RUSSELLVILLE, Ky. — Willis Schrock and his family have found a viable future in dairy farming through on-farm processing.
“It’s hard to sustain a farm when the milk price is more down than it is up,” Schrock said. “We just weren’t interested in milking 500 cows, and so, we decided if we can milk a smaller herd and make more money per cow, we’ll take that route.”
Schrock uses milk from his 60-cow dairy farm — as well as two local dairy farms — to process under the label JD Country Milk. Their dairy products are sold in over 70 grocery stores in Kentucky, Tennessee and Indiana.
“Our model is such that we can pay more for the milk than what the open market is paying,” Schrock said. “We can help sustain small farmers.”
JD Country Milk sells whole milk, 2% milk, skim milk and chocolate milk in glass bottles. They also offer cream, half and half and buttermilk. Seasonally, they offer strawberry milk made with actual strawberries, drinkable yogurt and eggnog.
Schrock’s farm is located in southwestern Kentucky, near Russellville, which is 50 miles north of Nashville, Tennessee.
Schrock grew up on a dairy farm in central Illinois. After leaving home, he hauled milk in Illinois. In 1992, he bought a dairy herd and continued with his milk-hauling route as well. He and his son fed and milked cows and also hired someone to help with milking.
In 1998, Schrock quit hauling milk and moved his herd and family to Kentucky to dairy farm full time.
In September 2006, they processed milk on their farm for the first time and downsized the herd to 12 cows. In 2013, Schrock said they changed their model and the plant was expanded.
“It was quite a long, hard drag the first five to six years to get things going,” Schrock said.
Schrock and his family sold their milk at farmers markets each week for the first 5-8 years.
Schrock said that what helped them get their products into stores was their customers from the farmers markets taking their business cards to their store managers and asking them to stock it. JD Country Milk no longer sells at any farmers markets.
Schrock said 30% of their milk sales are through Whole Foods Market. Schrock said it was difficult to get into this type of store because they had to fight the corporate chain.
“Once we got into those companies and proved that we could deliver and proved that our product is sustainable, ... then we could get in,” Schrock said.
Schrock’s herd is milked with two DeLaval robotic milking units in a free-flow setup that they put in last summer.
“Our chores are a little more versatile this way,” Schrock said. “It’s just a game changer for us.”
Schrock, his wife, Edna, six of his eight adult children and one employee work full time on the operation. Each has different areas of expertise. Some work in the plant, some work with the cows, and some do milk deliveries in the 200-mile radius in which they sell products.
Raising a family on the farm is one of the things Schrock said he likes about farming.
“I’m an independent person in the sense that I like to be my own boss,” Schrock said. “I like the farming lifestyle, raising children, teaching them responsibilities at a young age. ... I’ve got the grandchildren here now. So, I’ve got another generation coming on that I can teach responsibility too.”
Once a year in the fall, JD Country Milk hosts a free, on-farm fun day.
They process milk for people to watch and offer a meal of pulled pork and beef, beans, coleslaw, ice cream, cake and as much chocolate milk or hot chocolate as people want.
They also do a butter-making activity using quart jars with cream. Families can shake up a pint of cream into butter. The farm washes the butter and sends it home with its makers.
“The biggest satisfaction that we get is that we see a lot of single mothers, single dads or grandparents bringing their children to the farm,” Schrock said. “(They are) enjoying where they don’t have to shell out money to be entertained.”
Last year, a band from Nashville asked if they could play at the event for free. So, they set up the band, which had a donation bucket, in their old cow-holding area which was used before the robots.
A bouncy house, barrel train rides and hayrides run steadily from mid-morning to mid-afternoon. In 2022, they had 400 people attend. In 2023, they had 630 people attend.
“It is very essential to sustain our business ... (to) have a day on the farm where people can see what we’re actually doing,” Schrock said.
The family includes other dairy farmers that they buy milk from at the event.
“People are more and more concerned, extremely so since COVID,” Schrock said. “‘Where’s our food coming from, and how are the animals handled, and how are the animals fed?’”
Schrock’s cows have access to pasture year-round and are fed a total mixed ration. Schrock said they do not have enough grass across the calendar to sustain their cows on grass alone, and they would not get the milk production they need. Though his cows are fed a TMR, they do not receive any fermented feed.
“(Fermented feed) alters the flavor in my milk in the jar,” Schrock said. “I want to have a consistent product year-round.”
Schrock also said he sees other health benefits in his cows such as better energy, healthier feet, good hair coat and longevity.
The cows are housed in a bedded-pack barn.
Schrock farms 185 acres of owned and rented land. He has 50 acres of hay, 20 acres of oats and 40-80 acres of corn, wheat and soybeans. Schrock said he can get three crops in two years.
He plants oats in late February or early March and corn from March 28 to May 1. He harvests the wheat he had planted the fall before and the oats planted in the spring during June.
Looking to the future, Schrock said they are working to better their operation.
“We’re now in a position where we want to tweak things so they’re sustainable to go on to the future,” Schrock said. “That involves upgrading things, streamlining things and taking the kinks out of things.”
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