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A lifetime of learning led to George Mueller’s success

Karen Lee Published on 14 January 2009
Success on a dairy can be measured in many ways. It could be found in pounds per cow, herd growth over time, percent of Excellent-scoring cows or year-end profits.

For dairyman George Mueller of Clifton Springs, New York, success has come in creating a sustainable dairy operation through the education he’s received and subsequently shared with future generations of dairy producers.

He will continue to pass along his knowledge next month as he presents “Sharing the Secrets to 52 Years of Profitability and Steady Growth” at the 2009 Pennsylvania Dairy Summit February 11-12 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

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George and his wife, Mary Lue, are the founders of Willow Bend Farm, LLC, a 1,000-cow, 2,200-acre dairy.

In January 2003, Willow Bend Farm merged with neighbors Kevin and Barb Nedrow, and together they built Spring Hope Dairy, a satellite dairy farm with 1,000 cows and 2,300 acres. Both farms have a respectable 27,000-pound herd average.

A city boy growing up, George claims he was born with farming in his blood. His mother was a farmer’s daughter.

“She would always say, ‘The city’s no place for a boy in the summer,’” George recalls.

So each summer he went to his uncle’s farm where his uncle and his uncle’s partner taught him to love farming as a way of life. When it came to choosing a career, George says there is one thing that matters: “You’ve got to love what you do.”

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This dairyman attributes his success to certain life events and learning opportunities.

“My four years at Cornell didn’t hurt me any,” he says, but it was on-farm experience that really accentuated his education.

“I learned more about dairy farming in one year as a hired hand,” he says of the time he spent working at Lawnell Farms in Piffard, New York.

“The practical nature of farming is something you need to learn on the job.”

For this reason, George insisted that each of his five children work somewhere else before they could join the dairy. His son John, who is the primary manager on the dairy now, spent three years at a local farm co-op. There he learned how to deal with people, and he brought those talents back to the farm.

Working with others is a skill George learned at an early age while at his uncle’s farm and when he entered the army in 1955 as an ROTC second lieutenant stationed in Korea after the war. It is a skill that’s been very useful as the dairy has grown through the years.

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“When I started, I made every decision,” George says. “Once I got to five or six employees, I had to delegate. I had to let them make decisions and let them grow.”

To aid in enabling growth, George provides some of his employees the opportunity to be financially involved in the dairy. Over time, he’s had three junior partners that would receive a percent of the milk check, or others that could own cattle in the business.

By allowing them to have a stake in the operation, “Their incentive was to increase the size and production of the herd,” George says, making it a win-win for all parties involved.

A few of those young employees were later able to begin their own dairies with the cattle they acquired while working for George. The only way to truly experience and learn what it takes to be successful in farming is to actually do it yourself, George believes.

“Farming on your own, now that’s real experience,” George says, noting he developed a good deal of judgment when he started out on his own 52 years ago. With that notion in mind, he’s passed the lion’s share of the responsibilities on to his son John, allowing him to make decisions and develop good judgments.

“You’ve got to let go,” George says, mentioning he learned that lesson after two other sons tried to farm with their father.

John has incorporated a number of new ideas on the farm that his father was skeptical of at first, but most of them have worked out in the farm’s favor. One instance is the hiring of Hispanic labor 10 to 12 years ago.

George admits he had his reservations but now claims, “We’ve never had such good help all our lives.”

Before George could pass along his knowledge and a successful dairy to the next generation, he first had to build it. Much of what took place on the dairy he learned from seeing what was taking place in the dairy industry around the world through farm magazines and touring dairies.

In 1975, a farm magazine put a picture of a freestall facility on the front cover. At that point, George had been in business for 15 years, each day spreading 80 bales of straw on a manure pack in basement barns that housed his 120 cows, and they were still dirty, he recalls.

The picture sparked an idea, and George kept reading anything that would tell him more about these new barns. However, reading wasn’t enough for him, and while the family was on a camping trip to Pennsylvania he got up at 3 a.m. one morning to go see his first freestall barn in person. That visit was followed up by stops at 29 more farms before George built his first freestall barn in 1976.

A tour led by extension agents two years later introduced George to the California-style parlors with breezeways in Arizona, California and New Mexico. However, it wasn’t until 10 years later in 1988 that he built one on his dairy.

These days, the Muellers and Nedrows have been busy reading and looking at sand separating lanes to better handle the sand used for bedding on the dairy. Not everything George has done or benefited from was intentional, and he attributes a certain bit of luck to helping him get where he is today.

For example, in the first year he farmed, George inherited a wooden upright silo. That same year it blew down when a hurricane came through New York.

“That was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me,” he says.

After the silo collapse he looked closely at what his mentors at Lawnell Farms were experimenting with in the form of trench silos. George took the wooden staves from the silo and some treated poles, mixed concrete in a small hand-mixer and built one of the first bunker silos in the state.

Even though George is no longer in the trenches while working on the dairy, his learning process continues. Now, the source is his son John.

George watches as his son implements many communication strategies and promotes team building through his decision-making processes. These are steps George hadn’t taken, but yet he sees how well it’s working on the dairy.

To learn more about George and how his experiences led to his “52 Years of Profitability and Steady Growth,” attend the 2009 Pennsylvania Dairy Summit, February 11-12 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

George will also lead a breakout session titled, “Passing on the Dairy Legacy: Ideas for Transitioning the Dairy Farm & Bringing New Producers into the Business.” PD

To register or obtain more information on the event, hosted by Pennsylvania Dairy Stakeholders and Professional Dairy Managers of Pennsylvania with support from Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, Center for Dairy Excellence and Pennsylvania Dairy Alliance, go to www.padairysummit.org, e-mail or call (877) 326-5993.

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