At a time when many dairy farms are tentatively waiting out the plague of low milk prices and holding off on decisions, one family is planning their next move.
Harrison Hartman says that his grandfather’s 30-cow dairy in the 1960s was the basis for Scattered Acres, a family dairy farm which includes four properties in Berks and Lancaster counties. The farm is owned by Harrison’s father Paul and Paul’s brothers Ed and Dave, with several other family members involved full-time.
“Then the highway came through and the house and barn were condemned,” said Harrison, continuing the story of the farm’s early days. “My grandfather moved and built a new barn. They grew the herd and added onto the barn and when I was in elementary school, we put a new freestall barn. That brought us up to 350 cows. We started having custom work done and switched to all no-till, so that saved a lot of time.”
When a farm in Reinholds, Lancaster County came on the market in 2010, the Hartmans became interested in it as a means of expanding the operation. Harrison explained that the farm had been through three owners who had varying levels of success, but since his family knew some of the history of the farm and the herd, they were willing to purchase it.
“We stepped in and offered to purchase the barn and almost 600 cows,” said Harrison. “They were only milking in the 60s at the time of purchase. We took over the feeding from day one. It took almost a full lactation until the cows gained enough weight and got to where they should be, but every year their production climbed.”
There was genetic information on the cows, but the most recent owner had been using bulls so there was no accurate information on the genetics of heifer calves. Harrison says that the full milking crew, herdsman and maintenance man stayed on, and most are still working for the family.
The total Scattered Acres milking herd now numbered close to 900 animals and the family knew they’d remain at that number as they caught up with the newly purchased farm. “We stayed at that number for about three years until we were able to keep heifers to grow the herd,” said Harrison. “We bought a lot of animals of all ages during those three years just to keep that herd at 600 cows.”
Once the heifers started to mature, the herd started slowly growing and improving. The Hartmans’ next project was gutting an old dry cow barn and constructing individual calf pens for newborns and group hutches for older calves. “That worked really well,” said Harrison. “Our consistency with the animals improved and we started to see good growth rate on them. Two years ago, we built an additional calf barn with group pens and saw even more improvement.”
By 2014, the heifer population had outgrown the facilities and they needed more space. “We started pricing building a new freestall barn for breeding age heifers and it was really expensive,” said Harrison. “We weren’t sure which farm we wanted to put it on, and it was becoming more and more expensive with manure storage and everything else we had to do.” At the same time, another 230-acre farm within a reasonable distance came up for sale. “It was all shale ground and hilly and they said they had a hard time growing feed. We were nervous about putting cows there, but the manure pit was big enough for heifers and it looked like it would work.”
Cows freshen at the two dairy farms and within two days calves go to the calf raising facility. Calves then move to the bedded pack barn and at about 10 months, they’re moved to the freestall barn. There are ID collars on all cows for milk weights and the farm is currently participating in a nine-month long Penn State trial examining the use of activity monitors for heat detection.
At this point, the Hartmans are addressing possible options that would combine and house the total current cowherd and also allow for future herd expansions. “We’ve made it work on two farms but it’s hard on a family operation to have as much space between farms as we do,” said Harrison. “Some of us only work at the heifer farm, and some of us only work at one of the dairies, but it works. We’ve made great strides in every area, but long-term we know it’s more difficult so we’d like to consolidate some of it.” Harrison added that combining the two milking herds is the most logical first step, but the question is whether they’ll build on one of their existing farms or wait and purchase another farm.
Why is it working for this family to continue purchasing farms and expand their herd, while continually making improvements in reproduction, herd health and crop management? Harrison says that a lot of farms in the early 2000s went from fewer than 100 cows to milking more than 300 cows. “In every case, the banks want you to buy cows to fill the barn,” he said. “When you buy cows, you’re lucky to get one lactation out of them. We were fortunate when we purchased the farm in Reinholds and the 600 cows that came with it.”
It’s also a matter of timing, says Harrison. “You make all the best decisions you can, then wait and see what the milk price is or what the weather’s going to do,” he said. “Even though the land wasn’t all close to us, we were able to grow a lot of grain and either sell it for cash or use it to offset the grain price. Instead, we could buy forages which are cheaper. When we bought the heifer farm, we got acreage with it and were able to supply it with feed from that farm.”
With low milk prices, Harrison says that components are important right now. “We’re also trying different things to improve cow health,” he said. “And we look at the best sires for a reasonable price. We buy the best semen to improve each cow genetically.”
With various locations and plenty of work throughout the year, the family realizes the importance of time off. “We’re a big enough family that everyone can have a weekend off,” said Harrison. “There’s always work on one of the farms, so there are times when no one is off but if someone wants to take a vacation, we can make it work.”
The family is in the process of fully adopting the FARM (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management) program. The program encourages continuous improvement on dairy farms through good management and provides data and proof points to assure dairy customers and consumers that dairy farmers are maintaining best practices. “We try to do the best we can,” said Harrison. “We’re always looking for the next thing that will help us out.”