff. A dairy farm requires commitment from the entire family.

HULL: The biggest challenge for me, besides trying to be profitable with high feed prices and low milk prices, is trying to be “everything.” What I mean by that is trying to help manage the farm, do the labor, be the accountant, be the wife, the mom, the chef, the maid, the taxi, the tutor, the friend – while also finding time to give service in the community and church. I have to tell myself to set little goals because it is physically impossible to do everything.

MESSING-KENNEDY: One of the challenges is getting the next generation started in the farm. I think it sounds intimidating to take over a farm and many of us do not think we have the expertise to be able to do it. The truth is we do and we can do a stellar job of it.

WEISS: Women in agriculture are challenged to make themselves known and taken seriously. Though I do the financials for our farm, I am amazed at how many bankers – including female bankers – still look at Roger for the answer to every question. Roger always tells them it’s me they need to be addressing. We still strive to be known as “real” farmers.


What excites or inspires you about being a dairywoman?

I’m inspired by the opportunities available for women involved in dairy farming and by being able to educate the non-farming public about how important dairy farming is. My husband and children inspire me but so do other dairywomen and their families. They are amazing in so many ways!

DURRER: The most exciting thing about being involved in a family dairy farmis just that – family. I was fortunate to grow up on a family farm and now my husband and I are able to raise our children on a family farm. I once heard someone ask my dad, “Do you enjoy what you do?” and his response was, “I couldn’t be here if I didn’t enjoy it.”

Those were very inspiring words to a girl who still had no idea where she fit in this world. To be able to do what he enjoyed was a valuablemessage that has stuck with me.

The farm is not a part-time gig; it is not a job. It is a lifestyle. There are long hours, weeks without days off, vacations that are concurrent with industry-related events planned around happenings on the farm. We are here because we enjoy what we do. Caring for our cattle, making our operation a family affair and being able to take our passion and story and share it with those around us.

I really enjoy the opportunities I am presented with to share our story with anyone who has questions. Being and staying involved in industry-related events, whether it be a discussion at the dairy case, taking calves to an elementary school or participating in leadership opportunities to continue to understand where and how we fit keep me motivated.

My husband is a huge inspiration to me at this stage in the game. While the ability to make a profit in the dairy industry is a huge black cloud in the sky, our cows come first. His determination and drive to keep going each day, knowing there will come a point when things will turn around, makes me strive harder to ensure he has the tools and support he needs to continue to do what he enjoys.

FITZGERALD: While I love to see the dairy thrive and am proud of the work they do here, I am continually inspired by my kids and the other young men and women I see involved in 4-H and FFA programs.

GREWE: What excites me about being a dairywoman ... easy, the lovely ladies. There is so much joy to go to the farm and see those “smiling faces.” I enjoy working with them, from just simply giving them the extra attention they deserve to the everyday chores that need to be done for their well-being.

My dad (Mike Wilson) has always been “the cow man” to me. He has given me wonderful opportunities and encouraged me to be involved in the industry. He has been by my side from showmanship lessons and judging lessons to learning about everyday care or dairy cattle.

I always say dairy cattle is my connection to my father; we could talk for hours about cows and the industry. I remember when I was off at college he would call me and we would just simply talk cows, and now that I live 11 hours away we still have those phone calls.

HASTINGS: I’ve always been proud to be a member of a dairy family. It’s been a part of my family history for generations. I love sharing the story of our farm through tours of our dairy, our website, blog and social media. I’m excited to share how we produce a great product and work hard to make sure our cows are comfortable and well cared for.

My parents inspire me. They teach by example. They value hard work and are respectful of others. My father has been committed to dairy farming and promoting dairy for many years. My mother, who is also from a dairy family, juggled a teaching job, her children’s activities and kept everyone organized. My parents are a good team and provided a great life for our family.

HULL: Being the underdog. We are facing some serious challenges with prices right now in the industry. The numbers and facts say it is almost impossible to continue dairying – and that motivates me. I don’t like being told I can’t do something. It drives me to prove everyone else wrong. And if I do fail, at least I won’t have a regret; I know we will have done our best.

MESSING-KENNEDY: What excites me is being able to work in an environment that challenges me intellectually and physically every day. What inspires me is looking out at the farm and knowing that I own a part of it and that my children could be the next generation to continue this dream. Knowing that my husband and I will continue something that my grandparents started is a gift.

WEISS: I enjoy sharing our farm story with visitors and groups I am invited to talk to about 21st-century agriculture. Listening to moms at a ball game, or perhaps guys in a bar, I am aware of the misunderstandings most Americans have about food and farming. The “other side” – the activists and those who yearn for a mythical agrarian past – have communicated very effectively. As farmers, we need to be just as committed to being activists for modern ag practices and explain clearly how modern technologies make our job easier and better for us, for them, for the environment.


What advice would you have for a young dairywoman hoping to start her own dairy or pursue a management role on an operation?

DINITTO: Don’t give up even when your goal seems to not be in reach. Dairywomen are an important part of the dairy industry.

DURRER: In the next 35 to 40 years, the world’s population is projected to reach 9 billion people. At that rate, we will need to produce twice as much food to sustain the population as has ever been produced before.

There is a definite place for dairy as a part of a nutritious diet, and we need to be willing and prepared to meet the demands of the changing population. It is vital that farmers continue to share how food reaches the markets and the amount of care and dedication that goes into producing that food.

FITZGERALD: From my perspective, I’d say get a good education but complement that with work on the farm. You’ll need a strong background in accounting as well as a love for animals and the business itself. One of the things we’ve seen great success with is mentoring.

We have had young dairy producers come out and job shadow with our staff. We’ve also had our interns visit other dairy operations to see how they run. Everybody has a different vision for how things should operate, and by studying what other successful operators do, you can pick and choose the methods that work for you.

GREWE: Don’t be afraid to take on your own dairy or management role. It may take a while to gain respect from employees, but being knowledgeable is key. Also, like any other boss, always listen to different opinions. They may not be what you want to hear – but they are just ideas.

HASTINGS: Dairy farming is a challenging business. It requires resilience, optimism, business savvy and the willingness to take risks. My advice is to spend your time and energy on what you can control, keep good financial and cow records and develop good relationships with your neighbors. Be involved in your community and the dairy industry to make a difference.

HULL: Don’t let anything stop you. I think we have so much to add to the industry. I don’t think men or women are better suited to manage, but I do think that women sometimes see things differently than men do. Sometimes we look at the options and changes from a completely different view and it helps us to be successful.

MESSING-KENNEDY: When looking from the outside, owning or managing a dairy can sound intimidating, especially if your parents are looking to retire like mine are. You can second-guess whether you should go back to the dairy for years. Just give it all you have and, even if it doesn’t work out, you cannot regret giving it a try.

WEISS: Our daughter, Margie, is a graduate of MSU’s Dairy Management course and a dairy farmer to her very last cell! As she grew up, I introduced her to women who were more hands-on farmers than I am. Both Roger and I encouraged her to develop her current businesses, too: Healthy Cows Hoof Trimming and Breeding Services.


What’s the best piece of advice you were ever given as a dairywoman?

DINITTO: Nobody understands dairy farming like a dairy farmer. If we are going to educate non-farmers, we have to do it ourselves. We are our best advocates!

DURRER: I can’t think of any specific advice that I’ve received – but rather encouragement. Fellow farmers, family, friends and people I’ve met at various educational opportunities have encouraged me to continue to be involved. Sometimes the road can get rocky, but staying in the conversation and keeping education at the forefront are vital to the survival of our industry.

FITZGERALD: When I got married, an older co-worker gave me some great advice: “Persevere baby, persevere ...”

GREWE: I have always been told to work hard, put forth your best effort. If it something you really want, don’t give up and keep moving. I have tried various different things from internships to different jobs.

HASTINGS: One of the most important lessons my parents instilled in me is accountability. You create your path by the choices you make; take responsibility for your choices.

HULL: “Quit complaining and get back to work.” My grandmother would stop me in my tracks when I first came back to the farm and would try and whine to her about how hard things were. She was right; when I tried a little harder, things got a lot easier. It just took effort.

MESSING-KENNEDY: The best advice I was ever given was from my father: to always look outside the box. Our parents raised us to think creatively and find the best solution, not the traditional or easy one, to solve every problem. They taught us to always be progressive, forward thinkers in everything we do.

WEISS: I did not want to be a farmer when I grew up, and I was loud about that! My mom told me “never say never.” When I decided to marry Roger, she also told me that I knew what I was getting into. For all the modernization on our farm, our family’s lifestyle would still be instantly recognizable to farmers throughout American history. We live together, work together, love together. PD

Do you know of a dairywoman who would like to write a HERd management column? Click here to Email Editor Emily Caldwell.

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