Gilde family
Gilde family
THE GILDE FAMILY, (L TO R) RANDY, MARY, NICK, AMANDA, NATHAN AND AARYN

BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!  The blaring alarm clocks jars the Gilde family awake to start the morning chores. Worn, soft clothes are slipped on quickly after fumbling around the floor, so the chores can begin on time. Hot, bitter coffee sweetened with a little dairy cream is gulped down as they trudge out to the barn with the smell of fresh morning air helping clear the sleep from their heads. The sight of a multigenerational family gathering in the barn to work together is the perfect example of an all-American image.

Established in 1978, Gilde Brothers Farm began when Randy and his brother Steve with their wives, started milking around 100 cows. Since then, Steve and his wife were bought out in 1991 as the next generation began to take ownership. Randy and Mary’s sons, Nathan and Nick, along with their families were officially brought into the business in 2011 under the name Gilde Farms LLC.

Named Top Quality Award winner at the 102nd Annual State Delegate Meeting, Gilde Farm LLC was unsurpassed by the nearly 50 percent of MMPA’s farms who received quality awards. While milking 220 cows and farming almost 1,100 acres of corn and alfalfa, this Lake City, Michigan farm maintained an average somatic cell count (SCC) of 47,167 cells per milliliter, pre-incubated (PI) bacteria count of 1,333 cells per milliliter and raw bacteria count of 1,083 cells per milliliter in the 2017 fiscal year.

Excellent quality takes dedication and consistency. It also takes hard work to achieve. Although it was a shock to the Gildes to receive the award, they shared some of their management style that helps maintain their low counts. For the Gildes, it is truly a family effort to achieve such high milk quality goals. Each family member and six part-time employees has a part to play in giving the cows the VIP treatment all day every day.

“Great quality and healthy cows is a standard we’ve come to expect from ourselves. We have received quality awards ever since we’ve been with MMPA,” said Mary. “Milk quality effects everything. It’s not just a premium on your milk check and it starts in the parlor.”

“There are two things we focus on for parlor management. We look at the milk filters after every shift for signs of inadequate udder prep and mastitis. Even though it is very low tech, it is the most effective way to monitor what happens in the parlor for us. I also watch flow rates and milking curves using the Afimilk system,” explained Nathan.

The Afimilk system is an electronic milk meter that gathers information about each animal, stores, and analyzes the data in reports. “These reports give farmers real-time information about their herd’s health and fertility, milk quality and productivity. It shows if the milking routine is being followed,” continued Nathan. “I have found it helps to have something to show employees the importance of following our udder prep procedure if something is off.”

The farm milks twice a day in a double six herringbone parlor using a strict milking procedure. As Nathan describes, they prep three cows at a time starting with dry wiping any loose debris, fore stripping to inspect the milk and pre-dipping in the first visit. They return to wipe the dip off and attach the milking unit within 60 to 90 seconds to capture the ideal milk letdown window. Hitting this letdown window helps minimize the time it takes to milk the cow and to get her back in the barn. After the milking machine is removed with automatic take-offs that are carefully calibrated to insure no overmilking occurs, each teat is post dipped with a barrier iodine dip before being released to go back to the freestall barn.

Mastitis protocols include DHI or dairy herd improvement testing every three months, utilizing the cow-side CMT (California mastitis test) as needed and selective treating following milk culture results. In 2010, the farm invested in the equipment and training to conduct on-farm milk culturing to better treat cases of mastitis. “The main reason for the investment was to prevent overtreatment of cows. It has changed the way we look at mastitis and has even changed our management style focusing more on prevention and animal housing to keep them cleaner rather than dealing with the infections after the fact,” explained Nathan.

The Gildes also have extra tank samples pulled twice a week to monitor bacteria counts closer and prevent problems before they occur. Quarterly, the milking equipment dealer does routine maintenance, checking the pulsators and vacuum levels to ensure proper working order and liners are changed every five weeks.

“Equipment maintenance was always a big emphasis from my dad,” Nathan explained. “He always told us ‘we need to have the best equipment we can, and it needs to be working well. We can do everything right, but if we aren’t milking the cows correctly, it doesn’t do us much good.’”

Part of doing everything right for the Gildes includes doing their best to put family first. Making sure there is a place for the next generation is important to them as it is for many farms throughout the countryside. Even though Nick and Nathan’s children are still in school, they play a part in the family business. Hard work ethics and the high standards set for the farm are instilled so going forward the tradition of high quality will continue.

“The Gildes are detail-orientated farmers who strive to produce the best quality milk possible,” shared Deb Gingrich, MMPA member representative. “They carefully manage their quality to ensure potential problems are addressed early and prevention is one of the forefront factors in their decision-making process. It
is wonderful to work with farms like Gilde Farm LLC who love what they are doing and take such pride in selling a high-quality product.”

In describing her sentiments toward dealing with elevated SCC and low milk prices, Mary simply said, “Never give up.”

“Times have been tough for us before and we buckled down, worked hard paying close attention to details and did our best to make it through. There is always something good about the present and looking forward to better times puts a little hope on the horizon,” continued Mary. “With farming, things don’t always go to plan, but if we want there to be something for the kids and grandkids, we need to work at it and move forward.”

As the sun sets at dusk over Gilde Farms LLC, the picturesque scene of calves bedded down in thick straw beds, cows comfortably getting a drink at the water fountain or eating at the feed bunk and the skid loader being parked for the night can be seen around the farm. Although the work of a dairy farmer is never complete, working with family is a tradition and a blessing at Gilde Farm LLC.

–Krista Schrock

This article was originally published in the May 2018 issue of the Michigan Milk Messenger

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On a beautiful July morning, volunteers hustled to set up educational display areas for the 19th annual Great Dairy Adventure. Many of the volunteers are dairy farmers, milk haulers, or serve the dairy industry in multiple ways. They all have a story to tell: milk is wholesome, nutritious and pure.

The Great Dairy Adventure is part of the Michigan Dairy Expo, a five-day event that brings 4-H clubs, FFA chapters and dairy youth together from across the state to compete in dairy knowledge, skill, showmanship and judging contests.

In total, 15 educational displays explained the dairy industry from farm to plate. From milking a cow on a simulation demo, petting baby calves and learning about cow nutrition to learning about how milk is hauled from the farm to the processing plant, participants saw it all.

Over 600 children and adults met local farmers and learned about dairy farming and the industry first hand. Sparty and Michigan State University athletes participated in the featured activities including the new Fuel Up to Play 60 Fun Run and very popular opportunity to feel inside the stomach of a cannulated cow.

MMPA hosted the craft station with a lace up a cow and dairy cow hats as well as the milk simulation demo “I Milked a Cow.” MMPA dairy communicators, employees, summer interns and milk haulers also volunteered and provided a positive learning experience.

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The Great Dairy Adventure event is offered to families, day-care providers and summer camps across the state is free for all participants. In addition to the educational component everyone enjoyed dairy treats such as chocolate milk, cheese, yogurt and ice cream provided by various vendors.

As the day wound down and the crowds thinned, volunteers shared stories and reminisced about the smiles and laughter that filled the MSU Pavilion for several hours. Next year will be the celebration of 20 years of the Great Dairy Adventure and the excitement has already begun.

Join us next year as a volunteer! For more information, contact Jessica Welch at 248-474-6672, ext. 303.

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2016 YC Planning Committee, from left: 2014 Runners Up Ken and Kristen Sparks, 2015 OYDC Shawn and Beth VanDrie, 2014 OYDC Carrie and Brian Preston, and 2015 OYDC Runners-Up Darren and Regina Coffey.

With fluctuating milk prices, an increasingly visible world on social media and tough decisions regarding farm succession, the next generation of dairy farmers must navigate through an evolving world.

The 2016 Young Cooperator (YC) Conference on April 15 in Mt. Pleasant tackled some of these issues at the annual meeting of MMPA’s younger members.  The morning session was led by MMPA President Ken Nobis, MMPA General Manager Joe Diglio and United Dairy Industry of Michigan (UDIM) CEO Sharon Toth. The leaders provided updates on the cooperative, the dairy industry and UDIM initiatives to promote dairy.

In the afternoon, Michigan State University Extension Educator Roger Betz rounded out the presentations with an overview of farm succession planning before the YCs headed out on a tour of member farm, Vanderploeg Holsteins.

Also in the afternoon, UDIM Director of Industry Relations Jolene Griffin led a presentation and panel on social media and communication with two MMPA members. As consumer demands continue to shape requirements of on-farm practices, social media may be an avenue to amplify consumer concerns, but also an opportunity for dairy farmers to share their own story. Griffin addressed the 60 YCs in attendance with an interactive presentation geared toward dairy promotion through social media.

“How can you connect with consumers?” Griffin asked. “Tell them about the great things you’re doing on your farm and your own personal dairy story. Every conversation matters.”

Griffin introduced MMPA members Katelyn Horning and Ashley Kennedy who are active in agriculture promotion through social media and blogging. Horning runs a Facebook page for her family’s farm, Horning Farms, and Kennedy runs a personal blog, Messy Kennedy, with integration on multiple social media channels.

Kennedy promotes agriculture in her blog by focusing on topics consumers relate to. “I aim for an audience. My goal is to reach millennial moms by blogging about more than just agriculture. There’s more to me than just the farm,” she explained.  “One third of my posts are about the farm and I hit tough topics like antibiotics and hormones. The other stuff is about things I enjoy, and I use it to draw in that target audience.”

Horning’s page highlights the daily activities on the farm. “Social media is an outlet to promote a positive image of agriculture. It can create a larger group that’s on your side,” she relayed.

Yet Horning said she has faced negative responses on social media, advising the YCs to use those opportunities to positively address their concerns: “You may not change that person’s mind, but you need to stay positive for other people who may read your conversation online. Stay professional and positive.”

Griffin rounded out the session noting the importance of positive interactions online and relating on a personal level with consumers. Though she recognized social media is not for everyone, it is important to know the right messages to convey because conversations about agriculture and dairy can start anywhere.

“Every conversation matters. Avoid acronyms, put your terms into words that make sense to consumers. Storytelling is key,” Griffin said. “Share stories with people and connect on those levels, finding a shared value resonates with consumers.”

 


The YC Conference is a component of the MMPA Outstanding Young Dairy Cooperator (OYDC) program, established in 1950.

Purpose of the OYDC Program:

  • Strengthen leadership abilities in young farmers
  • Broaden young farmer’s knowledge of milk marketing and MMPA
  • Recognize the abilities and stewardship of young dairy farmers

On August 18-19, MMPA will host a two-day conference for the Top 10 OYDCs in Novi to select the 2016 OYDC representative and runners-up. The Top 10 OYDCs will be selected in the coming weeks. For more information, contact Jessica Welch at jwelch@nullmimilk.com or 248-474-6672.

Learn More About the YC Program

 

 

Women have been influential from the beginning of time.  Eve influenced Adam to take a bite of the forbidden fruit and the world as they knew it was turned upside down.

Just as the diversification of women’s roles have evolved through history, the farmwife has woven her way into every level of leadership in the 100-year existence of Michigan Milk Producers Association. The woman on the farm in 2016 paints an entirely different portrait than her comrade of 1916. But the tenacity, passion and determination that frame her soul are the same last century and today.

In 1916, the challenges were different.  Faced with few modern conveniences on the farm, her daily chores took longer than the daily activity today. Add the cooking on a woodstove and harvesting and canning to feed the family, she was also expected to take up the slack in the fields and the barn.  The lure of the big city was not unique to the most recent generation of farm kids.  In the early 20th century, the bright lights of the big city and promise of employment led young men off the farm leaving the younger children and the farm wife to keep all the plates spinning.

Jennifer Lewis, wife of Bruce Lewis of Pleasant View Dairy of Jonesville, a longtime member of MMPA, paints the picture of the early century farm wife,

“Women of that era were educators, doctors and magicians. They could do just about anything and there were times they had to do everything. Our farm has been in the Lewis family for 75 years this year. Bruce’s Grandmother, Vivian, went to college to be a teacher, graduating from OSU in 1928 (one of just a handful). When she wasn’t teaching, she did it all. They had a few cows, sheep, chickens and hogs. She milked, fed, scattered and slopped.”

The role of women on the farm was central to success and MMPA discovered their value early on during the Depression.  Milk prices were low, feed prices were high and spirits were hopeless. In April of 1935 the first “Home Page” appeared in the Michigan Milk Messenger and women’s credibility was spelled out by writer Margaret Sheehy.

“The Messenger has long appreciated the influence of the woman in Association affairs. It is generally conceded that women are concerned over the family income. They naturally are interested in producing milk of such a quality that it will net the most money for the product.  There is too, a universal accepted fact that women possess a keen sense of understanding. The producer husbands and sons, members of this organization, were imbued with a sense of appreciation of cooperative principles—yet we believe that it was the intuition on the part of the wives and mothers that helped them to interpret the contract and know that the Association was their business organization. “

In 1936 women were invited for the first time to meet with the Sales Committee and Dairy Council. And ten years later, Mrs. Martin Montgomery posed the question in an article for the Michigan Milk Messenger, “How Active Should Women Be in the MMPA?”

She wrote:

“So long as she is such an important cog in the wheel of farm management and since milk is the most important source of income on our farms today, why shouldn’t she have an active part in the association that controls the farmer’s income?”

But it wasn’t until 1975 that the Imlay City MMPA Local would trust their voice to a woman, Joan Beatty as the first female delegate to the MMPA annual meeting. Joan and her husband Ron moved from the Detroit suburbs to Imlay City start a farm in 1970.  While she had a lot to learn about running a farm, she said she had never been afraid to take on something new.

That ‘no-fear’ factor surfaced again in 1986 in the first female board of director Deanna Stamp from Marlette.  With a long MMPA family history, Deanna and her husband were in partnership with her brother when she realized the importance of the cooperative structure and milk marketing. She had the opportunity to run and was elected to the board. She commented, “Maybe I was naive but I think I stepped into that role feeling as an equal and I was treated as an equal.” Serving from 1986 – 2009 she said, “It was an easy transition for me, I felt like I was a part of the board and it was a great experience.”

Today the role of women on the farm reflects the educational importance they have layered on top of their determination and desire to produce a quality product out of a livelihood they were created for. And her zeal for leadership roles within the 100-year-old milk cooperative is even stronger.

Cami Martz-Evans, wife of Carlton Evans on the three generation MMPA member family farm in Litchfield summed a woman’s role today: “She will struggle in the heat, freeze in the cold, spit out bugs, inhale dust, and keep going during harvest.   She will raise her child and worry about their grades, their future, and what they need to be successful like every other woman has for 100 years.  She will be a dairy farmer ‘with MMPA’. Which means she’ll be a DIVA on a dirt road in her world. Just like 100 years of women before her.”

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The Jahfestons were named MMPA’s 2015 Quality Award Winner for the third straight year at the Annual State Delegate Meeting on March 24. Pictured (l-r) are Jason, Elaine, Jacob, David and Jackie Jahfetson.

“There are many salesmen, researchers, neighbors and even veterinarians who have complex formulas for keeping healthy cows which produce high-quality milk. Yet when you visit the farms recognized for producing the highest quality milk, you won’t see fancy ultra-modern setups or secret formulas put in the teat-dip cups. What you see are two hard-working, dedicated families who have established priorities in such a way that milk quality ranks number one,” a Michigan Milk Messenger article read in May 1990.

Twenty-six years later, that sentiment proves steadfast on Jacob and Elaine Jahfetson’s Upper Peninsula dairy. They don’t have state-of-the-art technology or magic milking procedures, but what they do have is a perfectionist mindset and a true dedication to quality. The Jahfetson’s farm was named the 2015 Top Quality Award Winner for the third consecutive year at the MMPA 100th Annual State Delegate Meeting in March.

The 1990 article detailed the successes MMPA’s first Top Quality Award Winners: Ridge Run Farms and Weber’s Meadow. The farms—both averaging less than 77,500 somatic cell count (SCC) in 1989—set the standards for the coming years of quality award winners.

This year’s winners have consistently produced quality milk year after year, always perfecting their results. In the 2015 fiscal year, the Jahfetsons averaged a SCC of 34,833, pre-incubated bacteria count of 1,500 and raw bacteria count of 1,083. The most recent year’s numbers are an improvement over their winning results in 2014 and 2013, where they averaged a SCC of 40,083 and 54,417, respectively.

“The member who receives the Top Quality Award is an inspiration to all MMPA members. If one member can do it, it shows what is possible for others to achieve,” MMPA Director of Member Services Dean Letter said. “The Jahfetsons are an excellent example of quality producers and continual improvement. The family pays incredibly close attention to every detail, they know exactly what their cows are doing and address any problems immediately.”

The Baraga, Michigan farm milks 25 cows in an 85-year-old stanchion barn. They have a rolling herd average of 19,092 pounds per year, with 685 pounds of butterfat and 585 pounds of protein.

The Jahfetsons take a “perfectionist” approach to milking. They first wash the udder using Bac-Drop—a phosphoric-based solution—mixed with water and use Sani-Prep towels to wipe and clean the teats thoroughly. The unit is attached only when the teats are completely clean. When the milk stream lessens, they release the vacuum and pull the unit straight down. Then they post dip the teats with iodine-based I-deal. The unit is dipped in a mixture of sanitizer and water and allowed to drip.

“Most bacteria enters the udder when milking, so the teats need to be absolutely clean. We teat dip after to prevent bacteria from entering the udder after milking when the cow wants to lay down,” Elaine Jahfetson advises. “It can be good to go fast, but it’s more important to be thorough and ensure the udders are clean before proceeding. When you’re focused on speed during milking, you will see more cases of mastitis and therefore lose income.”

And Letter notes the importance of attention to detail. “What makes the difference in quality is what farmers are going to do day in and day out. Monitoring the herd, cattle housing, nutrition and addressing issues, it’s the little details. You have to sweat the small stuff,” Letter attests.

Over the last decade and a half, the Jahfetsons sharpened their quality figures. In July 2000, their SCC was 435,000, raw bacteria count was 16,000 and pre-incubated count was 460,000. Since understanding their quality issues, their counts have dramatically dropped.

“There are three important things we did to improve our quality: getting rid of chronic cows, checking the vacuum level and getting everyone on the same page,” Jahfetson explains. “We used to treat all of our cows with infections, but we found the same problems would return after the cow was treated. Now we address any concern immediately and cull if the issue is chronic. We also found the vacuum level was too high in our milking units. If the pressure is too high, it will cause teat end damage and allow bacteria to enter the udder. It’s also important all workers are working toward the same goal and following the right procedures on the farm.”

The couple, farming since 1982, plan to retire later this year. Jahfetson views winning the Top Quality Award for the third time as “icing on the cake” in their last year before retirement and during MMPA’s 100th Anniversary.

And throughout MMPA’s century of existence, all farmers have developed higher quality milk. Even just 30 years ago, the MMPA SCC average was well over 300,000. Yet every year, farms work day-in and day-out to improve their results and produce a better product.

“MMPA members produce high-quality milk because we have a culture of quality,” says Letter. “There is an expectation of continuous improvement. Our customers expect continuous improvement and our members expect continuous improvement.”

And honing in on the members driving the change, the Jahfetsons rise above the pack. From high SCCs to unprecedented lows, they are persistent improvers.


A Culture of Quality

2015 was an excellent year for MMPA member quality, with the average SCC reaching a record low of 151,000 in December. The weighted average SCC for the year was 167,250. A “culture of quality” on MMPA farms helped the cooperative realize an almost 200,000 drop in average SCC from 1986 to today.

Average Somatic Cell Count

2015……….167,250

2006……….251,453

1996……….309,453

1986……….344,313

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It was 1919 and the third largest industry in the United States was dairy and the newly formed Michigan Milk Producers Association was getting ready for their third annual meeting to be held in East Lansing at the Michigan Agricultural College.

The announcement of the meeting began with this:

Our vision of the battle front must change. It is not only with the local market, but it is in the halls of the Legislature and Congress.  We must forget that we are members of any political party; we must remember we are to protect the interests of our business and our homes with our voice and our vote.

This meeting was on the heels of the arrest of several Ohio dairymen who refused to sell their milk for under the cost of production.  They were arrested late at night, taken to a Cleveland jail and not allowed bond or a phone call. The crime for which they were indicted was simply that they refused collectively to sell the product of their labor for less than the cost of production. And this was not an isolated case, according to the 1919 Michigan Milk Messenger, this was happening coast to coast.

The program for the 1919 annual meeting included discussion of how the government should interact with an organized dairy industry, the problems that had cropped up in Ohio and the President of the National Holstein Friesian Association, D.D. Aitken, was slated to speak on collective bargaining and legislation needed in Michigan.

Clearly the early growing pains of a newly formed milk cooperative were being felt while dairymen from around the state were gaining a voice in marketing their milk. And when the annual meeting commenced there was a showing of over 650 people in attendance with every county in central and southern Michigan being represented.  Members wanted an active role in the association and visibly showed their desire to be heard.

The keynote of every address according to the Michigan Milk Messenger was a patriotic devotion to the well-being of the nation and a desire to stabilize food production so that in the years to come farmers ‘shall be able to supply the necessary food that will give physical and mental strength to this and coming generations.’

The 1930s arrived and milk consumption dropped like a rock.  Not only were they not drinking milk but consumers began using the new butter substitute: Oleo. With depressed commodity prices, farmers were struggling. Non MMPA members were selling their milk to markets below the cost of production and this was forcing the MMPA sales committee to sell milk at this cut-rate price as well. Being on the sales committee was a tough job through these years but the economy didn’t stop members from participating in the business of their cooperative.  The annual meeting in 1931 was well attended and President N.P. Hull didn’t pull any punches. He concluded his meeting address by saying:

“I have tried to lay before you the absolute truth of the situation as it prevails at the present time. These are dreadful times, but we are going to come out of them. Let us be wise and prayerful and try to bring agriculture out of these times in the best way we can and in doing that we will have done our duty as men, and that is all that angels can do.”

The optimistic attitude that initiated the cooperative in 1916 continued to drive the organization through the Great Depression and World War II.  Farmers were charged with the task of producing more and more food for a hungry world at war—and they did. While the young men left the farm to go to war, the families were left behind to expand the farm and increase production.  But post-war concerns surrounded how to use up the expanded milk production. Once again the membership showed up at their annual meeting and heard this from President Ivan Maystead:

“We are told that farmers will not stick together. The Michigan Milk Producers Association, entering the 30th year of its existence, gives the lie to this statement. True, the association has a constructive program and renders services, but the loyalty and support of its members are the backbone of its existence. Your continued loyalty and support will assure another 30 years of success.”

And it did.

By the 1950s, dairy farming was no longer a way of life but a business and the members of the cooperative wanted more out of their association.  Farmers knew how their milk was marketed but they wanted to know more about what the inner workings of the cooperative.  While MMPA was created as a bargaining association, it had expanded to become the owner of manufacturing plants, receiving stations and transportation facilities.

In 1959 milk marketed by the association, reached a new high of 2.3 billion pounds valued at about $95.5 million dollars. Production per member was up over 64 percent in the previous five years. The following year the annual meeting garnered nearly record attendance and President Jack Barns informed attendees that MMPA had achieved new records in practically every field in which it was active. Milk numbers were up three percent from the year before and the average dollar returns per member rose 7.5 percent. The following month milk hit $5.30/cwt, the highest in three years.

Through the 60s, 70s and 80s, milk plants were purchased, sold or closed.  Milk promotion exploded and milk marketing continued an ebb and flow in efforts to keep farmers profitable. The early 90s brought about a drastic drop in milk prices but increased a resiliency to continue through the difficult days.

Prices would fluctuate, but the dedication of the members to the association and the leaders to the members would continue to grind out a cooperative that would survive into a new millennium and on to celebrate 100 years of business.

Wars, the Depression, bank failures, consolidation, PBB, breaking up of the Superpool, skyrocketing interest rates, soaring commodity prices and the greatest homeland terrorist attack to date would not shake up a membership from meeting every year, without fail to conduct its business.

Dairymen met in 1916 on the campus of Michigan Agricultural College and on March 24, 2016, they will meet again just a few miles west of Michigan State University to ensure a stable, reliable and advantageous market necessary for producer profitability and required to continue to feed a hungry world.

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When the milk truck turns off the driveway and passes the old bank barn, it’s easy to step back and let the haulers, processors and marketers complete the supply chain. But MMPA Member Hank Choate keeps his eye on the entire milk route, knowing consumer demand for dairy is what truly milks the cow. A dairy farmer with 47 years of experience, Choate is a fervent promoter of dairy and agriculture.

In recognition of his passion for dairy, involvement in the industry and accomplishments on the farm, Choate was recently recognized by the Michigan State University (MSU) Department of Animal Science with the 2016 Dairy Farmer of the Year award.

“I am completely humbled by this award from MSU. I see myself no different than any other producer because I know we all work hard to provide safe, wholesome and nutritious product for the world. I, along with other farmers, take great pride in fulfilling that need,” Choate admits.

Efficiency for Seven Generations

Choate farms with his brother, Randy, son, Levi, nephew, Rick, and seven full time employees on Choate’s Belly Acres. In addition to Levi, Choate and his wife, Katie, have two other children: Stacey, who also assists on the farm, and Dustin, who is a student at Davenport University. Choate and Randy—who took over ownership in 1989—are forming an operating LLC and to enable family members to have ownership.

The family’s history on their land in Cement City, Michigan, dates back seven generations to 1837 when the Choate homestead was founded. Choate purchased the homestead from his cousin in 1996 adding it to the main operation established in 1913. Now, all 2,000 tillable acres of Choate’s Belly Acres span three different counties. The farm underwent recent expansions in 2008 and 2012, bringing the milking herd up to 435 cows housed in new and enlarged freestall barns.

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Choate accepted the MSU Dairy Farmer of the Year award with his family at the Great Lakes Regional Dairy Conference on Feb. 5 in Mt. Pleasant. Pictured, from left: Katie Choate, Hank Choate, Stacey Hughes and Brandon Hughes.

The farm continues to maximize efficiencies in various areas of their operation, using Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to ensure consistency and accuracy. They maximize feed efficiency through a feed watch system and the assistance of their nutritionist. All forages are grown on their land and the farm brings in additional revenue from cash cropping. Variable planting rates, grid soil sampling and variable application of fertilizer help keep their cropping operations efficient and sustainable.

For the last decade and a half, Choate’s Belly Acres has remained 100 percent Artificial Insemination (AI) to breed their cows, with the use of double ovsynch timed breeding. They also rely on weekly check-ins with their veterinarian to assist with breeding and other herd health concerns.

“We emphasize productivity and efficiency in everything we do, by maximizing comfort and minimizing stress of the animals. As best we can, we focus on the bottom line and strive for financial sustainability,” Choate explained.

From the days of crawling between the cows as two-year-old in the stanchion barn to present day as the farm’s CEO, Choate’s role has evolved in the family business. Today, every morning starts at 3:00 a.m. in front of the glow of a computer screen. Choate monitors market reports and data on his cattle before going out into the barn to keep up with his chores, his cows and his employees. Through time, he has become more a manager of people than a manager of cows.

“I’m still on my first job. Ever since I aced sandbox in kindergarten, I’ve known what I’ve wanted to do, Choate revealed. “I’m fortunate to have a family legacy built before me and I hope to lay solid foundation for the next generation so the farm will reach its 200th year.”

Promoting for the Next Generation

Choate knows the key to ensuring a strong foundation for the next generation: dairy promotion.

“I’m committed to being a consumer advocate and spokesperson for agriculture because some organizations and groups of people try to tell our story in a jaded manner. Activists against us have a slanted agenda,” he affirmed.

Chaote’s passion has fueled his active involvement in dairy promotion at the local and state level through programs like the Jackson County Fall Fest and MSU Extension’s Breakfast on the Farm. In 2012, Choate’s Belly Acres hosted Breakfast on the Farm and welcomed 2,675 people to the farm for three hours of fun educational activities. Choate continues to be involved in Breakfast on the Farm as a member of the statewide planning council and convincing fellow farmers to become a host.

“The beauty of Breakfast on the Farm is that it is producer-driven. Being there and sharing our story allows us to put a face of producers on a product,” Choate said. “The program is a great way to continue to build on consumer confidence.  If I lose the confidence of consumer, there’s nothing I can do efficiently on my farm to make up for the loss in demand.”

In addition to Breakfast on the Farm, his participation in MSU Extension has provided many opportunities including training on nutrition, finance, management, soils and crops.

“It is humbling to be chosen as the MSU Dairy Farmer of the Year, as I have no formal education beyond high school,” Choate revealed. “MSU Extension programs have been the basis of furthering my education. I’ve also learned through involvement in the industry and observing other agriculture leaders and how they engage in finding solutions.”

Choate holds various leadership positions in the agriculture industry, including organizations such as MMPA, Michigan Farm Bureau and Green Stone Farm Credit.  Since 2012, Choate has represented District 1 on the MMPA board of directors.

“In today’s economy, it’s important I meet my obligations to MMPA members as a board member. I take seriously our due diligence,” Choate relayed. “If we make the right decisions for today, it will carry us to the next 100 years. The dairy industry is definitely in time of challenge, but over its 100 years the co-op has navigated many challenges and survived. We are strengthening the co-op as we move forward.”

From efficiency on the farm to dairy promotion and industry involvement, Choate is one dairy farmer committed to his passions.

“As farmers we’re connected to the earth,” Choate illustrated. “It gives us a set of accomplishment and pride every day.”

From Farm to Table in 100 Years

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Milk trucks are a fixture on the dirt roads and highways across the nation carrying a valuable, yet perishable product for farmers and consumers alike. Milk haulers are the link from the cow that produces that white, power packed nutritional punch to the consumer who enjoys it. Milk quality is unsurpassable in today’s market but it hasn’t always been that way and we have the evolution of milk transportation to thank for it.

A century ago, when MMPA was a budding cooperative, milk was picked up in cans and transported to the processing plants by truck or by rail. The cooling systems were crude involving cold water passing over a can of milk to cool it to 60 degrees. It wasn’t until the early 1920s when the Board of Health in various cities around the state demanded that their milk providers construct a milk house on their farm to ensure a higher quality product.  In an article in the Michigan Milk Messenger, August of 1920, authored by editor R.C. Reed, the following advice was given:

“One may build it [a milk house] cheaply or elaborately as desired. We have seen milk houses that answered every demand of the Board of Heath and which did not cost, for new material, more than fifteen dollars.  This was in a time when lumber was somewhat cheaper than it is now, but make the calculation for yourself. Use the same apparatus for cooling which you use now; put over it a little house seven feet wide by eight feet long, with the roof nine feet high on one side and seven feet on the other; paper it within, overhead and on the sides, with any kind of remnants that can be obtained of house paper, and if necessary cover it with roofing on the sides and top.

“If possible place it under a shade tree and this as a temporary structure, until the time comes when you can build a permanent one, will satisfy the demands of the Board of Health. I recently saw one of this kind which had been built by a man and his wife and it took the two but a little over a day and a half and they had a clean place, free from germs and dust, away from the heat of the sun, and had as nice a quality of milk as could have been produced or kept in a milk house costing one hundred times the amount this one cost.”

But by May of 1931, the Milk House Requirements for the Detroit markets were hard and fast for producers, requiring them to have a milk house that could be used year round and completely sealed on the inside.  If they did not satisfy these requirements, they would not be issued a permit.

While milk house rules were changing, the path from farm to the plant was the same. According to former MMPA leader Jack Barns the movement of milk went directly to processing plants in the secondary markets but almost all of the milk for the Detroit processors was delivered in cans to MMPA receiving stations scattered across southern Michigan. From the receiving stations, the milk was loaded into over-the-road tankers for shipment to the processing plant.

The first milk trucks had no cover or protection for the milk but that changed in the 1930s when insulated trucks came on the scene and cans were hauled by muscle bound milk men slinging eighty pound milk cans from the truck into the plant. It wasn’t until the 1950s that bulk trucks came on the scene and suddenly routes changed, more milk could be hauled by one truck and milk quality improved exponentially.

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Because milk haulers frequented farms, they were almost like family to the farmer.  The same hauler came down the same routes, picking up the same farmers milk, sometimes for decades. Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, snow, rain, ice, sleet, the day didn’t matter because the milk had to be hauled.

The Traver family of Williamston was an example of this longevity. The Travers were in it for the long haul with four generations of milk haulers in the family.  Hailing from Williamston, George Traver hitched up his horse and buggy and began hauling milk in 1904. In 1927, George passed the route on to his son Marc Traver who experienced several decades of MMPA history.

When the Great Depression arrived, times were tough everywhere. Marc Traver and other milk haulers around the state had the responsibility of delivering milk checks to the producers. In one instance in 1933, the banks in Detroit closed before the farmers checks were delivered.  Traver had cashed his check in Fowlerville and when he delivered the ‘bad checks’ to the farmers he was able to give them each a small loan until their checks were cashed.  According to Traver, the milk checks backed by MMPA were always good.

From tornado trashed routes to snow drifts that made roads impassable, to muddied drives that required tractors for extrication from the farm yard, milk haulers continue to be an invaluable asset from farm to table.

A century of MMPA could only happen with a century of reliable transportation taking the farmers hard earned product to a broad population in need of the natures perfect nutrient-dense delicious delight: Milk.

Leaders’ Conference 2015

Kicking off 2015-2016 Local Meetings, the 2015 Leaders’ Conference brought together MMPA leaders from all facets of the cooperative to the Michigan State University Kellogg Center in East Lansing on November 23.

In addition to presentations by MMPA General Manager Joe Diglio and President Ken Nobis, MMPA welcomed Joel Mergler from Select Sires, Kelly Millenbah from the MSU College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) and Bill Creal from Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Members listened and asked questions about dairy market conditions, MSU CANR initiatives, water quality issues and the global dairy industry.

Nobis first addressed the group of leaders, providing a positive outlook after a challenging year. “Our cooperative and the dairy industry are still in a good position and the future is still positive. Consumers demand a high quality protein source and dairy fits that need beautifully,” Nobis said.

His presentation also included updates on the impact of the global dairy industry, programs related to MMPA’s involvement in the Agricultural Leaders of Michigan and how the Cooperatives Working Together (CWT) has assisted marketing members’ milk.

In his overview of MMPA operations and current market conditions, Diglio presented to members a year in review snapshot of the activities and changes. “In 2015, we saw massive market volatility and the market was very competitive when seeking new customers. Despite the distressed price, the assets you’ve invested in—our processing plants—are performing very well and we continue to pursue new opportunities for the future,” Diglio explained to the conference attendees.

Diglio also highlighted MMPA accomplishments over the last fiscal year, including attaining Level 3 Safe Quality Foods (SQF) Certification in the two processing plants, realizing a net savings of $6 million and paying out $24.4 million in producer incentive premiums to members. Diglio also commended members for producing milk with historic low levels of somatic cell counts, leading customers to covet MMPA’s high quality milk.

Mergler, the Vice President International Development for Select Sires, brought his expertise in international market development to share his insight on global dairy markets to MMPA leaders. Mergler strives to assist global customers breed better dairy cows, especially in countries with a growing middle class. “We are breeding for the global population,” Mergler said.

Yet he noted many countries are unable to meet their domestic demand for demand for dairy and U.S. producers are at a distinct advantage.  “You are no longer just a milk producer in Michigan, you need to have a global perspective and understand the world dairy market,” Mergler relayed.

2015 Outstanding Young Dairy Cooperators (OYDC) Shawn and Beth VanDrie lead the luncheon program, which included honoring the MMPA MSU Scholarship recipients. MMPA awarded 10 scholarships to the children and employees of MMPA members attending the MSU Institute of Agricultural Technology. The VanDries also introduced their fellow 2015 Top Ten OYDCs and raffled off two free registrations for the 2016 Great Lakes Regional Dairy Conference.

The couple welcomed CANR Associate Dean Millenbah during the luncheon, who provided updates on CANR, MSU Extension, AgBioResearch and the CANR dean search. Incumbent CANR Dean Fred Poston retired in December and Millenbah announced Douglas Buhler will begin serving as interim dean on Jan. 1 until a successor is named.

In the afternoon, Creal provided insights on water quality issues through the lens of DEQ, including the algae bloom in Lake Erie. Following his presentation, Nobis and Diglio returned to the stage, opening up the floor for questions and comments from members.

The conference offered to members a forum to hear from MMPA management and learn industry perspectives as a lead into the following months of local and district meetings and the 100th Annual State Delegate Meeting.

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One hundred years.  A century. Transforming from one millennium to the next.

This time span can encompass several generations and engulf iconic changes in a civilization.

From 1916 to 2016 that’s exactly what happened.  Generations passed, a new century was turned and changes in the landscape of the dairy industry went from slow and steady to quick and intense.

On one end, dairymen were milking ten cows by hand. On the other end, thousands of cows are being milked by robots. In the beginning, milk was lucky to make it from farm to creamery with reasonable quality. Today, milk is extracted from the cow and put into a bottle, churned into butter or processed into a dairy product within hours. Automation has changed the industry from farm to table and every step of the process in between.

As technological developments have driven the change of an entire industry and made it more streamline and convenient, one cog in this wheel has stayed as slow and steady as the dairy cow itself: the dairy farmer.

MMPA is embarking on a year of celebration as the entire cooperative from members to leadership take a moment to enjoy 100 years of existence.  MMPA pioneered the milk cooperative movement in Michigan out of sheer desire for dairymen to make a profit.

In an article from the August 1919 issue of the Michigan Milk Messenger, editor R.C. Reed writes:

“The Michigan Milk Producers Association is a corporate body under the laws of the State of Michigan. The purpose expressed: To promote in all legal ways the interests of the milk producers of Michigan by mutual co-operation in producing, buying, selling and marketing all milk and dairy products within the State of Michigan.”

In short, MMPA existed for dairymen and women to sell their milk for a profit, envisioning they would be better, together.

MMPA was birthed in Livingston County with early members ringing familiar names like Munsell, Bamber, McPherson, Nixon, Wrigglesworth and Carr.  Influential men in their communities, they started down the untraveled road of a milk cooperative formation and laid a firm foundation from which to build decade after decade of success.

As the first ones through the brick wall, they found themselves, bloodied, tested and tried but took their position seriously as cooperators and providers of a wholesome food to a hungry nation.

A different spirit than ever before pervades the social, moral and commercial interests of the world. In fact, we think that mankind is being dominated by higher and holier impulses than in any other decade in the world’s history. This spirit is pervading every part of our body politic. The peace table across the water is possibly the highest attainment and the nearest to the idea of all the efforts that have been made for raising the level of common humanity up to a constructive basis upon which to build the great structure for the common brotherhood of man.

This principle so manifest in the establishment of the League of Nations is the same as dominated the officers of the Michigan Milk Producers Association in their effort to do the most conscientious, careful, and constructive work for the stabilizing of this great industry upon which depends so much of the moral, mental and physical being of the people of this nation in the years to come.

We feel the responsibility of the obligation we are assuming most keenly. We must not be derelict of duty nor recreant to the trust imposed in the opportunity given us to help to mold and fashion the thought and purpose of the food producers of this great commonwealth. As feeble as it may be, we must do our best. And we invite your cooperation.” –R.C. Reed, Michigan Milk Messenger

In 1915, the average price of milk paid to the producer in the Detroit market was $1.60 per hundredweight. In 1916, a group of men met on the campus of Michigan Agricultural College and forged the framework of MMPA. In 1917, the average price of milk paid to the producer was $2.24. Month after month, year after year, from 1916 to 2016, the price that producers were paid for their milk was and still is the most important result of all activities of the MMPA.

Put aside all the advances in technology, the promotion explosion and number and variety of dairy products that have been developed in 100 years and zero in on what has driven the longevity of MMPA: the integrity and dedication of its leadership to the members.

From the very first president, N.P. Hull to today’s leader, Ken Nobis, and every president in between, these leaders were dairymen willing to dedicate their time and offer their abilities to guide and direct a membership of independent thinking dairy producers from Michigan’s coast to coast. Along the way they faced opposition and questioning, collaborated with national agricultural leaders and had the ear of those inside the beltway including several U.S. Presidents.

The leadership has been unparalleled, the dedication has been unequaled and the result has been a century of trust, commitment and strength.

It’s now 2016 and the year of celebration of the 100th anniversary begins. As MMPA celebrates their long history they will continue to work together toward tomorrow.