Bringing Milk to a Glass Near You

Kerry Nobis, a fourth generation dairy farmer, opens up about his farm in a raw, moving interview with MSU Extension director Jeff Dwyer. Discover the research, relationships and people making a difference on his farm.

March 4, 2019

Two calves in barn

1.3 billion gallons of milk.

Dropping milk prices.

Research and relationships.

How one Michigan dairy farmer and MSU work together to make a difference.

nobis-cullens-dwyer-podcast

Dairy farmer Kerry Nobis (left), MSU Extension dairy educator Faith Cullens (center), and MSU Extension director Jeff Dwyer (right)

Bringing Milk to a Glass Near You Transcript

Jeff Dwyer: Did you know that Michigan has nearly a half a million cows? In 2017, Michigan farmers produced more than 1.3 billion gallons of milk, the fifth highest of any U.S. state. That means, when we're at our local grocery store and drive our cart over to the dairy aisle, we can pick up milk, cheese, and yogurt all made with Michigan milk. But dairy farming is not easy, and the farm gate price for milk, the farmer's share, has dropped dramatically over the last few years, causing some farmers to leave the profession. In the last 13 months, we've seen a nearly 10% loss in dairy farms in the state of Michigan.

            I'm Jeff Dwyer, and I have the privilege of being the director of Michigan State University Extension. My guest on Partnerships and Peninsulas today is Kerry Nobis, a fourth-generation Michigan dairy farmer. Welcome, Kerry.

 

Kerry Nobis: Thank you, Jeff.

 

Dwyer: Tell us a little bit about your farm.

 

Nobis: It's a dairy farm. We have about 1,000 cows, 2,800 acres, I think, as of now. That changes every year, so that's not a static number. We have a lot of employees obviously. Milking cows is a 24/7 venture, and it takes a number of people to get that done. I think we have 24 full-time people right at this point.

 

Dwyer: Wow.

 

Nobis: 22 or 24, I don't remember, and then we have nine part-time right now.

 

Dwyer: Wow.

 

Nobis: That number fluctuates also.

 

Dwyer: How many family members are directly involved in the operation?

 

Nobis: My dad and my uncle own the farm, and then I work for them, so as far as the Nobis family, that's all that's involved, but then we employ families as well, which is pretty neat.

 

Dwyer: I know you're a fourth-generation farm. Have you had multiple generations among your employees?

 

Nobis: We have one guy who has been with us since I was a teenager. I'm 48 years old, by the way. His son works for us full-time now, has for several years.

 

Dwyer: Oh, that's fantastic.

 

Nobis: I guess we do have two ... Yeah, that's genuine.

 

Dwyer: That's fantastic.

 

Nobis: I would call that two generations.

 

Dwyer: Let me acknowledge what you know, which is I only came to MSU Extension three years ago, and I did not come from an agricultural background, so I have learned a lot about dairy and dairy farms from your dad and from other people over the last three years. Let's talk a little bit about the operation of a dairy farm. Just even the number of employees you have, I'll bet that surprises a lot of people, that not everyone may realize it's not just a farm. It's a big business.

 

Nobis: Yeah, it's a big business that runs 24/7, like I said, and it's not like any other business. I mean I'm sure there are some that are similar, but you can't shut it down. Cows have to give milk, and you have to keep it rolling or else things are going to go off the rails pretty drastically.

 

Dwyer: You have roughly 1,000 dairy cows, so how many times a day do you milk?

 

Nobis: Three times a day. 

 

Dwyer: When I came to Extension, I thought you only did it twice, which I thought the cow was the limiting factor, but then I learned that it was having the people to be there 24 hours was the factor.

 

Nobis: Yes, and a lot of people have gone ... I don't know about a lot, but several people have gone to two times a day milking now with there being less money to work with and pay people and labor being an issue. Two-X milking, I think, is probably more common than it was 10 years ago, but it's never been uncommon. It's a normal way to do things, as is three times a day. We've even experimented. We milked certain groups four times a day for several years.

 

Dwyer: Wow.

 

Nobis: That's a long time ago now.

 

Dwyer: Right, right. That's fascinating. I mentioned in the opening that commodity prices have impacted the dairy industry in a big way in recent years. Maybe explain a little bit to our listeners about sort of what that's like. I think you get paid by the hundredweight, is that correct?

 

Nobis: That's correct.

 

Dwyer: What's the real cost of that and what, over time, are you getting paid for that hundredweight?

 

Nobis: Very simply put, it's hard to make enough money right now to keep the farm going. There have been many months where we are spending money that we don't have to keep the farm moving because of cash flow restrictions. Dairy farming is very much a cash flow business. It's money in, money out. There isn’t a lot of long-view thinking, for better or for worse. There probably should be more, and we might be experiencing some problems because a lot of people haven't had a real long-view approach to it. It's very of-the-moment, and if you don't have the money in the moment, you have a problem.

 

Dwyer: It's a very good point. At Michigan State University and, certainly, at MSU Extension, we've had the opportunity to work with the Nobis Dairy in a variety of different ways over several decades and, frankly, I think we've asked you to do a lot over time. Our scientists have used your cows in reproduction trials, testing milk quality, conducting studies to learn more about things like various bovine diseases. Why have you, over many decades as a family, as a farm, as a business, been open to those kinds of interactions? What do you get out of it?

 

Nobis: It keeps me in the business. It's interesting. Theoretically, maybe it gives us a little bit of an edge because we can use some of this developing technology and developing techniques as they are developed. From my perspective, I have the opportunity to work with Michigan State University researchers and with the parade of grad students, and intern people, and all sorts of people who have been out there from all over the world, and that has been a huge opportunity for me. I have greatly appreciated our relationship with Michigan State. It's taught me a great deal about dairy farming that I don't know that I would have otherwise learned. With dairy farming, it's such a huge thing. There's so many plates you have to keep spinning, if I can use a cliché ...

 

Dwyer: Sure.

 

Nobis: that it can be hard to drill down and focus in certain areas where you probably should. Especially in a time like this when there's not enough money to have staff to have people who are dedicated to maybe certain areas I have to be covering and my managers have to be covering more area than we normally would, and having the people on the farm. For example, Richard Pursley at Michigan State has done a lot of reproduction work on our farm, and working with his people that he's had out there, I've learned a lot more about reproduction than I previously knew. That has saved us money. It's made us money independent of the fact that, a lot of their trials, they're using free product, and we're getting some very, very inexpensive or if not free labor out of the deal.

 

Dwyer: That's terrific. That, obviously, saved you on the labor side which, as you pointed out, is increasingly important in this day and age.

 

Nobis: Absolutely, yeah.

 

Dwyer: That's a good segue into, I think, very recently, we've been involved in a couple of projects with you and your calf crew. First, for people like me who don't know, what is a calf crew?

 

Nobis: On a farm like ours, we raise our own replacements, which means our cows have calves. If the calves are girls, we keep them, and we raise them to become productive cows giving milk for us someday. A calf crew are the people who are in charge of taking the calf as it's born, after it's born, and then raising it until it's probably three, four months old at least, and then it goes into the production chain, but it's under their care for like the first three, four months.

 

Dwyer: Okay, and so in this work that we've done together more recently, what has been the focus of that work?

 

Nobis: We've known for a long time that feeding colostrum in a timely fashion after a calf is born will have a lasting effect into that animal's adulthood. It will make her grow bigger, stronger. She should have less health issues and will probably give more milk and may very well reproduce better as well. These are big number studies. We know this. We know this is true. Faith Cullens from Michigan State University Extension, she is doing a study that is playing around with maybe feeding that transition, the colostrum milk, in a more extended period to see what kind of an effect that may have.

 

Dwyer: Very good.

 

Nobis: That is another great example of what I'm talking about, what we get out of our relationship with MSU, because she got me involved, more involved with the calf operation than I had been because I don't have time to do it a lot, quite often, and some of these things go by the wayside. Just like anything else, there are a million things that you need to be tracking and watching, and I was losing sight of a lot of it, so we had to be dialed back in on that stuff before she could do a good study.

 

Dwyer: That's a great example. I guess I would just say that I think you've now given two or three examples of really how necessary it is for us to have this symbiotic relationship between a big dairy farm like yours, which is also a big business, and a land grant university that has an extension component, has a research component, because you've acknowledged you're learning in this process with Faith and in other projects. We can't learn to disseminate to other dairy farms if we don't have the opportunity to work with you in the first place, and I think that becomes a very important example.

            Let me ask about, perhaps, another example. Recently, one of our educators conducted a training on your farm focused on helping to improve milk quality through better milking procedures. What was that all about?

 

Nobis: When you milk a cow, there's a procedure you go through to clean the teats and to get them prepared to give milk. Then, when that's done, you have to also then clean them up and send them out ready to be out in the environment and not get an infection because that teat canal is, as you would expect, it's like in any mammal. It's a sphincter muscle. It has to be protected. What the MSU Extension did was come in. It is not uncommon to have organizations that will train your milkers how to milk cows. That's a common thing in the dairy industry. A lot of people offer to do it. Several organizations will offer to come in and evaluate how you're doing and maybe teach a class here or there to your employees.

            People that milk cows, typically, are not classroom learners. What MSU Extension did this time was spent a couple hours in the parlor with them, in the milking parlor milking cows with my employees. That's not something they typically do, anyone that's training milkers. I think we're seeing more of an impact just based on that. You don't go to school to be a cow milker, so these people who work for me aren't typically, with some exceptions, are not classroom learners. They're doers. They're workers. They want to go in. They want to work. If you can go in and work alongside them, they're going to learn much better in that atmosphere than they are by sitting in a chair and you talking at them. It worked really well. I am much more satisfied with what we did here than I have been with other training sessions we've done with our milkers over the years.

 

Dwyer: Well, that's fantastic and, I think, another great example of the range of things that we can do together.

 

Nobis: I should mention that we might be setting up an emperor-has-no-clothes situation, though, in our work with Michigan State. I think they make me look a lot smarter than I actually am. Because they're doing a lot of these things, it makes it look like I'm doing a better job than I am, so, to be fair, I think we should say that out loud.

 

Dwyer: Well, thank you for saying that, but I suspect you're not quite on target with that, but I do want to go back to, Kerry, I think that just the willingness of you, your family over many decades to be open to this relationship with us, I mean I appreciate immensely your acknowledgement that it's helped your farm, but I think we could say that your openness and the research that's been done there has helped probably hundreds of farms over time and thousands of family farmers because of what's been learned on your farm. I think that's a really important aspect to what we do together, and it's enormously appreciated.

            We've mentioned a couple of times commodity prices are low. It's a difficult cash flow situation for dairy farms these days. What would you like people to know about dairy farms and about the role that dairy farms play and co-ops play? Maybe let me say for people something you and I were talking about before we sat down here to do this podcast. You're part of a co-op called the Michigan Milk Producers Association, well more than 1,000 family farms all over Michigan and, I think, northern Indiana and Illinois as well.

            That's not only important for what a co-op does in terms of finding sales opportunities and marketing the product and all of that, but MMPA and the individual family farmers make major contributions. We talked about Flint and how MMPA, over the course of the last three years, has given well over 100,000 gallons of milk to families in Flint. I happen to know that that happens on a very regular basis. What would you like residents of the state of Michigan to know about the dairy industry in Michigan and farm families in dairy in particular?

 

Nobis: I have very little patience for people who call themselves agvocates. I know you know what I'm talking about, the people who you see on Twitter, you see them all over the place, who are out there speaking on behalf of agriculture, and the picture is always sunny. Their heart is in the right place, and many of them whom I know are wonderful people. Most of them are farmers themselves, they know what they're talking about, but I like to be honest with people. When I bring people on our farm who haven't been on a farm before, I show them the bad stuff too because people aren't stupid, but if you give them the whole picture, they understand the whole picture.

            I want them to know that it's a real business. There are a lot of difficult things. There are a lot of great things. When I see people on Twitter talking about how great the lifestyle and everything is, I think the lifestyle kind of stinks personally. It's hard. Dairy farming's hard. I backed into it. If I was a smarter guy, I wouldn't be doing it. It's not all sunshine. It's difficult, and there's a stoicism involved, I think, that we all take a lot of pride in. It's a tough question for me.

 

Dwyer: Right, right. Well, I think that maybe something we could just share with our listeners is it's important to support dairy in Michigan. I know one of the things that is done on a regular basis is trying to find new products and new ways to use the product and that sort of thing. I think one of the things that we can continue to remind people is that milk is an important part of a nutrition profile for any family, and we can find that benefit in lots of different ways and, in doing that, support Michigan farm families.

            I think your point is very well taken, too, about it's not always like the picture we see on the ads and that it is difficult. I mean, in my job, I have the opportunity to drive all over this state. You don't have to drive very far, in the last few weeks, to see farmers out there at midnight with their lights on cultivating a field, or harvesting a field, or see the barn lights on at a dairy barn at 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning because you know people are working there. I think that's important for people to think about and remember.

            Something that we're certainly very aware of in Michigan State Extension, and I know that you are aware of as well, farm families sometimes have experiences and difficulties like all families. We're glad that we've been able to work with those in agriculture and those in dairy, specifically, to bring some of our programming around health, and nutrition, and even mindfulness, and some of the financial things we do for families who are dealing with farm succession issues and things like that.

            I think that what I like about you really saying, "Look, sometimes it sucks," is that sometimes, for all of us, it sucks too and that we need to remember that this isn't just a family that's in agriculture running a big business, but it's a family that also deals with things that all families deal with. We need to remember that. I think we're so proud at MSU Extension and at Michigan State University to have the opportunity to work with people like you and families like yours over many decades, and we really appreciate all that you do.

 

Nobis: It's a two-way street. We get an awful lot out of it as well. Like I started to say before, I get uncomfortable when I get thanked for this. Between my employees and all the people from around the world who I've gotten to meet through MSU and work with, it has opened my eyes and has opened my world up.

            Being on a dairy farm is pretty isolated. You don't leave a lot. There's a lot of responsibility, and you don't always have a lot of time to get out of there and see the world, especially if you're like me. I've been doing it since I was in my mid-20s, and so I've missed some opportunities, I think, for that sort of thing. Through MSU and through my employees, I've gotten to see that there's a bigger world out there. I'd like to think that I was smart enough and I read enough that I already knew that, but it's given me people to put in those places that I already read about, that I already knew about. That has been a very rewarding experience for me.

            It really is probably my employees that keep me doing it. I think I probably would have backed out by now. A lot of our employees are Latino. When I say that we have families working for us, we have one big Latino family that is involved. They don't represent every person of the Latino persuasion who works for us, but that's a number of people, and they've welcomed me and my family into their family. My kids have gotten to see another culture.

 

Dwyer: That's terrific.

 

Nobis: They've gotten to see stuff that other kids don't get to see. It's been probably one of the best experiences of my life, one of the best opportunities I have had. Yeah, you talk about what I want people to see on the farm, I want them to see and I want them to know about those people, those Latino people who are there because they're on every farm, and they're not having a great time right now. We need to understand they're part of the community. These are not transitional people. They're part of our community, and they're the best people who I have had the opportunity to work with, and it keeps me up.

            The thing that really keeps me up is worrying about my employees and the fact that we have some real issues that we have got to address in our country regarding immigration, regarding, specifically, Latino people and the Latino workforce. It really is the most important thing that's happened to me through dairy farming, to me personally.

 

Dwyer: Yeah. Thank you for sharing that. That's, I think, really important for our listeners to hear.

            This is Partnerships and Peninsulas. My name is Jeff Dwyer. I have the privilege of being the director of Michigan State University Extension. My guest today has been Kerry Nobis. Thank you, Kerry, very much for joining us today.

 

Nobis: It's my pleasure, any time.

Michigan State University Extension


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