Every morning, dairy farmers Wesley Corlett and his son, Daniel, rise with the sun and with the same surety.
In the pale morning light, they walk to the milking parlor to complete their early morning ritual. They will spend three hours milking and then head to the fields only to come back again in the afternoon and repeat the cycle.
Generations of dairy farmers have done the same. Here on their farm in Willard, Mo., the Corletts have managed the pinnacles and pitfalls of the industry for close to 70 years. There’s no secret recipe to their longevity. Like most other dairy producers, they readily admit that capital is one of the biggest challenges, but they have persevered through the tough times by diversifying their operation, limiting debt and maintaining positivity.
“If you have your health and are able to get up every morning and go, you can overcome a lot, can’t you?” Wesley said.
His family acquired the original plot of land in the mid-1800s, but it wasn’t until the 1940s that Wesley’s grandfather, father and uncle began the dairy operation. Together, they formed the original partnership that Wesley and his children continue to operate today.
Wesley said he knew from a young age he wanted to be a dairyman.
“His family said he’d sit in the window of the old stanchion barn just watching them work,” his wife, Annette, said. “They said they couldn’t pull him away.”
And much like his father, Daniel knew he would become the fifth generation to make farming his career.
“I like working for myself,” he said. “I was raised here, and I think the farm is a great place to raise my kids.”
In addition to Daniel, Wesley and Annette have an older son, David, a daughter, Diane, and eight grandchildren. Daniel and his wife, Jennifer, bought into the partnership in 2015 when David had to withdraw from the daily operations due to a progressive multiple sclerosis diagnosis.
Together, Daniel and Wesley milk 80 cows twice a day—at 6 a.m. and 4 p.m.—the sunup to sundown schedule that’s well-known to dairy farmers.
“We’re out there every morning and afternoon,” Wesley said. “No exceptions for funerals, weddings, vacations, operations or anything like that.”
When Wesley had to undergo a total knee replacement two years ago, Daniel handled the milking operations during his father’s six-week recovery. And more recently, when Wesley and Annette went to visit his sister for a week, Daniel and Jennifer both stepped in with their three kids in tow—Harleigh, 4, Aurora (Rory), 15 months, and Weston, 3 months.
“Jennifer was here in the mornings while her mom watched the kids,” Daniel said. “Then in the evenings, we had the kids with us, and they just did their thing. We would bring Rory’s swing into the parlor, and she would swing with me while I milked. Harleigh helped, and Weston was just passed around.”
The Corletts milk a mix of Guernsey, Holsteins and a few Jersey cows and retain their heifers each year to build the herd.
“We used to milk around 100 but there were a few years when our numbers dropped due to milk prices, drought and other issues,” Daniel said. “We’d like to eventually get back to that number, but we’re not quite there yet.”
With 80 cows, they average 50 pounds of milk per day per cow, for a total of around 1.4 million pounds of milk each year. The addition of 20 cows would likely increase their average 3-hour milking time by 30 minutes for an extra 1,000 pounds per day. Their cows are fed a mixed feed ration in the parlor sourced from MFA affiliate Bolivar Farmers Exchange in addition to free-choice hay and silage.
“It’s not a traditional dry lot,” Wesley said, “but we feed them about everything they eat.”
The Corletts work with MFA Feed Area Sales Manager Jody Boles to test their forage and silage quality a few times each year.
“They are a good dairy family, and they’ve been customers for years,” Jody said. “No matter if it’s a good day or a bad day, Wesley always has a smile or is laughing at some point.”
Three years ago, the Corletts also began raising a beef herd to supplement their dairy.
“We just put it together from nothing,” Wesley said. “I think we started with six cows. Now we have close to 30.
Recently, the Corletts began leasing 190 acres to plant wheat and soybeans as well as corn to chop for silage.
“Now we do the dairy chores in the morning, go to the fields and then come back and do the chores,” Wesley said. “I’m sure other farmers are in the same situation. You stay late if you have to and just go until you can’t anymore.”
“Every day is a blur,” Daniel added. “We’ve diversified, and now we just work all the time.”
Though it has added more work to an already full plate, diversifying their operation has helped to compensate for declining milk prices. Last year was the first time they planted soybeans, and the crop did well, Wesley said.
“That really helped to offset some of milk price,” he said. “I wish I had all the numbers, but it just seems to me like milk prices never really have reached a new level. How long have you seen milk at the stores for $2.50-$3? But what has beef done? What has chicken done?”
He is right. The price of milk doesn’t follow the common trend of other household staples such as bread, eggs or meat. It’s more volatile, the jagged line graphs more closely resembling price trends for oil or gas. According to the USDA, the national average retail milk price hit its highest point in January 2008 at $3.87 per gallon. In January 2018, the average price was $2.96. Conversely, beef and chicken prices have steadily risen over the years.
“Most of the time it’s like a roller coaster,” Annette said. “It takes forever to get up to that good price, and then it just shoots back down.”
The Corletts know they’re in the commodity business and a world market. These days, milk is used for much more than making cheese or butter. It can be distilled into milk powder, whey proteins, condensed milk, fat solids and skim solids—each with its own uses. When milk prices hit the 2008 high, China was importing large supplies from the U.S. and other countries due to a melamine contamination scandal at a large Chinese factory that produced infant formula. The incident reportedly killed at least six children and caused illness in thousands more. At the time, however, feed and fuel prices were also higher domestically, cutting into farm profit margins.
In 2014, milk prices again climbed with export demand. Still, the downswings drive many out of business. Wesley and Daniel can name most of the dairies in Greene County now on their fingers. They can also list quite a few that are gone.
“I think it would be hard to get started in this industry as a young dairyman,” Wesley said. “Especially if you have started thinking the going is good, so you borrow money for equipment. It would be really tough if you owed on the land and the machinery.”
Though they have had some debt at times, the Corletts said they never make large purchases unless they have a really good year.
“Really, if we can’t afford it, we don’t buy it,” Annette said. “You have to have a little buffer, a little nest egg, or you’ll find yourself in trouble.”
Part of their perseverance has been managing that debt and carefully maintaining the farm infrastructure while staying in step with technology. In the milk house, part of the original rock foundation can still be seen. Wesley’s grandfather had a few cows he milked in the stanchion barn, in which Wesley’s father and uncle later built additions. They would also go on to build the milk house, parlor and silo.
“The buildings are outdated,” Wesley said. “But the milking equipment is modern, outside of automatic take-offs. We try to keep up as best we can.”
As for the future of the farm, Daniel plans to continue the family tradition.
“Jennifer and I have talked about a lot of different things we’d like to do, like selling items straight off the farm, but you really have to get a lot of things in order to do it right,” he said. “But we will always farm. I can’t really see myself doing anything else.”
And while Wesley, now 63, said he hopes he isn’t milking until he’s 80 like some of his neighbors, he also admitted, “If I’m able, that would be good. If you’re able to get up and work, that’s a great thing.