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Balancing Act: Coulter Family Farms, the Kinley Coulter Family, Honey Grove, PA

By Tamara Scully, NODPA Contributing Writer

Daughter, Jessica, bottling milk at Coulter Farms

Kinley Coulter and family milk purebred Jerseys on their certified organic dairy in Honey Grove, Pennsylvania. They don’t sell their milk to any processors, and the milk doesn’t travel off farm until it is sold to the end consumer. They are the processors for 100 percent of the milk their cows produce, marketing and distributing their products via high-end farmers’ markets on the Washington D.C. beltway in Maryland and northern Virginia. They also sell through their website, fulfilling online orders for pickup at the farm or the farmers’ markets, and also offer shipping options for most of the farm’s product line. Along with the cheeses, yogurt, kefir, butter and pasteurized milk directly from their dairy herd, they also sell their own beef.

Eliminating the middle men has given the family the freedom to capture the premium from their milk. By doing the work themselves they’ve developed economic viability which balances out milk production, their land base, and the demand for their products. This system allows the family to support multiple generations with income from the dairy. Profits from retail sales pay the bills for the equipment, infrastructure, labor and packaging needed to operate the farm.

The Coulter’s three adult sons - Jared, Jason and Jacob, and all of whom are married - are employed full-time by the dairy and take wages from farm, as is Kinley. Adult daughter Jessica works part-time on the farm, as does Rebecca, Kinley’s wife. The family’s three youngest children are school-aged. Other employees are the four to six part-timers who go to the farmers’ markets, and perform the inventory, packing and clean-up those markets require.

Unconventional Milk Math

“Processing is at least the same, or more challenging, then organic dairy milk marketing,” Kinley said. “For the first three to five years since the startup of the business, significant labor is being done that isn’t getting paid. Now, 12 years into the dairy processing, we are kind of measuring success in the sense that nobody is donating labor anymore. We are paid at market price for labor.”

While the dairy is profitable, Kinley emphasized that there is a lot of expense involved in running the processing and retail sides of the operation, in addition to the costs for the dairy farm itself. Feed, equipment, finding and developing well-paying retail markets as well as selling at those markets requires a balancing act. It is all about persistence, determination and matching the supply and the variability of the lactation curve to the demand to the infrastructure to the labor, and finding the equation that works.

It’s just not the same formula for success as when selling the bulk milk off-farm, where maximizing production typically means maximizing profits from the milk check. When processing your own milk, the premium hundredweight price of the finished product is entirely captured by the farm.

Although the price per hundredweight is inflated over what organic milk processors are going to pay to purchase the milk and haul it from the farm; the cost of equipment, electricity, time, labor and other incidentals associated with milking the herd and processing the milk have to be accounted for in the final sales price of the dairy products.

The lowest price per hundredweight that the Coulters receive for their value-added dairy products is for those products sold at a bulk discount rate, and is about $140.00/hundredweight. Smaller orders and specialty products sell at $300.00 to $400.00/ hundredweight.

The income from sales of the farm’s dairy products is high. But so are the operating costs, Kinley said. “For a hundredweight price in the hundreds, and not the forties or fifties, the volume of milk production is not as critical,” and producing the most milk isn’t the end goal.

Beginning the Dairy

Rebecca grew up on a conventional, confined Holstein dairy farm, and was not seeking to continue dairy farming in her married life. Instead, Kinley and Rebecca started a 100 percent, organic, grass-fed beef business, raising purebred Herefords and selling retail cuts of beef in farmers’ markets in the Washington D.C. area, where they were able to maximize the price they could charge for the meat, and where there were a volume of customers seeking local beef. With 14 hour days, and the cost of traveling almost three hours each way several days per week, the farm still was not profitable. With four young children at the time, the family needed to make a living income, and beef alone was not going to accomplish this.

In order to make this business model profitable, the Coulters needed to pivot their farming operation. They decided that the retail markup on organic, grass-fed raw cheeses would enable them to make the farm profitable, despite the costs they would incur to establish a processing facility on the farm, and the time and labor associated with making the cheese.

For the first five years, they purchased the milk from a neighboring farm and successfully grew the cheesemaking business, to the point that they were covering their costs and making a profit at the farmers’ markets, and the farm became sustainable. But the milk supply was anything but predictable. The dairy farmer supplying them also sold to a large, organic milk cooperative, and that coop was first in line for the milk.

Clearly, in order to continue to expand their processing success, they were going to have to consider becoming dairy farmers, something Rebecca had little interest in doing, despite knowing quite a lot about dairy cows and the science and art of dairy farming. But Kinley and their three sons, who were all teenagers at that time, wanted to become dairy farmers. “Here we were. My boys and I were kind of gung-ho,” Kinley said, so they compromised.

Promising Rebecca that she’d never have to milk a cow, they took the plunge in 2010 and purchased 20 organic Jersey calves. Since that purchase, the herd has been a closed herd. And to this day, Rebecca has held firm in her desire not to milk the cows, so she performs other farm duties and keeps the books, and shares her knowledge of cows as needed.

Growing the Dairy

The farm already had fenced pastures, complete with in-ground water lines, for the beef herd, as well as all of the equipment they needed to graze and maintain the pastures, and make hay or baleage. While starting to milk with a herd of freshening heifers was not the easiest way to begin dairy farming, “it was an avenue for us to get in,” Kinley said. “We needed the two years of raising the animals to get ready for processing and to set up our plant,” so it worked in their favor.

Coulter Farms consists of about 270 acres of land owned by the family, plus 30 rented acres for hay. The home farm has 100 acres of pasture dedicated to the milking herd, which has now grown to its maximum size of 70 head. This is the first year that they are not keeping all the heifers for replacements. It’s also the first year that they are no longer a seasonal herd.

“The farm markets shut down in the winter,” so fully seasonal spring calving matched their production needs, and worked for the farm up until now, Kinley said. They’ve somewhat reluctantly decided that the premium markets they have earned their way into demand winter sales of fluid milk, as they are in operation year-round. The plan now is to have the heifers freshen in September, while the cows will still calve in early March, enabling them to continue to have fresh bottled milk to sell year-round.

The heifers and dry cows graze on their own 53 acres of pasture, located at Jason’s nearby farm, which is also used for making hay. Jared’s farm has a bank barn with 40 acres of dual use pasture and hay ground. The land is used as needed for grazing, particularly during dry years. Another 75 acres of land for hay also has fencing and water, but due to its remote location is not often used for animal grazing.

The entire herd is winter housed in a bedded pack, two-sided 100 by 100 foot structure on the home farm. The bedded pack is made with old hay, which is “crude but very inexpensive and effective,” Kinley said, or occasionally with purchased certified organic corn fodder or straw.

As they don’t produce any row crops, and purchasing bedding is expensive, so utilizing some grass for bedding hay is normally the plan. Except in a dry year, they are able to sacrifice some grass for bedding hay. They take a first cutting of hay off of all the pastures, leaving about one-quarter of that hay until the end of July and cutting it after it is about five feet tall. They make round bales, and simply unroll these by hand onto the bedded pack. The bales are very absorbent.

“We farm too many acres and we can hardly get around to all of our acreage in the time to make dairy quality hay, so letting some of it mature for bedding makes sense,” Kinley said.

The bedded pack is cleaned out in the spring, and placed in windrows. The manure from the parlor is scrapped with a skid-steer loader and piled until it is mixed with the bedded pack each spring. After the first cutting of hay is taken, the composted material is spread onto the full 100 acres of pasture at the home farm, providing fertility to all of the fields.

The bedded pack works best with no more than 70 head. The size of the bulk tank, the milk truck they use to haul milk from the bulk tank to the processing room, and the swing 10 parlor all are suited to the 70 head herd size, which is the size at which “everything clicks,” Kinley said, and where “our milk is fully committed.” The 40 pounds of milk per cow per day isn’t going to waste, and they don’t need any more, either, as they sell everything they produce. Most importantly, their herd size is optimal for their land base. “The land base...at the end of the day...that’s the one thing that doesn’t flex,” he said.

Just Forages

The cows here have a very simple diet, no matter the season. In the winter, the milking herd receives free choice baleage, with dry hay in feeders. They do feed minerals, but no other supplements are provided. Year-round, during the once-per-day milking, the cows are tempted with a small amount of organic cane sugar, which is on-hand for the ice cream, yogurt and chocolate milk produced by the dairy. This treat makes them more tolerable of being packed in a bit tightly, ten per side, in the parlor.

The cows are fed on an outdoor concrete slab when housed in the bedded pack. They are also given pasture access when the ground is frozen, with hay spread on pasture to feed the herd when possible throughout the non-grazing season.

Jason is the herdsman, and is responsible for grazing and forage management. The milking herd is given fresh breaks daily, and each paddock is grazed for two to three days, depending on season and forage quality and quantity. The heifer and dry cows - located off of the home farm - are divided into two or three groups, which are rotated to new pastures every three to seven days. At times they clip pastures, and have done so in front of and behind the cows. It all depends on the availability of the grass.

Grazing season begins a bit later and ends a bit sooner than can be typical in other local grazing operations, commencing in the beginning of May and typically ending in mid-October, and no later than the first of November. While they could graze into November some seasons, they opt not to stress the pastures with cow grazing, as the deer will graze them severely enough in the fall. The permanent perimeter fencing - with each pasture being ten to fifteen acres - isn’t a deterrent to the deer, nor is the temporary 3-wire high tensile fencing dividing pastures into two acre paddocks.

The challenge each fall is to retire the pasture with grass enough to feed those deer without damaging regrowth in spring. While Kinley knows they are losing milk production by not capturing the grass for their cows, they have very high deer pressure, as the pastures are all surrounded by woods. Despite their push to increase the amount of hunting being done on the land, the deer have to be factored into the fall grazing equation.

Spring grazing doesn’t begin until the grass is a full, healthy stand, and tall - at least ten inches. While they’d like to extend the season and always hope to get cows on grass by April 15th, the reality is that most of the time it does not happen.

Pastures are primarily orchard grass, although they are seeded about every six years with a 30 species grazing mix, and all are dual use for grazing and hay. Each year, however, only one-half are taken for a first cutting of hay, after which no more grass is taken for feed. They wrap 700 four by five foot bales for baleage, and make roughly 700 dry square bales from that first cutting.

The goal is to have 50 percent legumes in the pastures, but they aren’t there yet. “We admire people who have a nicer mix of legumes,” Kinley said.

Pasture renovation occurs in the fall, after they do a hard graze. They then will feed the herd on frozen ground, rotating the feeders. In the spring, they will plant sorghum or another summer annual, then seed the pasture back to grass in the fall.

Pasture make-up isn’t only about forage quantity. A primary goal is to not have any off-flavors in the milk. Previous trials with forage turnips and radish resulted in lush pastures, but the milk smelled like turnips and could not be utilized. And the calves wouldn’t drink it, either.

Breeding and Calf Care

All breeding is done with bulls. They use two bulls with the milking herd, and one with the heifers. They select for fertility, milk production, and body condition. They are impressed with the Jersey’s ease of calving, and 95 percent of the births are unassisted.

“These are animals that are not just surviving, but which are thriving in our system,” Kinley said.

If they have a few heifers that for whatever reason won’t fit the bill, they will sell them, primarily to homesteaders seeking a family cow. “Our cows are well-suited to that,” Kinley said.

Calves are raised on whole raw milk, basically on a free choice basis. Milk is fed using a 12 nipple milk parlor feeder. Calves are given some dry hay and minerals for the first 90 days. Individual calf pens, located on the bedded pack, are used for the first 30 days. The next 30 days are spent in group pens on the bedded pack, before being turned out on spring pastures. Because they have been a seasonal herd until 2023, this will be the first year with heifers freshening in September, so calves will remain in pens on the bedded pack for 90 days until weaned.

Health

They don’t routinely vaccinate calves, or the herd. Each year, they do tend to lose, on average, one calf for failure to thrive, due to some unknown reason. Their vet suggested they start feeding calves pasteurized, rather than raw, milk, but they are not going to implement that as it is one calf out of 20 born each year, and does not justify the added time and labor, and they are not really sure pasteurization is a solution.

There aren’t any serious health concerns in the herd. They don’t frequently use a veterinarian, with visits about once per year for non-routine occurrences. They do their own pregnancy bloodwork on the farm. They try to prevent health concerns, rather than treat them, Kinley said.

Udder Comfort is used for mastitis prevention, and they will milk cows with a problem quarter dried off if need be. They have experienced milk fever after almost every fourth lactation, so they routinely provide intravenous calcium or CMPK preventatively now, to decrease the rate of occurrence.

Culling is typically for behavioral problems, or if mastitis is recurrent. They’ll cull if the cow is struggling to be well-mannered in the parlor. Four or five cows are culled each year. Having just reached maximum herd size, they haven’t yet determined how they will move forward with culling decisions. Their oldest cows are now about ten years old, having been with the herd since its inception.

“We’re not at the point where we have a cow that we’ve decided was too old yet,” Kinley said.

Marketing

When the grass isn’t growing, the herd has - up until this year - gone dry. During the winter months, processing stopped, and sales were from what remained in storage. When the herd freshened in the spring, the family began making fresh product.

Their aged cheeses - roughly 80 percent of the farm’s cheese production - are made from raw milk, while the fresh cheeses, yogurt, kefir, ice cream and butter are made from pasteurized milk. They bottle whole milk, including chocolate flavored. They use two vat pasteurizers, having a 100-gallon and a 200-gallon model, both of which are fired from wood felled from the woods surrounding their pastures.

It’s all about balancing the milk supply with the demand for their various products.

“Cheese holds for months, so it’s a tool,” for keeping sales going even when milk production is low. But even that has its limits, as “you can only stuff so much cheese in the caves,” Kinley said. So they churn butter, their “flex” product, which allows them to concentrate and store excess milk, as it can be keep in the freezer indefinitely.

The processing and marketing involves two-thirds of the manpower of the entire dairy operation. Milking, feeding and field work - evenly divided - make up the other one-third of the labor needs on the farm.

Since starting with organic, grass-fed beef, the Coulters have learned the most directly from other farmers. Graze magazine was a primary source of much of their grazing knowledge. The Lancaster County Grazers group was another. “We learned a tremendous amount from their conferences,” Kinley said.

The Coulter’s dairy grazing system is a low maintenance one. The family is focused on finding a “way to make it work without a lot of time and money,” Kinley said. “Keep it simple.”

The Coulter Family can be found at Coulter Farms, 964 Price Road, Hay Grove, PA 17035, and reached at Info@CoulterFarms.net. Their website is: www.coulterfarms.net