Terri Hawbaker wouldn’t be dairy farming today if her dad, Howard Straub, hadn’t transitioned to rotational grazing and had a mentoring demeanor.
“He’s taught us so much,” says Hawbaker, who, with her husband, Rick, rotationally grazes and seasonally calves 110 cows on 160 acres in Pewamo, MI. “Whenever we’re mulling something over and we’re at an impasse, he gives us good advice. He’s helped us with everything – from how best to treat a sick cow to buying hay.”
Hawbaker was a teenager when her folks converted their confinement dairy to grazing in 1993. “My dad and I worked together building fences and seeding pastures. My parents were very open about the cost of inputs during that transition. That helped give me a good understanding of what it would take to start my own farm someday.”
“Grazing-based dairying is a great way to get young farmers started in the business,” says Straub, 63, of nearby St. Johns. He milks 100 Holstein, Jersey and New Zealand Friesian crossbred cows with his wife, Mary Jo, and one full-time employee.
As the Hawbakers began structuring their business 10 years ago, Straub advised them to “plan your business and stick to the plan,” she recalls. The young couple penciled out a business plan, grazing plan and Finpack farm analysis using numbers from the Straub dairy. “We ran three summaries with three different milk prices,” says Hawbaker.
Straub also encouraged them to invest in cows vs. machinery.
“Dad was quick to point out that, although cows are on the depreciation schedule, they actually appreciate because they keep having more cows. Tractors do not have more tractors. You cannot be caught up in having the newest, nicest machinery. All you need on a grazing dairy is something that will get the job done.”
Additional Straub advice: Have patience, spend wisely, save judiciously and realize that wealth is accumulated over time.
“We see many dairies today go through big expansions when the milk price is high,” Hawbaker says. “But the next year, when the price drops, they can’t pay for their decisions the year prior.”
Before buying something, Straub encouraged them to ask themselves, “Is there any other way to get the job done without spending money? Is it something that serves multiple purposes? Can we pay for it in cash?”
Other family members who have benefitted from Straub’s experience: daughter Patti and her husband, John Warnke, who farm an organic, grass-based dairy at St. Johns, and son Howard III, and his wife, Jamie, who rotationally grazed in Ohio for several years. Howard III is now manager of a Michigan State University pasture-based dairy in Hickory Corners. (A third daughter, Amanda, is the chief financial officer of a Tampa, FL, bank.)
Straub’s herdsman and a few other young people have been taken under his wing, too. “I’m helping them put together the financial numbers needed to start their own farms,” he says. “To me, rotational grazing is where the money is, especially for smaller operations, and it makes farming more fun.”
The Straubs were convinced 20 years ago that grazing was the way to go. Before the conversion, their confinement herd boasted the second-highest herd average – more than 24,000 lbs of milk – in Clinton County, one of the state’s top dairy counties.
The transition to grazing dropped that average to about 14,000 lbs, but the “balance in the checkbook got bigger,” he says. Costs, including labor, fuel, machinery repairs and utilities, dropped significantly.
“Our veterinarian expenses decreased, too. We went from a monthly herd-health check to semi-annual ones. Our cows are healthier than they used to be because they’re getting a lot more exercise.”
The herd grazes mixtures of orchardgrass, clover, alfalfa and timothy from late April to mid-November. Every 24 hours, they’re rotated to a fresh 3.3-acre paddock. Pastures comprise 128 acres of the Straub farm, with another 100 acres in alfalfa, harvested as baleage and fed in winter. The herd’s diet is supplemented year-round with purchased corn and a mineral mix.
With annual profits now varying from around $600 to $1,800/cow, depending on milk prices and heifer-calf sales, Straub was able to put up a new free-stall barn a few years ago. He paid for it with cash. His first robotic milker was installed in January 2010 and a second one, last February.
“If my health is good, I want to be dairying 20 years from now,” says Straub. “With the robots, this can easily be a one-man operation.”