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A dairywoman’s quiet perseverance: Her faith feeds passion’s purpose

Sherry Bunting for Progressive Dairyman Published on 06 November 2018
Karen Hawbaker

Against the backdrop of the Tuscarora mountains, a half-mile from the busy road into town, she’s out to the barn by 3:30 a.m., milking by 3:45 while herdsman Anthony Yeager feeds and scrapes.

By 7 a.m., the milking is done and calf feeding begins … all before breakfast, of course. Mid-morning, it’s time to push up feed. She’ll do this a few times a day while checking the pre-fresh cows. Then it’s back in the parlor by 2:45 to try to be done and cleaned up by 5:30 p.m. Another trip to the barn to push up feed at 10 p.m. and repeat.

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Sound familiar?

With two full-time employees, some part-time help and custom operators for the crops, Karen Hawbaker’s life is the cows that have been her dream and passion from an early age.

What started as the dairy life and business she and her husband began building and sharing 31 years ago became a life and business almost eight years ago in which she had to find her own stride, her identity, her way forward after losing Rodney in a silo accident in January 2011.

Pennsylvania dairyA humble person with a bright smile, subtle sense of humor and quiet confidence, Hawbaker doesn’t view herself as “anything special.” The recognition in February as Pennsylvania’s Dairywoman of the Year was in part due to her dairy’s high production and high-quality milk, and in part due to her work after Rodney’s death to keep alive his dream of seeing the Bolivia Dairy Project built at the orphanage there through Love in Action Ministries.

While the Bolivia Dairy Project was important, she also had the 200-cow home farm to keep going. Warm Spring Dairy was her livelihood. This was her children’s home. This was the fulfillment of a passion for dairying she developed as a youth. Both were links to her husband, now gone.

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People say big decisions should not be made in a time of great emotion. However, when there are 200 cows in the barn, no feed in the bin, heifers everywhere to take care of, a difficult financial situation and the routines of cows to milk and calves to feed, decisions must be made.

“Whether you should or you can, you immediately must make decisions,” she recalls. “The community was so wonderful to me, I couldn’t allow them to keep helping in those early weeks and months without a plan to keep the farm going.”

She had to work at pushing aside the fog of grief that enveloped her, and she’s quick to point out the biggest thing she has learned is, “We can’t do life alone.”

Hawbaker says she is grateful for the advice and kindness of others helping to spirit her and the team of employees to the task of moving forward.

“A lot of people thought I would sell out, but my children were in so much shock, I didn’t want to add another big change to their lives. I was in shock myself. I didn’t want to do something else,” she says.

Item by item, she began to organize an approach. Anthony had already been with the farm 10 years. Within two months of the accident, Roger Negley, a retired farmer, was suggested for a job. “He’s our jack-of-all-trades,” Hawbaker says.

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They are her sounding boards – along with nutritionist Dave Pullen, veterinarian Cory Meyers, crop man Jeremy Yeager and accountant Wayne Brubaker.

Hawbaker recalls how they “helped ease me into that role of making decisions by making some of those initial decisions easier for me while I was still in that fog.”

However, she says she knew she had to engage – as soon as possible – if she was going to successfully keep the farm. “At first, I wanted to just stay on autopilot and do everything the way Rod did, and then I got to the point I just couldn’t do that anymore,” she says.

She recalls the example of picking bulls on her own for the first time. “I was out of semen, and I had to pick,” she says. “That was a grief thing, that hits you in the heart, but at the same time I knew I had to establish an identity. That second year is when the ‘firsts’ start kicking in.”

She says she is thankful for friends who helped distract her or celebrated the hope and faith that were guiding the journey – that it’s OK to make decisions, to have them turn out well and be happy about it.

She had to be open to allow her faith to feed her passion. At first it felt dishonoring to be happy about a decision she made to do something different. But as she gained her confidence, she realized it’s OK to be happy about successes coming from a desire to do what’s best for the cows, the employees and her children. “It comes from the place of ‘we,’ not ‘me,’” she says.

One of her first aims was to streamline. She moved the heifers off-farm to a custom grower. Jeremy hooked her up with a custom crop operator. She worked with her accountant to pay down debt. And she further focused on milk quality.

Together, she and Rod had achieved the Land O’Lakes milk quality bonus a year before he died, and the team has kept this going in the nearly eight years since. Today’s somatic cell counts normally average in the 40,000s and can get as high as 62,000 in humid weather. The herd mostly milks in the 90-pound per cow per day range, sometimes dropping into the mid-80s.

For Hawbaker, it’s all about keeping up with the basics and paying attention to the details. Stalls are deep bedded with sand, and two loads are added every other week. Alleys are scraped when cows are brought up to milk. Protocols are clean and simple. Everything is geared to cow comfort, including intermittent sprinklers and fans.

“We just don’t have a lot of cows with issues,” she says, and the farm did well on a recent animal welfare audit for Land O’Lakes with no hock scores.

Getting the ration and crops streamlined was another goal. The farm’s 275 acres, owned and rented, is mainly planted to corn and double-cropped with triticale and oatlage harvested as forage for the rations. Hawbaker has mostly given up alfalfa but still buys some first-cut haylage from a neighbor who makes horse hay the rest of the year.

“It made me a little nervous putting all the eggs in one basket, so to speak, and we did get caught a little this spring, but the cows milk best on this ration,” she says.

Even though Hawbaker has a nice base with Land O’Lakes, she has whittled the milking herd down to 160 cows. This is an efficient size for the 30-year-old double-eight milking parlor.

Through it all, her quiet and steady way with the cows and employees is inclusive. “I like when employees take ownership. We’re a team,” she says. “When I hear them say ‘our cows’, it feels good because there has to be a point to this beyond a paycheck. We’re asking ourselves to work odd hours and take on tough responsibilities, so it feels good when we’re a team.”

She mentions those who’ve been with her through this journey; her friend Rhoda has been her rock.

Today, life seems to be moving fast. She’ll slow it down with a walk, a video chat with her grandchildren in Oklahoma, checking in with her daughter teaching English at an international school, planning a Sunday school lesson or leading a grief support group.

“It’s good to get out of our own world and into another,” she says of getting away, mentally and physically, even if just for an evening or a few hours. She believes dairy farmers need this and sometimes the ‘one more thing to do’ can be replaced with ‘it can be done tomorrow.’

Surrounding herself with people who share her values has been the key, and a guiding value for her decisions is doing well in all things for God’s glory.

“My accountant says I raise too many calves,” she says, smiling. “But it is tough to make a decision without giving that calf a chance to develop. That’s the dairy farmer mentality – to wait until that heifer is fresh and look forward to what she can be.”

The same optimism can be applied to these tough economic times in the dairy business. While Hawbaker finds it difficult to read all the dispersal sale ads and contemplates the future of family dairy farms like Warm Spring Dairy, she knows the meaning of “God will provide,” but takes it a step further.

She looks to God for what’s next.
“If God helps get us through something, that’s another confirmation we are where we are meant to be. We can’t do any of this without faith. It changes the whole outlook. Find people who share your values and be thankful,” she says, reflecting on how she felt the prayers of others in her toughest moments of loss.

“I look around and see that I would hate to try to do this myself,” she says. “When we set ourselves apart, it causes divisions. We have enough divisions out there. I want to have a productive herd and not be regarded for that because I’m a woman, but rather because I’m a dairy producer doing a good job with the cows or management.

“I think as women, instead of demanding, seeking or expecting recognition, we can use the gifts God has given us to do our best and earn the results, and if it doesn’t happen, to be content in the confirmation we’re where we are meant to be.”

For Hawbaker, it’s this quiet faith that feeds the purpose in her passion for dairy.

As for the future?

“I want to see what God wants me to do,” she says. “I don’t know the purpose He has in using my passion for dairy. That I’m here doing this may have a purpose I can’t see. All of my life, this is all I have ever wanted to do. God instilled this in me, so I keep looking to Him for where it goes from here."  end mark

PHOTO 1 & 2: Pennsylvania dairywoman Karen Hawbaker kept her farm going after the death of her husband in 2011. She says she relied on friends who helped her through her grief and farm consultants who helped her make decisions until she got her bearings. Photos by Sherry Bunting.

Sherry Bunting is a freelance writer from East Earl, Pennsylvania.

QUICK FACTS ABOUT KAREN

• Dairying is something Karen Hawbaker has loved since growing up in southern Lancaster County and following her uncle around his nearby dairy farm.

• It was through FFA her future blossomed and, after high school, she attended Penn State, where she was president of the Dairy Science Club in 1985. After college, she traveled around Pennsylvania working for Master Mix, and that’s how she met Rodney. They married in October 1988.

• “Owen was 4 and Kirsten was 1; we were on a rented farm, milking and accumulating cows,” she recalls. “We did everything ourselves. We made this our life.”

• By April 1995, they had purchased Warm Spring Dairy, milking 60 cows at first. Several years into it, as the herd expanded, they hired Anthony Yeager as herdsman so they had flexibility to get away.

• In January 2011, everything changed. Rodney passed away from injuries in a silo accident on the farm. Karen not only drew upon her faith and the wisdom of the team around her to keep the farm going, she spearheaded the effort to keep Rodney’s dream alive, that of building a dairy as a purpose-driven mission for an orphanage in Bolivia.

• In February 2018, Karen was recognized as Pennsylvania Dairywoman of the Year, an award she humbly says belongs to her team as well.

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