Michigan’s dairy industry is one of the strongest in the country. Fighting through the pandemic, local farms play major roles in their communities.
MANCHESTER, Mich.—Birds chirp away on a muggy Michigan morning, circling the skies over an armada of corn and wheat stalks that stretch for acres. The countless fluttering creatures are happy; they have some time to relax before an arduous migration that looms shortly ahead, as Michigan’s summer comes to a close.
Far below them, the cows mope and moo. Unlike the birds and people of Michigan, they’re ready for cooler temperatures, in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, that more suit their natural habitat.
Fortunately here, at Horning Farms, the cows have ample shade, and what feels like the best AC system known to man. A large, tin-roofed barn houses more than 400 hulking dairy cows, and the large fan in the entryways booms with unrelenting purpose as it sends the feels-like temperature plummeting.
An 18-wheel truck honks and pulls away in the distance, signaling that the daily milk pickup is completed. Next stop: Livonia, for processing and packaging.
Other farmhands—which include 10 part-time and nine full-time employees, including family—toil away on tractors in the distance.
“When it’s been 90 [degrees] all week, they are not super happy,” Katelyn Packard, a part of the family and full-time farm employee, says about the cows, but probably the people too.
Packard is the cows’ best friend and go-to helper, in many ways. She’s the one who checks up on how they’re doing, scrolling through a database of health information compiled by cow-equivalent Fitbits, and on this particular morning, she’s keeping an eye out for any “bully cows” who budge others out of the way and try to hog the food.
Packard and her Horning family members are the safekeepers of the farm, which has been in the same place in Manchester, Michigan, since 1877. Her great-great-great-grandfather began the business as a general purpose farm when he founded it, and as the family grew, so did the farm.
In 1967, her grandfather built the old milking parlor, and in 1993, her dad added to that. Now Packard, 28, and her husband, who she met at Michigan State while studying agriculture, are part of a six-generation legacy that’s well-known in the area.
“It’s a family operation, three generations of the business. And we’re all here every day, working together,” Packard said.
Even with its storied reputation in the area, Horning Farms’ story is really one of many. Michigan is home to almost 1,200 dairy farms in the state, and it’s one of the biggest dairy producers in the nation. In 2020, Michigan pumped out the sixth-most milk in the country.
The success of dairy farms in the state hasn’t dried out their proud origins; 97% are still family-owned. Horning Farms isn’t even the oldest one in Washtenaw County, not by about 40 years.
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Dumping or Donating?
As with every other business, dairy farms felt the financial sting of the last year and a half.
“When it comes to producing a commodity like milk, we’re really dependent on the global market,” Packard said. “So a change halfway around the world can make a difference in how much we’re getting paid on our farm.”
During the pandemic, demand tanked, and when it didn’t, it fluctuated greatly, making markets volatile and unpredictable. As restaurants and bulk processors reduced their intake, the cows, of course, kept on producing. Around the country, milk producers had to dump their milk.
“They didn’t care that a global pandemic was going on,” Packard said.
Yet, Michigan milk prices have remained steady for the last few months, and Packard said that Michigan dairy farms she knows have remained pretty stable and insulated from the worst volatility.
In fact, average milk prices in Detroit are about 50 cents lower than the average in other comparable markets across the country. And overall, farms have stayed in business, though there are notable exceptions.
That’s for several reasons. First, dairy is meant for Michigan, both in terms of economics and weather.
“We have a really great climate,” said Jolene Griffin, director of industry relations for the United Dairy Industry of Michigan.
Many farms belong to co-ops that carefully coordinate logistics, such as the Michigan Milk Producers Association, for which Packard’s husband works. These co-ops maintain tight connections in Lansing, too, and state politicians and government are closely tied to dairy. In difficult times, they’ve worked hard to make sure farms remain in business and solvent.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, requesting immediate, expedited payments to dairy farmers to support them during the pandemic.
“This much needed action would go a long way in alleviating the financial strain facing our hardworking dairy families and in preventing the further loss of dairy farms in states like Michigan,” Whitmer wrote in her letter.
Michigan’s dairy programs have been so successful, they’re actually a model of national imitation.
During the Flint water crisis, the Michigan Milk Producers Association donated dairy to food banks in eastern Michigan. In return, the state offered reimbursement for related expenses. As of late August, that model has been taken up nationally, an initiative led by Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow.
“It will be easier for dairy farmers to donate milk and other dairy products, which in turn helps feed vulnerable Americans, including our children,” Stabenow said.
The program is a win-win. Milk producers have additional homes for their products and surplus, so they can reduce waste and capitalize on production. Meanwhile, they’re also helping the ever-present crisis of hunger in America.
Nationally, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture rolls out the program, those in the space say Michigan farms will continue to lead by example. The program will provide even more opportunities for Michigan dairy farmers.
“Michigan’s agricultural community, especially the state’s dairy farmers, have come alongside of us throughout the pandemic,” said Phil Knight, executive director of the Food Bank Council of Michigan. “Their partnership means fresh, nutritious food and milk for families, children and seniors.”
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A Last Look Around the Farm
It’s heart-wrenching to imagine gallons of milk being dumped out on these Michigan family farms, especially after seeing all the work and effort that goes into every eventual sip.
Michigan milk farms are not the same rustic, quaint, folksy businesses that they’re painted to be in children’s cartoons. The charm’s still there, make no mistake, but the business of dairy and agriculture—the oldest economic engine—is a technologically rich sector of precision and savvy.
Horning Farms grows most of its own food. And the cows all receive a special diet tailored to what their cow “Fitbits” feed back into the system.
“It’s just like a recipe that you make at home, but instead of a cup of this and a teaspoon of that, it’s 5,000 pounds of this and 2,000 pounds of that,” Packard said.
The farm also recycles its water, with the pipes tracking along storage to simultaneously keep the milk cold and bring down cooling costs. That water is used every day to clean the cows’ stalls, before being washed out to irrigate and fertilize the crops, which are then used to feed the cows. All in all, the food chain is a cyclical one, and the property sustains itself for the most part.
For the few and fortunate cows that get to be on campus, Horning Farms resembles an exclusive, storied boarding school of dairy. The pupils are on a routine more exact than a 9-to-5, and everything from health to milk production is monitored in real time.
The young have their own space. Hours after they’re born, cows are up and about, mooing and slobbering over anything they can rest their lips on. After they mature a few weeks, the Hornings introduce them to their coevals, other cows their own age who they will get to know and stay together as a class. Together, the calves learn to socialize and interact with one another before they grow to maturity and make their way to the big barn.
“We will actually keep the group all together like a grade in school,” Packard said.
The cows are separated into different quarters in the main barn. The older cows are kept in one, and they’re only fed once a day. Others with special dietary needs are kept in another. The ones who have recently calved also receive special attention.
You even have troublemakers. Those are the mixed-breed Jersey cows, Packard said, which are distinctive from the regular black-and-white spotted Holstein milking cows because they instead have a sheek brown coat. Jersey cows are Packard’s favorite, she says, though they get on her brother’s nerves.
“My brother doesn’t like them, because they’re the ones that cause problems that somehow get the gate unhooked,” she said.
Every day, the cows have a schedule that they’re acutely aware of. At 4 a.m. and 4 p.m., they’re milked. Within days, cows learn how to line up and walk into the stalls themselves, without human guidance. These are the animals’ favorite times of day. If one is last in line or a little late, it’ll moo and make a fuss of its anticipation.
“She’s waiting at the gate like, ‘You forgot me. Let’s go,’” Packard said. “So they know and they’re very happy to be milked.”
At 81 years old, grandpa Horning still makes his way down to the farm. But usually, he’s not the one waking up at 3 a.m. to do the milking an hour later.
Packard teases that at his age, he only takes on the tasks he likes. Though given how long he’s been there, no one minds. After all, he built the milking area.
The one taking that—undesirable, to most—early-bird shift is the family’s church pastor. Embedded in the family business, he’s there on Mondays as a part-timer, milking the cows.
“My favorite part is that it really is a family business,” Packard said. “That comes with its challenges too, working with family, but I do really like the legacy that our family has and getting to work with my family every day in this business.”
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