Bohnert-2018

I like to think that if I was older and wiser, answers would surface and the decisions I need to make would become more obvious.

Karen Bohnert

We are at a crossroads here at Bohnert Jerseys. My guess is that many of you are, too. My husband and I have felt as if the weight of the world sits on our shoulders. Quite honestly, the days are so busy, intertwining with the next, that we do not even have time to sit down and grasp our options.

It is like we are sitting at the intersection with cars behind us honking their horns, impatiently waiting, as we decide which way to turn onto a busy, fast-paced highway. Oncoming traffic is coming at rapid speed, the horns continue to blare, and we must decide which way we are going to turn.

Our farm began with a few bucket cows that triggered my husband and his brother’s 4-H project and outlined their future as dairymen. Our farm grew quickly from hobby to business thanks to our family’s willingness to incorporate efficient, progressive tools into our dairy.

By 1989, our herd had grown to 10 head, the cows were milked in a flat, four-stall barn built by family, and the young Bohnert brothers began shipping milk. A year later, we added a pipeline and constructed a 40-cow freestall barn, a facility we thought we would never outgrow.

But, by 1993, with the freestalls nearly full, our family made the decision to build a milking parlor with six stalls. Two years later, they added 60 stalls to the barn. By 2000, we were milking 100 cows and four years later, we retrofitted our parlor to milk 24 cows at one time.

In 2006, we invested in a 250-cow freestall barn and a 3 million gallon concrete manure storage. In 2013, we added another 250-cow freestall barn.

We have expanded and updated our farm since its inception, here and there, through luck and through planning. But, we have come to a crossroads on what needs to be done next.

Our facilities need some TLC (tender loving care). We need a transition barn, a heifer barn, and a new parlor. All of those come with a hefty price tag. I’m always telling my kids, when it comes to budgeting, let’s decipher a want versus a need. Honestly though, all the items above are needs more than wants.

And, by no means are we going to do all of this at once — at least not now. But, we are at a crossroads and have to think in the long term. We are bursting at the seams with animals, which is a good problem, except the market for cattle is soft. Regardless, if we sell heifers or not, our facilities are outdated, and it is time to update.

So many questions still need to be addressed — from cash flow, to secure milk supply market, to labor — and so much more. Scott and I are both turning 42 later this year. Our children are 14, 12, and 8 years old.

People ask us if our kids want to come back to the farm. This is such a hard question to answer as they are still young, and also because of the uncertainty of our industry. But, our kids show interest, and the oldest talks about working here after high school. However, he is a freshman and a lot can happen in four years.

Then again, we cannot wait four years to make changes. We feel as if we are at a pivotal point in our family business. Should we continue forward and grow to add the opportunity for the next generation, or should we stand still?

Crunching numbers is extremely difficult because it is hard to know what milk price to benchmark. Our cattle inventory rises, while their net worth declines. Meanwhile, facilities age. Sadly, new updates are six-digit figures and that is hard to digest, let alone budget, with a $14 per hundredweight milk price.

My guess is many of you are in the same boat as us. Perhaps, you are having conversations of expanding or transitioning or diversifying. Maybe, you’ve talked about calling it quits. Know that you are not alone.

I encourage you all to communicate. Do your homework — talk to key stakeholders (owners, milk supplier, lenders, and so forth). I believe there is merit in having a nonbiased, third party, industry expert come talk with stakeholders. Use both your head and your heart. Ask the tough questions. Pencil out ideas. Talk about worse case scenarios. Talk about your dreams. And, ultimately, pray for better days.

I’m a firm believer that with risk comes rewards. The question is what kind of risk are we willing to take to launch us forward to the next chapter. We won’t know the answer until we begin the conversations. Open up the dialogue and start talking today.

I’m often reminded of this Mark Twain quote: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Around the Kitchen Table is a regular column in Hoard's Dairyman. The author and her husband work in partnership with family on a 500-cow dairy in East Moline, Ill.