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Dairy endures on Dill farm

Jack Dill isn’t ashamed to show his emotions. The dairyman gets choked up when talking about his late father, Alva, whose name still graces the family’s farm in Conway, Mo. He gets teary-eyed when talking about a favorite cow, “old No. 300,” that had to be put down when her health declined. He pours out his passions through poetry, expressing love and heartbreak, nostalgia and sentimentality through dozens of hand-penned verses.

So, it stands to reason that Jack was deeply troubled when his Dairy Farmers of America fieldman called in mid-April with the unwelcome news that the farm’s bi-weekly milk pickup would have to be discarded rather than go to the Hiland Dairy Foods plant as usual. Pandemic shutdowns of schools, restaurants and other food-service businesses had curtailed normal demand, and the industry was strug­gling to adjust.

“I hung up the phone and sat there with the most overwhelming feeling of de­spair,” Jack said. “I felt defeated. You put all of your work and energy into producing milk—which truly is a miracle food—and when something like this happens, it’s all for naught. The idea of our milk literally going down the drain really hurt.”

Turns out, his milk was still needed, but Jack said several of his fellow Ozarks area dairy farmers did have to dispose of their daily production for about five days. The same was true for dairy producers across the United States. The COVID-19 restrictions hit their industry harder and earlier than other agricultural commodities because dairy products—especially fluid milk—are highly perishable. Cows don’t shut down their milk supply, and it has to go somewhere.

The supply chain disruptions and ensuing price declines are particularly disheartening, Dill said, because 2020 had started out hope­ful for dairy farmers. After about four straight years of flat and low milk prices, they were trending upward at the end of 2019. USDA projections indicated this might be the year that the industry finally turned the corner.

“I was optimistic this was going to be a ‘catch-up’ year,” Jack said. “Then the bot­tom fell out. I try to look at the good, and at first, I thought this situation isn’t going to be near as bad as it seems. But it is so much worse than anyone ever dreamed. We’re going to see milk prices down as low as we saw in 2009 during the recession.”

Government “safety net” programs provide financial support to help offset these losses, but not all producers chose to enroll in them this year, based on the positive, pre-pandemic outlook for dairy. In fact, less than half the U.S. milk supply is cov­ered by the Dairy Margin Coverage (DMC) insurance-style program, offered by US­DA’s Farm Service Agency, or the Dairy Revenue Protection (DRP), available through approved crop insurance providers and administered through USDA’s Risk Manage­ment Agency. The new Coronavirus Food Assistance Program also earmarked funds for dairy producers, even if they were using these other risk-management tools.

“If you have insurance from the government, you’re going to be OK,” Jack said. “Dairies that don’t have it probably made the right move for the time, but it’s a dire situation for them now. If we didn’t have that insurance, we’d figure out a way to make it, but I’m telling you, we’d lose money.”

However bleak the economic outlook, Jack said the family’s commitment to cost-conscious practices will help the dairy survive the downturn. After all, the farm has endured the market’s cyclical challenges for more than a century. Jack’s grandfa­ther, Ores Dill, purchased his first 40 acres in 1915 and farmed with son Alva, who eventually took over the operation. Jack and his older brother, Jerry, joined their father in the business and formed Alva Dill and Sons partnership in 1979.

Today, the dairy supports five households with a milking herd of about 120 Holsteins and has grown to more than 1,000 acres. Alva died in 2016, but his wife, Betty, still lives on the farm and has a stake in the business. Jack and his wife, Patty, continue to farm with Jerry, and his wife, Sarah. The next gen­eration has joined the operation—Jack’s son, Jordan, and Jerry’s son, Jarrod.

“As a Depression-era child, Dad was really frugal, so we’ve always managed the business looking at costs first,” Jack said. “Our theory is, if you can make a profit in the worst times, you’ll stay in business through the good times, too. Following that philosophy, we’ve always been able to squeeze a living for our families from this farm.”

With this thrifty thinking, the Dills run an efficient, low-input operation. They continue to milk cows twice daily in an eight-stall, double-herringbone parlor built in 1955, and labor is di­vided among the four partnering dairymen. They maintain their older tractors and implements instead of buying new ones.

“The last time I bought a tractor to keep was my John Deere 4055 in 1998. It’s not the prettiest tractor in the world, but it’s dependable,” Jack said. “Last year, I asked Jerry if he thought we should trade in our old baler and get a new one. He said no, because he had just gone through and redid the whole thing. We stretch the use of everything as far as we can. We are a no-frills farm, for sure.”

Along with an MFA dairy ration, forages are the foundation of the feeding program, with about three-fourths of the farm’s acreage devoted to pasture and hay. In normal year, Jack said, the family puts up 1,100 to 1,300 big bales for their own cattle and typically has extra hay to sell.

“I always tell people we’re not really dairy farmers,” he said. “We’re forage farmers, and we market that forage through the cows.”

Putting more money into grain, genetics or facilities could mean improvements such as higher milk production and better butterfat, Jack admits. He knows Holsteins aren’t the best grazers, forage quality can fluctuate and uncomfort­able environmental conditions decrease the cows’ performance. But the Dills have found a formula that works, and they’re sticking to it.

“Our cows may not be as comfortable as a big dairy that puts fans on them in the summer and gives them shelter year-round, but we provide as much comfort as we can in a natural way,” Jack said. “It’s just how we’ve always operated. We probably should change. We are probably too slow to evolve. But we manage to support five families with only about 120 cows, so we must be doing something right.”

With Jarrod and Jordan now invested in the busi­ness, Jack said he’s confident the farm will continue to operate for at least one more generation. Other dairies may not have that assurance, he fears, espe­cially during the current pandemic-induced crisis.

“How many farms want to go on another gener­ation, but the financial opportunity won’t allow it?” Jack said. “That’s really sad because these people invest money and do the work, but yet the economic reward is not there. People outside of agriculture do not understand how much farmers sacrifice to bring food to their table.”

Jack is doing his part to raise awareness of such challenges and advance the industry beyond his family farm. He was elected to DFA’s Southeast Area council in 2018 and the Ozarks Division board for Midwest Dairy in 2019. He said serving in these leadership roles is giving him an opportunity to learn more about dairy’s legislative side and how regula­tions and marketing systems could be improved to better protect his fellow farmers and the food supply.

“The current situation we find ourselves in is not Hiland’s fault, and it’s not DFA’s fault. But we have to find solutions for the future,” Jack said. “That’s my new passion since I was elected to these boards. I work so hard to rep­resent my district, and I try to learn as much as I can about both sides of an argument. The right thing is not always easy. But it is always the right thing. I try to live my life that way.”

He’s also trying to learn how to enjoy life more, including spending quality time with Patty, whom he married in 2006, and their eight grandchildren. Jack will be 60 in August, and he’s getting nostalgic about the journey.

“I’m truly blessed with my family and this farm. It’s a gift to be able to work with nature and the land and what God has made—even if it comes with a lot of uncertainty and sac­rifice,” Jack said. “I have a lot of sayings, but one of my favorites is, ‘Life is a one-way trip down an interstate highway.’ I am at the end of the 59 mile-marker, and I can’t go back. All I can do is make the most of it from this point to the next.”

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In this May 2020 TF

FEATURES

Better way to hay - Cover Story -
Management tips for high-quality, high-quantity forage
by David Moore, Landry Jones

Having ‘brave conversations’
Panelists stress the importance of mental health care in the farming community
by Allison Jenkins

Upward trends
Growers take yields to the next level with foliar nitrogen-fungicide combination
by Allison Jenkins

Shear determination
Generations of Schmidt family raise prize-winning show sheep
by Kerri Lotven

Reining supreme
Renowned horse trainer exhibits success with MFA feed
by Kerri Lotven

Heat can harm hay quality
Monitor moisture carefully to avoid loss of energy, nutrients
by Dr. Jim White

Keep calm and hang on: Still time to plant
Right conditions, proper seed placement more important than date
by Jason Worthington

DEPARTMENTS & OPINION

Country Corner

Finding silver linings in the virus crisis
by Allison Jenkins, TF editor

UpFront/Blog
Farm State of Mind campaign transitions to American Farm Bureau
Missouri Food Finder
Commendable conservation
From fiber to food

Markets - As printed - CLICK HERE
Corn: Lower fuel prices, pandemic closures reduce ethanol production
Soybeans: Prospective plantings show fewer bean acres
Cattle: COVID-19 and the cattle market
Wheat: Winter wheat conditions variable across U.S.

Recipes
Smoke signals - As printed
Visit our food page recipe finder

BUY, sell, trade - as printed
Marketplace

Viewpoint
Taking care and farming through it all
by Ernie Verslues, MFA President and Chief Executive Officer

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Reining supreme

An equine trainer for 45 years, Randy Schaffhauser specializes in cattle-working horses and reining horses at his stables in Paragould, Ark. His profession takes him to competitions all over the country, often with horses in tow. That’s why when MFA launched EasyKeeper HDC last year, Schaff­hauser was one of the first people to try it.

“They say 90% of performance horses either have ulcers or are subject to them,” Schaffhauser said. “I pretty much know the symptoms for horses. It can cost close to $1,000 to treat an ulcer, and our horses won’t perform well until it’s fixed, so we use HDC to keep our horses level and prevent the ulcer beforehand.”

Easykeeper HDC, which stands for horse digestive care, contains sodi­um bicarbonate to neutralize the stomach acid, much like an antacid for humans. Stephen Daume, MFA livestock specialist, explains that perfor­mance horses are especially prone to stomach ulcers because of the way the chambers of a horse’s stomach are constructed. Acid from the lower cham­ber can enter the upper chamber while performing. Stress of travel can also be a contributing factor.

“When HDC first became available, we took some out to Randy,” Daume said. “We knew he did a lot of hauling. He tried it and liked it and as an added benefit, it’s actually saving them a little bit of money over what they were feeding previously.”

Schaffhauser’s discipline of choice, reining, is a physically demanding event for the horses. In this style of western riding, the rider must skillfully maneuver the horse through a difficult pattern and is judged for precision and technique.

“One of the biggest challenges is keep­ing the horse relaxed and sound all the way through to the end,” he added. “We run fast and say ‘whoa,’ and the horse will slide 30 feet. It can be hard on them. We have to have a good vet and a good feed program.”

Reining is a unique sport because the trainer and rider compete as one. Schaff­hauser began learning to train horses for this and other competitive equine events in his youth. He credits his stepfather with some of his early learning.

“He was pretty good at showing me how to train our personal horses,” Schaff­hauser said. “But we weren’t trainers. We were farmers and ranchers, and we showed horses. As a high-schooler, it was my job to break the horses we raised and get them ready to show. My life led in that direction instead of farming.”

Later, Schaffhauser would go on to work with horses for another trainer who imparted more informal lessons.

“I’d start them, and he would kind of guide me through how he wanted his horses when they came to him,” Schaffhauser said. “But I was always on my own. I’d just learn by the seat of my pants, so to speak, from watching other trainers and studying them.”

While in college at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, Schaffhauser began competing in rodeos. After college, he farmed and trained horses on the side. In 2000, he moved back to Jones­boro and started training and showing horses full time.

“As I progressed through the horse business, I started to figure out what it takes to win and the quality of horse it takes to win,” he said.

And win he did. Schaffhauser holds a few world titles in reining events in both the American Quarter Horse Associa­tion and the American Paint Horse Association.

Competing is part of his business and has its rewards, both in prestige and monetarily, Schaffhauser said. Howev­er, he also works with customers back home at his stables to train their horses and teach them to ride and compete as well. Currently, he has 20-25 horses in training that all range in value from $25,000 to $75,000.

“I love to train the horse and make it into something,” he said. “It’s kind of like farming—you plant the seed and then make the crop. You see progress daily as you spend time with a horse. Working with the horse and the customer is the most rewarding part.”

Schaffhauser is also a member of the National Reining Horse Association, which holds more than 1,200 reining events around the world. He and his customers travel to many shows throughout the year. The largest show, the NRHA Futurity held annually in Oklahoma City, gives out nearly $2.3 million in prize winnings. Approximately 125,000 spectators from more than 20 countries attend, and there are events for all levels of competitive riders.

“The shows we go to pay well,” Schaffhauser said. “The classes have a lot of added money, so those monetary returns are what allow us to survive and make our customers want to spend money to buy a nice horse. The hope is we have a good horse and can ride it and win money because that’s what keeps us thriving.”

Schaffhauser’s career earnings total over $250,000 in reining and cow horse events with multiple top 10 NRHA finishes. He’s been a finalist in every NRHA major event with horses he’s either raised or trained for customers.

Today, Schaffhauser feeds his horses a modified high-fat blend of MFA EasyKeeper in addition to the EasyKeeper HDC, which he uses for preventative care. His feed is deliv­ered by his local MFA Agri Services Midsouth in Mounds, Ark., which he noted as an added convenience.

“It’s a strenuous sport,” he said. “Our customers like their horses to look plump and pretty, but they use a lot of energy training and performing. On normal feeds, which usually contain something like 12% protein and 3% fat, they won’t stay that way when you ride them for performance. The high-fat feed keeps the energy levels good and keeps the horses looking good, too.”

People have noticed. Schaffhauser said he gets comments on his horse’s appearance all the time.

“I think the word spread around,” he said. “I don’t know too many people in our community around here who aren’t feeding what we’re feeding.”

For more information on EasyKeeper or EasyKeeper HDC, contact your MFA or AGChoice location or visit online at mfa-inc.com/Products/Equine/Feeds/Easykeeper.

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Shear determination

Shearing day starts with cinnamon rolls and a side of eggs on Schmidt Brothers Farm in Centralia, Mo.

Rosel Schmidt brings a plateful of break­fast out to the barn, where her oldest son, Matt, is working with long-time shearer and family friend, Jim Schaefer. Heavy black clouds from a late-spring storm can be seen on the horizon, but that doesn’t slow them down. In fact, the farm is awash with com­motion. Rosel has made enough food to feed the local wrestling team, literally.

Her husband, Bryan, and middle son, Mike, are both wrestling coaches in Cen­tralia, while son, Marc, coaches in nearby Moberly. His twin brother, Mitch, also teaches ag education at North Shelby High School in Shelbyville, Mo. Today, high school wrestlers are flocking to one end of the farm readying for an event, while Matt is herding sheep in the opposite direc­tion through a series of gates to Jim, owner of Schaefer’s Sheep Shearing in Callao, Mo.

“These are our old ewes,” said Matt. “They get sheared twice a year—once in the spring, then again in the fall.”

Matt and his three brothers grew up showing sheep, a passion passed down from their mother.

“The story goes, my grand­parents were looking for something for my mom to take to the fair,” Matt said. “They thought cattle were too big for her, and showing pigs is very specific and detailed. Sheep just fit.”

As time went on, the family kept that tradition. Together, the Schmidts now have roughly 240 sheep, split between two locations. Right now, Matt mainly raises natural-colored sheep, Katahdin hair sheep, and some crossbreds, but over the last 20-plus years, the farm has been home to a variety of breeds.

“I think I started with about eight Southdown ewes when I was 7 or 8 years old,” Matt said. “They’re a small breed. They don’t get any taller than about the thigh. But my cousins had Hampshires and Dorsets, and my brother had Tunis.”

Different sheep get different shearing treatments, he ex­plained. When preparing for a show, the lambs and yearlings get a meticulous cut and fluff, but the ewes just get a quick shear and are on their way back to the green grass of the pasture.

It’s something Matt can do, but shearing isn’t his specialty. That’s where Jim comes in. He’s quick, and he’s skilled. Experience has made him so. He started when he was 14 years old after attending a shearing school with his father.

“We would shear our own sheep and some for our neighbors, but I didn’t really do it much until I got out of college,” said Jim, a graduate of University of Missouri in Columbia.

For about 10 years during his mid-20s and early-30s, Jim sharpened his skills by competing in shearing contests, a sport in which entrants see how fast they can remove the wool. On average, he could shear a sheep in about 2 minutes. But as his sons began getting older and showing sheep themselves, Jim steered his efforts in that direction.

He currently maintains a flock of Île-de-France sheep, a breed native to the region near Paris and relatively uncom­mon in the United States.

When Jim is done shearing the Schmidts’ flock, he will haul the wool to his own farm and bale it with a hydraulic wool press. From there, it’s shipped west to Roswell Wool in Roswell, N.M., where it’s then sampled for quality and auctioned. On the market, wool can vary from 15 cents a pound to $4 a pound.

“Most of our Midwest wools are medium to coarse in texture,” Jim said. “They aren’t fine wools like you would see in nice suits or sweaters. Our wools may be used for things like socks or blankets. Fine-wool sheep don’t handle a lot of moisture like we have in Missouri.”

On the Schmidt farm, the crossbred sheep are mostly raised for meat, which the family butchers themselves, while the other breeds may be destined for the show ring. Though Matt started with smaller Southdown sheep, he bought his first natural-colored ewe as soon as he was able to raise the money in his early teens. Last year, he took home the Re­serve Grand Champion Fall Ewe Lamb title at the Missouri State Fair in the open show with the breed.

“The natural-colored sheep are big, but that was the breed I decided I wanted,” Matt said. “Now, we’re probably one of 10 breeders in the U.S. of this sheep. There aren’t that many of us out there.”

Perhaps the greatest winning weekend for the Schmidt family happened in 2015 when Matt’s younger brother, Mitch, found himself holding the Grand Champion purple ribbon with a natural-colored ram in the junior show at the North American International Livestock Exposition in Lou­isville, Ky. Mitch also took home the Grand Champion rib­bon in the National Junior Tunis Show that same weekend, and Matt showed the Grand Champion Ewe in the North American International Tunis Open Show.

Though he can now only show in the open category, Matt still does whenever he has the chance.

“There’s a show in Troy we try to go to every year because that’s the group I grew up with,” Matt said. “There were 11 of us who showed together from the time we were little kids until we aged out. To this day, we still try to get together at least every other month.”

The camaraderie is the part of raising and showing sheep he said he most enjoys.

“It’s the family aspect of showing,” Matt said. “I’ve gained friends for a lifetime. I have two boys now. They each have 10 sheep. They aren’t big enough to show yet, but I want them to get that same feeling that always comes from doing this.”

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