With red barns trimmed in white and grain silos straining toward the sky, Conrad Farms fits every image you may have of an Ohio dairy farm.
This 2,000-acre property in Penfield Township is surrounded by forests and expansive grain fields, with the east branch of the Black River flowing nearby. It’s a third-generation family farm established in 1946 and operated today by brothers Rick and Dave Conrad. Their parents still live in the property’s brick homestead when they’re not snow-birding in Florida.
Conrad Farms is home to 250 head of cattle that yield 2,000 gallons of milk every day. Milk from Conrad cows — processed at Dairymens in Cleveland — will land on your breakfast table within two to five days.
The Conrad cows are famous, actually. The farm attracted national media attention earlier this year due to the cows’ unusual accommodations — waterbeds in each stall. They aren’t being “spoiled” or “coddled,” as the media coverage proclaimed. The waterbeds serve a more practical purpose — keeping cows comfortable and healthy means longer lifespans and higher milk production. The story went viral, and the Conrads had TV crews showing up at the barn unannounced.
Rick Conrad greets all that attention with a chuckle and a head shake.
“It got way bigger than we expected,” he says. “But it turned out to be a good thing. We’re letting non-farm people know about dairy production.”
It’s an important story to tell. There was a time when Lorain County was prime dairy country. Wellington, for example, was known as the “Cheese Capital of America” in the late 1800s, and the town’s Cheese Heritage Festival celebrates that once-notoriety every summer with cheesecake and macaroni-and-cheese bake-off competitions.
But things have changed, not just locally but across Ohio and the nation. Milk production is down or flat in the Midwest but booming in states such as California. There, dairy production increased by 50 percent between 1994 and 2006, according to the most recent USDA statistics. In that same period, Ohio milk production increased by less than one percent.
Most striking is the national ratio of the number of farms to cows per farm. Line-graph the two together and it looks like a stemmed bowl — the number of farms sharply decreasing at nearly the same rate as the size of farms increasing.
“It’s changed over the years,” says Jim Sheffield, who’s been dairying in Pittsfield Township for 56 years at his family’s Jaloda Farms. “I think we’re down to six dairies in this township, and I can remember probably 50 or 60 back when I started.”
Still, milk and dairy products in Lorain County are a $13.9 million per year industry, making it the 18th largest producer among Ohio’s 88 counties. According to the USDA census, there are 43 dairy farms throughout Lorain County, but only six with more than 200 head of cattle. Those six milk more than half of the county’s 4,789 cows.
The challenges facing this industry are not unlike those facing many small businesses. To compete at a national and even global stage, farms need scale and an ability to adjust their businesses as markets fluctuate.
“Our inputs continue to increase — our feed, labor, fertilizer, land — and we’re receiving less and less of that retail dollar,” says John Dovin of Dovin Farms, the largest dairy in Lorain County with 1,100 head and 28 employees. “That has been the biggest driver of dairies having to get larger.”
This agricultural sector was also hard-hit by the market downturn in 2008; when restaurants and other food service companies get hit, says Dovin, it trickles down to the dairy farmers, and “we’re still recovering from 2009.”
But increasing scale isn’t the only way farmers are fighting against dismal dairy trends. Rick Conrad is riding the globalization trend by driving about half of his milk into products such as butter, cheese and nonfat dry milk, which are exported to Europe and Mexico or used locally in processed foods.
He also markets embryos from highly fertile heifers; embryos from one female have resulted in 35 offspring scattered throughout the country.
“I don’t want to get bigger, I want to get better,” says Conrad.
The need for proximity also works in local dairies’ favor. Fresh milk that’s not used to make cheese, butter or processed foods must be transported to market quickly, upholding the need for local dairy farms.
Other parts of the country have felt the dairy decline harder than the Midwest.
“With the population shift to the Southeast, they are milk-deficient there,” says Dovin. “There are bottling plants that can’t get enough.”
In fact, much of Dovin’s milk travels to North Carolina. A truck shows up at Dovin Farms every 18 hours to load 5,900 gallons of milk, which are transported immediately to North Carolina processors.
The milking process itself is a far cry from the bucket-and-stool setup we’ve all seen in movies. The dairy parlors at Dovin’s or Conrads’ farms are lined with gleaming stainless-steel milkers designed for 20 and 32 cows, respectively. Microchips in each cow sync to a touchscreen as they back into the stall.
Each cow’s udders are carefully cleaned before they’re hooked up to a high-tech milker that resembles an oversized bouquet of bluebells. As they’re milked — which takes about 15 minutes — a digital read-out tracks the milk output. Each cow is milked three times a day on 24-hour shifts. The milk is immediately cooled from a body temperature of 100 degrees to 36 degrees and then stored for same-day pickup.
Cleanliness of the parlor and adherence to strict milking protocols have a direct impact on a farmer’s bottom line. A farmer’s pay, says Conrad, is directly tied to keeping somatic cell and bacteria counts low, which contribute to longer milk shelf life.
Dairy cows are, in a sense, living machines. Input about 120 pounds of grain and 35 gallons of water, and receive about 10 gallons of milk each day. Just as a manufacturing company must keep up on maintenance schedules for its equipment, it’s also in a farmer’s best interests to keep cows healthy and comfortable.
Hence the waterbeds, plus sprinklers to cool them in the summer and heaters during the winter. Even an unfamiliar jacket hung in the milking parlor is enough to spook these creatures of habit, Dovin says, and that rush of adrenaline can mean they won’t let their milk down.
“For us to do well, we have to treat the cows well,” says Conrad.
At Jaloda Farms, Sheffield is the third generation of his family’s 130-head, 450-acre dairy. At 72, he’s now working alongside the fourth generation of the family to run the farm. He sees a possibility that the farm could continue into a fifth generation, but he says he doesn’t expect it would last longer than that.
Succession of family farms is another challenge facing Lorain County’s dairy industry. The average age of an Ohio principal farm operator is 56 years old, and many farms shut down for lack of children willing or able to keep the family’s business going.
“We’re not sure we’re going to have another generation,” says Conrad, whose children are in their late teens and early 20s. “They all work here a little bit, but if we don’t have someone who wants to do the dairy in 10 years, then we’ll sell the cows and keep the crops for another 10 years after that.”
If Jaloda Farms isn’t handed down to the next generation, Sheffield’s family has considered partnering with the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, which works to permanently protect farmland and other natural areas.
Mounting interest in locally and organically grown foods may hold promise for continued community support for Lorain County’s dairy farms. Every September, the North Coast Farm Bureau hosts a tour that takes regular folks around to visit five area farms. Last fall’s event drew 1,000, its largest crowd ever.
“Most people are three or four generations removed from the farm, and they still think of it as that 1940s farm with the white picket fence,” says Amanda Denes, organization director of the North Coast Farm Bureau. “People are interested [in seeing where their food comes from], and I think that’s a good thing.”
Dovin has had people simply walk up to the farm to have a look around, and he always accommodates them. If they arrive with preconceived notions about animal treatment or farm practices, he takes the opportunity to educate them about the realities of today’s dairy farming.
“Dairy farmers have done themselves a disservice by not telling their own story,” says Dovin. “We owe it to our consumers to better educate them. It’s become our responsibility.”
Back at Conrad Farms, a milking shift has ended and the cows are back in their sawdust-covered waterbeds. Not far away are braying calves, some just a few days old. For now, they stay here until they can be weaned, then are transported to a facility in Bellevue where they are cared for and bred.
This spring, Conrad will start construction on a new building that will give him enough space to raise the calves on-site. Dovin is also considering an expansion during the next year or so to increase his capacity by 200 cows.
After 30 years working with farmers at the Ohio Farm Bureau, Joe Cornely says he has high hopes for the future of dairy farming here.
“I see how smart these people are, the self-reliance, the love of working in concert with nature,” he says. “That’s the stock farmers come from. So yes, I’m optimistic about the future.”
That kind of hardiness is evident in these men, who haven’t foundered despite the challenges they and other dairy farmers face. Dovin calls it “the sickness” — the force that has pulled his family toward dairying since 1946.
“We have a passion to do what we do here, and my family has shared that for three generations,” says Dovin. “It has days when you question why you’re doing this, but the bottom line is that we do this because it’s our passion to care for cattle.”