On the surface, their farms couldn’t be more different.
Adam Shetley milks 60 cows on his 160-acre dairy farm in southeast Missouri. Brothers Derek and Aaron Lowrey run a large row-crop and beef operation in the northwest corner of the state.
Look deeper, however, and you’ll see how much these young producers have in common.
For starters, they fall into the so-called Millennial Generation, defined as those born between 1980 and 2000. Looked down on by some and praised by others, millennials now exceed the number of baby boomers as the largest generation in the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center.
Millennials are one of the most studied age groups as researchers and marketers try to pinpoint what makes this generation tick. They’re often branded with negative labels such as lazy, entitled and narcissistic. None of those traits are to be found on the Shetley and Lowrey farms, however. Hard work, resourcefulness and dedication are on full display.
“My work ethic came from my parents and playing football,” Adam said. “Those values of hard work and respect are ingrained in me. I never wake up and wonder what I’m going to do today. My clock is always ticking.”
While he and the Lowrey brothers defy the stereotypes in many ways, these young farmers do embody more positive millennial mannerisms. They’re entrepreneurial. They’re frugal. They eagerly embrace new technology. They value work-life balance. They’re conscious about sustainability and social responsibility. And they have passion for what they do.
These days, the ever-increasing cost of starting an agricultural operation is a huge barrier for first-generation farmers. That didn’t stop Adam from establishing his Little Grassy Dairy in 2014, just a couple of years after earning an animal sciences degree from the University of Missouri.
Now 28, the entrepreneur has built a brand-new dairy on land his grandparents once farmed near Fredericktown, Mo.
His father, Mark, a retired accountant who had moved away from the farm with his family at age 11, joined him in the operation.
“My junior year of college, I decided to study abroad in southern France and lived with a dairy farming family there,” Adam said. “At that point, I decided this was what I wanted to do for a living. Everything I’ve done since then has been to make this happen.”
Building the dairy meant starting from scratch. The Shetleys put in waterers, installed fencing, renovated pastures, ran electricity, built the barns and a 14-stall, swing-style milking parlor, and bought a herd of Friesian-Jersey cows.
“There was nothing here,” Adam said. “Every building you see, every fencepost in the ground, we put it here. But that allowed me to make everything the way we wanted it and not have to retrofit my vision into somebody else’s farm.”
Derek and Aaron, 30 and 28, respectively, have also made their own way in agriculture. The brothers grew up on their family farm in Laredo, Mo., and began working toward their future careers at an early age. Unlike Adam, the Lowreys didn’t have to start from scratch, but they did have to acquire enough land to support two incomes. They rented their first acreage while still in high school, and today the brothers raise corn, soybeans, wheat and hay and background several hundred beef heifers each year as they farm alongside their father, David.
“When we graduated from high school, Dad really wasn’t farming enough acres to support us all, so Aaron and I went to college so we’d have something to fall back on,” Derek said. “We kept picking up more rented ground until we could all farm full time. We knew that’s what we wanted to do, and we’re fortunate enough to get everything worked out.”
Millennial-age farmers may be young, but they’re old enough to have seen ups and downs in the agricultural economy. The Lowrey brothers were raised with an extra sense of frugality because David began farming just as the 1980s farm crisis hit. He never forgot how tough it was to stay in business, and he taught his sons to make wise financial decisions.
“We’re not showy. We run old machinery, and we take care of it,” Derek said. “That’s the way Dad has always done it, because it was what he had to do. And we have the same feeling. That’s where a lot of young guys get in trouble. They want all that shiny paint, and it is nice, but it doesn’t pencil. You need to stay calm, keep your head on your shoulders and be proud of what you’ve got—don’t worry about what the neighbor or your buddies have.”
Adam echoes that sentiment. His dairy is designed as a forage-based operation with a rotational grazing system that makes the most efficient use of his land resources.
“To be able to jump right into this industry, especially now when big farms are getting bigger and small farms are going out of business, you really have to have a low-input strategy to succeed,” he said.
He purposely chose Friesian-Jersey dairy cattle because they perform well in a grazing situation. The breed is also known as a “Kiwi cross” because it was developed to suit grass-based dairies in New Zealand.
“Picking the right cow to fit our system was important,” Adam explained. “They have better feed-to-milk conversion than a Holstein, and they also have a smaller stature, which helps with their mobility. These girls have to work. They walk miles a day through the pastures and to and from the parlor. They also have outstanding reproduction, which is No. 1 on any dairy farm.”
Like the Lowreys, Adam has been careful with his expenditures for farm infrastructure and equipment.
“The buildings are new; the milking equipment is new,” he said. “That’s where we wanted to put our money, because that’s what is used every single day. All my farming equipment is used. We put our investments where we needed them the most.”
These young farmers are also investing in technology to improve their production and efficiency. Unlike their fathers, they grew up with technology, so it’s not surprising to find this generation embracing new advancements at a rapid pace.
For example, Adam uses a smartphone app to electronically track the herd’s reproductive cycles. Each milk cow is outfitted with a high-tech eartag that measures body temperature, activity, rumination and much more. Think of it as a Fitbit for cows.
“It’s been a game-changer for me,” the young dairyman said. “It’s 24/7 surveillance on the cows. It almost takes the place of an employee. I can tell when a cow goes into heat, so I know she’s cycling when she is bred. In a three-week window this year, I was able to breed 85 percent of the herd.”
On the Lowrey farm, Derek and Aaron have added precision technology to most of their farm equipment, including yield monitors on the combine, row clutches on the planter and automatic shutoffs on their sprayer. David, who had none of this technology before his sons started farming with him, said Derek and Aaron have “taken the farm to the next level.”
“We run old machinery, but we’ve got quite a bit of technology on them,” Derek said. “It may seem like a big upfront cost, but there’s a pretty quick payback. We’re not doing any variable-rate fertilizing or planting yet, but it’s something we want to work toward.”
The Lowreys have also started keeping electronic records through the Farm Business Management Analysis program, a service offered through the Missouri Young Farmers organization. Derek and Aaron are active in their local chapter.
“Dad had always done records on pen and paper, but we couldn’t keep up as the farm got bigger,” Derek said. “This program has been a great asset for our family. I wish we’d been using it from Day 1. Records are an absolute must. Financially, you have to know where you are and where you’re going. If you’re sliding downhill, and you don’t find out until you’re at the bottom, it’s too late to correct anything.”
Research shows that, overall, millennials don’t want to choose between having a successful career and having a fulfilling home life. They want both. Our millennial farmers say the same thing.
Dairies are notorious for being a 365-day-per-year job, but not Little Grassy. Adam purposely runs his operation on a seasonal schedule. He synchronizes breeding so the cows all calve in a tight window in early spring, and then he shuts down the milking operation for six to eight weeks in January and February each year.
“It’s a management choice and a lifestyle choice,” Adam said. “We’re a two-man operation. I need a break. That’s when we can take a deep breath and give ourselves a little bit of down time.”
The importance of balancing work with family life is about to become even more important for Adam and his wife, Becca, a physical therapist. The couple, who married in May 2016, are expecting their first child—a son—in November.
“We are excited to raise children in this lifestyle, instilling those values of responsibility and hard work from an early age,” Adam said. “Hopefully, that will help turn them into good, productive members of society.”
Likewise, the Lowrey brothers both juggle farming and family responsibilities. Derek and his wife, Sarah, have a 3-year-old daughter, Macey, and 10-month-old son, Tyson. Aaron and his wife, Amanda, are parents to sons Cason, 7, and Gannon, 2. Keeping their farming operation to a manageable level gives the young families more quality time together.
“A lot of our management decisions come down to family time,” Derek said. “You can get to the point where the farm is too big and you can’t do a good job or you end up spending all your time working. We just want to be efficient with what we’ve got and use it wisely.”
Studies indicate that millennials are the most sustainability-conscious generation. Most of that research is directed at the consumer market, but these farmers are also putting that consciousness into action.
On the Lowrey farm, conservation practices are standard procedure.
“Everything we farm, we treat it like we’re going to farm it forever,” Derek said. “We are 100 percent no-till. We contour- farm everything, we use terraces and we fertilize like we should. We have landowners coming to us, asking if we want to rent their ground, because they know we will farm it like we own it.”
At Little Grassy Dairy, the Shetleys also focus on best management practices such as fertilizing according to soil-test results, sowing cover crops between silage seasons and producing high-quality forages. Adam uses MFA Shield Technology in his feed rations and minerals to help keep the cows healthy and productive without the use of antibiotics, and he and his father take extra care in the milking parlor to ensure their product is as safe as possible.
“Right now, our mentality is that we want to focus on quality over quantity,” Adam said. “I want to make the dairy as efficient as I can with small numbers until I can figure out what works and what doesn’t. If we try to grow too fast, it will just bring in more stress and damper our quality. I’m still learning, and I don’t want to get in over my head.”
When surveyed, millennials express their desire find a career that’s more than just a job—it’s something they love. Nowhere is that more evident than with these millennial farmers who have passion for agriculture as a livelihood, a lifestyle and a legacy.
“I wanted to make being around animals my life,” Adam said. “There’s something about dairy farming that drew me in, and I’ve never looked back. I was all in from the beginning. Now I’m living my dream.”
Since they were establishing a dairy from the ground up, the Shetleys could have put down roots anywhere, but they chose to return to family land.
“This is our farm. There are family ties here,” Adam said. “My desire was to be farming this ground. It just wouldn’t mean as much to me somewhere else.”
The Lowrey brothers share that desire to continue a family farming tradition and hope to pass it to the next generation.
“I know it’s a long ways off, but I want my kids and Aaron’s kids to stay around the farm, and I’m excited to see what level they will take it to,” Derek said. “That would be my ultimate goal—to keep building this farm up to where they’ll be able to take over or join in someday.”