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Making milk the old-fashioned way

"Push ’em! Bring ’em up! Come on girls!" Eric Hoffman yells at the herd. His dog, Oakley, expertly moves the bovine bunch forward.

“The first year we had cows, the fences weren’t in the best shape,” says Hoffman, BS Ag ’07. “Oakley was more of a fence than a dog.” Hoffman looks proudly out onto his 400-acre farm. “We’ve come a long way since that first year. I don’t have any doubts, but I’m not saying I didn’t have any.”

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The Trenton, Mo., native is a dairyman making his way in an evolving industry. He knew he wanted to be a part of agriculture and make his life where he had grown up. “I only see more people to feed in the future, and we’ll need to maximize land to safely feed the world,” Hoffman says.

After exploring his options, he decided on dairy farming. “The dairy doesn’t compete with other area farmers or my family,” Hoffman says. The average dairy cow generates $15,000 annually in economic activity, a boon to the rural economy. Both of Eric Hoffman’s parents grew up on dairy farms, but Hoffman himself didn’t milk a cow until he was 19.

“Eric didn’t walk into an existing dairy, and that sets him apart from most dairy farms where each generation passes a legacy system on,” says Joe Horner, beef and dairy economist at MU. “Eric also started a new pasture-based dairy in a part of Missouri where almost all of the existing dairies went to confinement systems at least a generation ago.”

Hoffman’s family raises beef cattle and operates the Hoffman & Reed feed store in Trenton. His grandfather, Charles Dale Hoffman, BS Ag ’49, helped open the store more than 50 years ago and still goes in every day. Eric Hoffman’s father, Christopher Hoffman, BS Ag ’81, and uncle Charles P. Hoffman, BS Ag ’73, MS ’75, manage the store. Eric wants to continue the family feed business, and his dairy will give him the time to do so.

That’s because Hoffman’s dairy is a pasture-based system. In contrast to conventional dairies that feed cows grain in a confined area, Hoffman’s operation uses intensive rotational grazing. Every 12 hours, he moves cows to fresh grass on one of his 44 paddocks. This makes the most of his pastures, keeps labor low and input costs down. His pastures are multispecies, with some paddocks planted with fescue and orchard grass that thrive in the cooler months, and others of white clover, red clover and alfalfa that do better during the warmer months.

The efficiency is exactly what Hoffman was looking for. He is tireless in his pursuit to make things run efficiently, increasing profitability.

The pasture-based system saves labor by getting rid of a lot of BS. Well, CS in this case. In conventional operations, much labor goes into removing animal waste. But because Hoffman’s cows spend their days on pastures, they spread the waste themselves, fertilizing the fields as they graze.

Each paddock contains watering troughs, which are supplied by the five miles of water line Hoffman ran himself. Hoffman feeds cows six pounds of grain a day when he milks twice daily compared to 30 pounds of grain a day at a conventional dairy. Hoffman’s cows produce on average 48 pounds of milk a day, compared to about 100 pounds of milk a day at conventional operations. Although he produces half the milk, his input costs are about a quarter of a conventional dairy’s. The pasture-based system also brings stability. Corn prices fluctuate, but as long as grass grows, the price of Hoffman’s feed remains constant.

Hoffman also saved on startup costs. According to MU Extension grazing models, starting a pasture-based dairy of 300 cows requires $1,612,690 in capital. A conventional dairy of equal size would require 50 percent to 60 percent more capital — an additional $800,000. “Pasture-based dairies allow young producers to overcome some of the traditional barriers to entry,” Horner says. “Two-thirds of the capital invested in a pasture-based dairy is tied up in cows and land, investments that hold their value. Bankers like loaning money on assets such as land and cattle that are easy to liquidate in a worst-case scenario. And cows live longer in pasture-based systems than in traditional dairies. Because the number of heifers born exceeds the number of cows slaughtered, it is easier for a pasture-based operation to grow. This process scales up the business on autopilot,” Horner says.

At first, Hoffman wanted to get organic certification and bottle his own milk. But his location in north-central Missouri limits the demand for such products. Instead he joined the Dairy Farmers of America co-op. A DFA milk truck comes every two days to pick up Hoffman’s milk, most of which stays in the Midwest as part of products such as ice cream, cheese and butter. Although milk prices fluctuate, they have stayed at about $15 per hundredweight (100 pounds) since Hoffman started, but the price has dipped as low as $10.

Hoffman has about 180 cows, about half way to the herd of 350 he plans to have by spring 2012. And he milks a variety of breeds. Traditional dairies typically use Holstein cows; they produce a lot of milk but their large size decreases their mobility and makes them less desirable grazers. Jersey cows, on the other hand, graze well but don’t produce as much milk as Holsteins. So, Hoffman is crossbreeding his herd to get the best qualities of both Jersey and Holstein cows. There is one cow that Hoffman has had since he started that he can pet like a dog, but another cow kicks him every chance she gets. “But she milks too good to get rid of,” he says with a chuckle.

Just five years ago, the groundwork for the dairy began, and the cows arrived the winter of 2007. But the following spring when the calves were born, Hoffman’s milking parlor still wasn’t ready. So, he trucked his cows across town to a friend’s three-stall bypass milker. Because he could only milk three cows at once, a single milking took him nine hours. After the milking marathon, he would work on his parlor, and then it was back to milking for another nine hours. The feverish pace lasted two weeks. Even now, he often works as late as 11 p.m. only to be back milking at 5:30 the next morning. He has a small bedroom above his office where he sleeps when he stays at the dairy overnight. It’s Hoffman’s hard work and ingenuity that keeps the dairy afloat.

But he doesn’t mind the long hours. “I could be standing in a factory all day,” he says. “Even when times are at their worst, I can look out onto my pastures and find enjoyment.” Hoffman wears a tattered MU hat, gumboots and a one-piece work uniform when he milks every morning and afternoon. “The faster you can milk them, the more time they have to eat grass,” he says. “I want to see them walk onto the paddock, put their head down and start chewing.” Hoffman has a 48-stall milking parlor but only uses 24 stalls due to the size of his herd. It takes him about eight minutes to milk a group of 20 cows and about 90 minutes for the entire herd.

While he milks, he checks the cows for any health problems. If there is an issue, he marks the cow’s tail with colored tape. If a cow’s milk needs to be set aside, the code is two bands of red tape. “It’s like waving a red flag,” Hoffman says. A hired hand helps him milk, and Hoffman plans to hire others as the herd grows. The first year, with his family’s help, he raised calves in an old farmhouse beside the milking parlor. “People didn’t know what to think when they would drive up and a calf would stick its head out of a bedroom window,” Hoffman says. The farmhouse has since been torn down, and Hoffman sends his calves to an Amish family who raises them until they are weaned.

Wanting to be ready for anything, Hoffman cut and stored a two-year supply of corn silage. “You never know what the next year will bring,” he says. Hoffman feeds the silage to his cows over the winter so they keep producing. It’s common for cows on a pasture-based system to stop giving milk during the winter, but Hoffman wants to keep milking year-round the first few years to keep his cash flow going. Hoffman rents a nearby farm, though he doesn’t need the land yet. “When your neighbor’s land goes up for rent, you had better jump on it.” For now, he keeps heifers there until they are ready to join the milking herd, and he planted pumpkins to sell this fall.

In high school, Hoffman made money growing tomatoes, pumpkins and sweet corn to sell at a local vegetable auction. He recycled an old corn grinder to hold grain for his heifers, and the feed troughs are old ear-corn elevators from the bygone days when corn was harvested intact. “The thing about getting started is you don’t have to have new equipment. It doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to work,” Hoffman says. He plans to convert buildings his father and uncle used as hog houses into winter housing for his cows.

Horner and MU Extension were instrumental in getting Hoffman started. “Joe worked with me from the get-go on budgets and showed me how it can work,” Hoffman says. MU Extension provides research-based production and management information to producers. “We were able to help connect Eric with research on dairying and pasture management coming out of our research dairy,” Horner says. “We also helped connect him to some of the monthly ‘pasture walk’ peer groups that share lessons learned and discuss evolving management practices.”

“It’s good to have someone question you,” Hoffman says. “You can figure out if you’re doing any good, or you’re just spinning your wheels.” So, with an open mind and lots of hard work, Hoffman continues to make a place for himself in the world of dairying. “I’m just going to keep my nose down and work; that’s how I will succeed,” Hoffman says. “I’m not going to quit until someone makes me.”

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