COVID-19 was a nightmare for everyone, but it was especially brutal for Roy Coale and his wife, Jen.
They used to ship milk to a nearby Land O’Lakes plant in Carlisle, Pa., through their cooperative — Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative. But right in the middle of all the COVID chaos, they got a phone call that would change everything: Their cooperative was no longer picking up their milk.
Panic set in, Roy says. He and his wife had to scramble to come up with a solution, and quickly.
“But, like I told her, this has been our work for 30 years,” he remembers. “I wasn't going to let some co-op decide our future.”
What started as a nightmare may have been a blessing in disguise. Two years after being dropped by their cooperative, the couple have changed their business and found other ways to sell their milk.
It’s not about producing the most milk from their cows. They focus on milk quality and keeping costs down to find success.
All in on Ayrshires
Roy and Jen milk 50 cows and raise 50 young stock on their Hidden Valley Ayrshires Farm in Newville. Roy, who is originally from Baltimore County, Md., says having dairy cows started as just a 4-H project since his father and grandfather raised beef cattle.
In fact, he still has 14 bred heifers that can be traced back to the original cow he had in 4-H.
“We always stayed with the Ayrshires. We like the Ayrshires,” he says. “It just seems like it’s a little bit better milk. They make a better cheese and stuff for us.”
Their cows only produce 14,000 pounds of milk on average. It’s not much compared to much more productive herds, but the butterfat and protein levels — 4.6% and 3.2%, respectively — are impressive.
Roy credits the cows’ pasture-based diet. The cows are out on pasture at least 300 days a year or more. The 40 acres of pasture are divided into 15 lots. The cows rotate through the lots in about two weeks, he says.
The 50 acres of crop ground is not good for growing corn or soybeans, he says, so they use it to grow hay. They grow mostly sudangrass and bromegrasses. The bromes are cut for dry hay, while the sudangrass gets wrapped in bales. They only got two cuttings this year because of the dry weather, but Roy says he is planning on adding more sudangrass next year.
Bromegrass helps the cows maintain high bodyweight and is high in energy. “It tests nearly as good as corn silage in energy,” he says.
They also feed a complete grain mix from a mill in Perry County.
The cows also have a productive life. For example, one cow that will be calving in March is turning 15 years old soon. Roy says the average age of the cows is about 6 years old.
“That gives us an opportunity to move some heifers to 4-H kids and stuff because we don’t need them all. So it works out well that way,” he says. “We get them off concrete, get them on dirt and they last forever,” adding that the cows’ somatic cell counts range between 70,000 and 100,000.
Changing the business
As soon as they found out their milk route was being cut, the couple had to scramble to find an alternative or risk going out of business.
Confident in their milk quality, they set out to get a raw milk license and open a small store on the farm. But in the middle of COVID when all government inspectors and workers had to work remotely, getting the raw milk permit proved difficult. A process that normally takes a couple of months, the couple waited half a year to get the license.
They applied for government grants and loans to keep the business alive.
But even with their plans of getting the raw milk license and opening a small store on the farm, they still had to have most of their milk shipped by a hauler. Roy says that he sent an email to the National Farmers Organization in Iowa. The next day, the regional manager from NFO, from New York, called Roy and said that a truck in the area could pick up the farm’s milk.
The tanker truck, Roy says, had room for 10,000 pounds of milk, more than enough for their needs.
Within two days of sending the email, Roy says the truck was picking up their milk and hauling it to a regional Lanco cheese plant. They’ve been shipping through NFO for two years. NFO doesn’t have any plants; they are just a marketing organization that markets fluid milk to end markets.
Right now, Roy says their milk is contracted for a year, so they have some short-term certainty that the milk has a market. With bonuses, he says the milk is fetching an average $27 per cwt, but expenses still make it hard to get by.
“It’s still tough because everything else has gone up right along with it, so we’re really no better off than two years ago when we were at $14 milk because the fuel prices doubled, grain prices doubled, fertilizer has tripled. Everything has gone up,” he says.
The store has become an important part of the business. It’s a small shed in front of the farmhouse along a major road that goes past the farm. They sell raw milk and aged raw cheese, ice cream, baked goods, ground beef, and other items. Most of the time the store isn’t manned; people just come in, grab what they want and pay via the honor system — there is a box where they can drop off their money.
Keeping it simple
With no employees and Roy having a part-time job off the farm as a relief technician for Genex — they also have an 8-year-old son, Dakota — the priority is keeping the operation simple so one person can do the milking and most of the chores if the other person isn’t around.
The milking facility goes back to 1979. It is a double-six swing parlor with weigh jars in the center. Jen, who does the milkings when Roy is working, says the cows are well-adapted to coming into the milking parlor on their own, so she spends little time fetching cows out on pasture or in the freestalls.
“She can come out and do chores on her own, no help needed,” Roy says. “So she’s not out here trying to run a feed mixer or other things. It’s so much more convenient to feed bales than make all that feed and everything.”
The farm’s newest tractor is a 1968 Farmall 756 that still gets the job done. It pulls the hay baler, rake and manure-hauling equipment.
Roy was the herdsman on a 400-cow dairy in Maryland for 10 years, and Jen, who is from the Newville area, used to work on a 400-cow dairy. Pushing cows for maximum milk production is something they know about well. But the trade-off of going bigger and having more cows is more labor, equipment debt and more bills. They have decided to go a different road, and so far, it has worked.
“If you sit down and put all that together, the numbers and all that, you need high-production cows to pay the bills” on a larger farm, Roy says. “We like to keep things as simple as possible.”