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Dairy Farming and Sustainability


We recently interviewed Rosie Zaginaylo, a support analyst for AgChoice’s business consulting team as well as a dairy farmer in Columbia County, Pennsylvania. Rosie shared about her farm operation and perspectives on sustainability and dairy farming. Listen to the full podcast episode with Rosie here.

First, start by telling our listeners about yourself and your farm.

I'm a fourth generation farmer. I grew up on my father's family farm outside of Berwick in Columbia County. I have two younger brothers, and my mom and dad. When I was in 4-H and FFA growing up, and we always did the chores on the farm and the milking, at the time we only had about 15 to 25 cows. I think when I was in college, and when I went to college, we were only milking actually 12 cows.

I went to Penn State for animal science with a business option. After graduation, I worked for two years on a large dairy farm as an assistant herd manager, just more using that experience as a learning experience. Because the plan was for me to always come back home to the farm at some point. After two years there, I left that and moved back home.

Knowing that I was going to need a job because 12 cows wasn't going to support me at home, I contacted AgChoice, and there happened to be a part-time position available, so I started working for AgChoice as an underwriter part-time and also working at home with the cows. After a couple of years as an underwriter, I moved to the business management team and I've been there ever since, still working part-time.

Then I moved back home in 2008. In 2014, and I remember the day exactly, something had happened on the farm that morning that just kind of said, "Something has to be done. We can't keep doing things the way we're doing it. It's just not going to work." So that day, I made a couple phone calls to see what my options were as far as financing, and funding, and other resources that were available.

I started putting a business plan together, trying to figure out what size herd we needed, how much money it might cost, all the stuff that goes into expanding a dairy. It's going to have to be a new complete site because we didn't have room at the current location to do any kind of expansion. So that process started in the summer of 2014. By the time I got done doing business planning, talking to contractors and lenders, we started building in the fall of 2015 and we moved the cows in the spring of 2016.

Now, we only had 30 some cows at the time with our replacements, so we had a very small herd. And we needed to get up into that 80-cow range to make it work, to make it to the size that everything was going to work financially. So we were able to work with a retiring farmer. He had about 40 some cows, and he was also boarding another handful of cows for another farmer that had stopped milking. And we were able to work with them, and they had actually invested their cows into our facility.

So I didn't have any financial obligation to buy cows at the time, so we were able to fill the barn immediately once it was built, and I boarded their cows for them in my new facility. And after that, we bought their cows out over time when we moved in, and I still do board about 23 cows for some people here right now.

Currently, we're at about 77 cows and I own about 54 of them with 47 replacements, and then the rest are boarded cows that I keep for 4-H kids and other people that have a couple of cows that don't have facilities to take care of them.

Here on the farm full time, it's me, my mom, and my dad. My mom does all the heifers and calves. She takes care of them. She also does most of the milking. She also makes all the breeding decisions here. I milk, do all the record keeping, do all the feeding, and I work on our bedded packs. And I'm kind of the floater. If they need help in the field, I go to the field. If something needs done, I'll go do it.

My dad manages the cropping operation, manure handling, repairs and maintenance.

My brothers, they're both military, so they're not here all the time, but when they are here, they do help and we appreciate that. We also have a couple of neighbors and friends that will help out from time to time with the crops.

As it stands right now, I am a purchased-feed dairy. I buy all of our forages from my dad, and then I do buy all my grain in. So I do not do any cropping operation. I only buy my feed. On the total farm here, we farm around a little over 200 acres with mostly corn and hay. We do some cover cropping as well.

Sustainability is a hot topic right now in agriculture and beyond. Rosie, what does sustainability mean to you, and how do you ensure your farm is sustainable for the future?

Sustainability means to be able to maintain. In our old facility, it was not sustainable. The location, we were next to a housing development. It was an old bank barn in a very narrow lot, and it just wasn't allowing for growth of facilities. It was small and it was in a declining state. It was just falling apart. The cows were getting too big for the stalls and they were actually hurting themselves, damaging the stalls, that kind of thing. So obviously, we needed to make a decision then whether to just sell out completely or take the jump and invest in a new facility. If we wanted to continue to being a dairy farm, we knew it was going to take a lot of financial aid to make that happen.

When I started planning, I worked with consultants, using the Center for Dairy Excellence as a resource, along with Extension to help me see how this is going to work financially. We had to do all this to make sure what we were getting into made sense. Yes, I wanted to continue dairy farming, but with the investment that I had to make, was it going to be financially sustainable?

That part of the process, going through the whole business planning process took probably more time than anything. I wanted to make sure that my head and my heart were on the same page, that I wasn't making decisions rashly and not looking at all the options. We went through a lot of scenarios to come up with a very informed decision before we actually made the decision to borrow the money to build this barn. That process is still ongoing.

I do a budget every year. I compare my financials from this year to last year to see what progress we're making. I also use a lot of risk management in order to protect my milk income. I use the Dairy Margin Coverage Program through FSA, along with the Dairy Revenue Protection Program, and I forward contracts for milk with my cooperative. For an 80-cow dairy, I probably use more risk management than most other farms that size, but I look at it as protecting my long-term investment because I have no other option. We're in it too far to just say we're going to sell out today, because that can't be an option right now.

As far as the cows are concerned, I use the DHIA to track the herd performance too. I look at our performance, where we were prior to coming into the new barn, to where we were at a few months in, and then where we're at now. That kind of history really says a lot, whenever you look back over time and how you've grown over the last five to 10 years.

As far as environmental sustainability on our farm, we have a conservation plan and a nutrient management plan. We do all no-till cropping, and we utilize set aside areas and buffers along the waterways. We also have used programs for pasture fencing and watering systems that keep our cows out of creeks and streams along the farm. In the past, my mom, dad, and my grandfather all worked for the conservation district, so we've always kept those environmental aspects of the farm in mind.

Let’s talk a bit more about your compost barn, which is a bit unique. When you built your new facility a few years ago, why did you decide on a compost barn and what benefits have you seen? 

Honestly, the bedded pack idea came last in the whole process. I had a couple of goals I wanted to achieve when we were looking at building barns. Number one was maximize cow comfort, and number two was minimize labor. We had a lot of physical labor that had to be done in the old barn, and it was time consuming and you were really tired by the end of the day. We wanted to get rid of that altogether, or minimize it as much as possible.

We did have a small bedded pack in the old facility. Typically, they were cows that were having trouble with the stalls in the old barn, and those cows just did so much better on that pack. They had higher production and a lot less health issues than the rest of the cows. I started researching the bedded pack and toured a couple that were in the area just to get an idea about them.

Then we also worked with Extension to come up with a design to make sure that everything was right to make the pack successful. The other thing we wanted was a completely naturally ventilated barn. Having fans is nice, but they come at a really huge cost. They cost a lot to buy and they cost a lot to run. We wanted to make sure that we could maximize natural breeze with the design of the barn so we could not have to have fans at all.

The other goal I wanted was to be able to do all the barn work with one person in a reasonable amount of time. We had a lot of physical labor, like I said, and it just took us a long time to do simple tasks. So I really didn't want to have to be doing those physical activities when I was 50 years old. The saying ‘work smarter, not harder’ is always something I keep in the back of my mind. The pack made sense, just because it takes less time to rotor till a pack than it does that clean and re-bed stalls. You can do it with a tractor or skid loader. And right now, we're only adding sawdust to the pack about once a week.

So the cows have really thrived in this setup. We have some older cows and some really big cows that would have trouble laying in a stall, and here, they can do whatever they want. They can lay however they want without any trouble. Within a month of moving the cows in, we saw increased production and lower somatic cell. The other thing that I saw was improved foot health. The feet were drier and they were just overall cleaner and less issues with their feet.

We could see them eating more, and they're definitely more relaxed. Every cow has their own personality. It was neat to see how the attitudes in some of the cows had changed from moving them from a stall to the pack. For us, it's also easier for us to work with them. They're calmer and we have more interaction with them, it seems, than we did with the old barn.

Environmentally, the compost pack is a manure storage. We're able to store manure all year round and spread it on the field when we're able. The manure itself is fairly dry, and it's more consistent. It's a more consistent, nutrient-rich product going to the field for our crops. We've also found that we have almost no manure odor in the barn or when we spread, so it's another plus, especially for our neighbors on hot days, if we have to spread manure.

Everybody asks, "Now that you've done it, what would you have changed." Five years in, I honestly can't answer that question. A lot of planning, touring, researching went into every aspect of the building and how we wanted to work with our cows, and we put all that together into the building we have today

I would encourage anyone who is looking to expand or build, do their homework and use resources available before you start anything. It helps you decide what you want, and then you can figure out how to make it work. At the end of the day, you want to be happy and comfortable with the decision and the product you end up with.

Lastly, June is Dairy Month and we’re celebrating the dairy industry! Here’s a two-part question for you – why do you enjoy being a dairy farmer and what’s your favorite dairy product?

I like working with cows. When I was making a decision whether to build or sell, I just couldn't see my life without a cow in it. Being involved with cows and dairy has given me the opportunity to meet people and do things that I probably would've never done otherwise. So that was really important to me, and I still feel that way. I love being around my cows every day.

As far as the favorite dairy product, probably most people will say ice cream. I mean, I like ice cream just as well as anybody else, but I can always go for a good, cold glass of milk.

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