ANNVILLE, Pa. — When Christian Gingrich decided to start milking cows a little more than two years ago, he knew he was taking a risk.
Milk prices were low and many dairy farmers, still reeling from past dairy price collapses, decided to get out.
“The price for milk was around $16 per hundredweight, so it was a bad time to come in,” he said.
But as the saying goes, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” Gingrich saw an opportunity.
“We started out at a terrific time for buying cows. The cost of livestock was down, interest rates were down, builders were slow,” he said.
Two years later, Gingrich and his wife, Korin, and their three children, Jacob, Katie and Emerson, are enjoying the fruits of a booming dairy market. But that doesn’t mean that he’s lost sight of what’s made him successful.
“For me, my focus is to maximize what I have and not try to get bigger and lose the efficiency,” he said.
Gingrich’s 60-cow dairy is located on the outskirts of Annville. He farms a total of 200 acres, 60 of which he owns.
The current dairy operation is a newbie; the Gingrichs only officially started milking in 2012.
The farm has been in Christian Gingrich’s family, though, a lot longer. His father, Aldus, is the first generation on the farm. Aldus Gingrich farmed the land for many years while keeping a full-time job as an elementary teacher in Palmyra. He raised some steers and hogs, he said, to feed his family.
“My kids didn’t grow up on Hamburger Helper. They had steaks and a big garden,” Aldus Gingrich said. He helped raise four kids on the farm: Randy, Anne, Christian and Rebekkah.
It was Christian who showed the most interest in making farming his livelihood.
“I think I took the farm to a new level after high school,” Christian Gingrich said. “We raised a lot of heifers, farmed a little more ground than my dad did, and I was also working away.”
For 16 years, Christian Gingrich worked in the flour mill business. He got married in 2000 and he and his wife, Korin, had their first child, Jacob, in 2002. Working off-farm while still trying to run a farm became stressful for Christian Gingrich.
“The continued pressure of being two places at once and really sacrificing my family life to do so, my wife and I we really wanted to come up with a way to make a living farming, but still allow her to be a stay-at-home mother and school teacher,” he said.
Christian Gingrich worked for a dairy farm soon after graduating high school, so he had some experience in the business. In 2011, he and his wife made the decision to start a dairy farm, even as milk prices were beginning to tank. With cows prices on the decline, interest rates and historic lows and construction companies struggling to find work, he sought it as the perfect time to build a brand new tie stall barn and start a dairy. The barn was built in December 2011.
He bought two small herds from two different retiring Plain Sect farmers from Lancaster County; a total of 44 animals. He also had 30 replacement heifers on hand from when he was raising heifers.
The first year was a struggle. Christian Gingrich said he didn’t want to borrow money to buy another 20 cows when he already had ownership of that many coming up, so he took his time filling up the barn as the heifers gradually freshened.
“It was time to do or die, and in we went,” he said on the decision to start the dairy.
Along with a low milk price, he struggled managing the herd that first year, especially when it came to prefresh and postfresh cow rations and diet.
“I never would’ve realized that if the prefresh care and postfresh care isn’t correct, when those fresh cows go backwards, it’s bad news,” he said, adding that he ended up losing cows that first year because of it. He realized his dry-cow program was not working.
While he worked on getting the barn filled up, Christian Gingrich made some changes. He utilized two separate nutritionists, one for the milking cow group and one for his dry cows, as a way to prevent any sort of production issues.
“What I’ve learned the most is the devil is in the details. You have to have your mind set to that standard all of the time,” he said.
He built the barn, he said, with the intention of running a small, efficient herd. He does this by utilizing an aggressive breeding program to maximize his milk production.
“The cows get first service in 55 days. All cows are bred on timed AI,” he said. Cows are checked every 28 days to see if they are “open.” If they are open, they are quickly put back on a shots program.
“I try hard to keep days in milk at under 175, and that’s where your production is,” he said. “Most times during the year we try to stay at 90 pounds of milk across the board. Even right now in the heat, we’ve been able to stay above 85, and that’s my intention.”
Cows are always kept in the tie stall barn, with dry cows out on pasture. The herd is fed a standard diet of corn silage and haylage, with supplement mixed in. Gingrich said he’s able to grow all of his forages and a significant portion of his grains. Heifers are raised off-site.
The farm’s rolling herd average is 27,000, with a somatic cell count of 120,000, down from 155,000 in June. Milk is marketed to Dairy Farmers of America.
Gingrich said keeping his cows indoors enables him to keep a closer eye on the herd and quickly take care of any problems. He has complete control of ventilation and feed.
“Maximizing production is really the bottom line for me. The milk going into the tank is what matters,” he said. “I don’t ever want to jeopardize the well-being of my cows. They are my biggest investment, so we’re very detail oriented.”
Unlike the $16 per hundredweight he was getting when he first started, his latest milk check came in at around $25.73 per hundredweight, with the highest price in April at $27.10.
Along with his wife and children, all of whom help out to a certain degree on the farm, Gingrich also has a hired hand, 19-year-old Luke Keister. Gingrich said he applied to a be a 2014 Dairy of Distinction as a result of Keister’s hard work at keeping the facilities clean and tidy while he focuses on the cows.
“It’s actually a motivation for him,” he said. “We decided to go ahead and apply for it because he was doing such a good job with it.”
With the high milk price, Gingrich said he’s been able to do some much-needed repairs and maintenance, and he’s also bought two new pieces of hay equipment. He’s also been able to pay down some of his debt.
Gingrich said he’s well aware of the inevitable drop in dairy prices most dairy farmers come to expect in the business.
At the end of the day, though, he enjoys being able to be at home, on the farm.
“I actually feel relived to wake up being in one spot everyday and manage my own time and my own work,” he said. “I don’t miss working away.”