Dairy farming requires passion


June is National Dairy Month, which started out as a milk promotion in 1937 and now serves as a reminder of the health benefits that dairy products provide.

According to the American Dairy Association Indiana website, Indiana is home to more than 700 dairy farms of various sizes that together provide a home for 189,000-plus dairy cows.

The average dairy farm has about 150 cows, and more than 97% of those Indiana farms are family-owned.

Denise Derrer, public information director for the Indiana Board of Animal Health, said Indiana currently has about 764 dairy farms statewide, down from 1,668 farms in 2000 and 1,315 in 2011.

She said Jackson County had 24 dairy farms in 2000 and 18 in 2011, but only six remain in operation today.

Nierman family

One of them is Long Lane Farm, owned and operated by Roger Nierman and his son, Brian Nierman, in Brownstown.

Brian said the farm has been in the family since 1855, starting with his great-grandfather, Phillip Nierman.

“My grandparents, Henry and Laura Nierman, started the dairy in the 1930s. Then my dad, Roger Nierman, joined them in the 1960s, and I joined him in 1992,” he said.

Brian’s mother, JoElla Nierman, who died about seven years ago, worked on the family dairy farm, which is a member of the state and national Brown Swiss cattle associations.

The Nierman farm has been a family endeavor, as Brian’s sister, Jill, and brother, Jason, both helped out on the farm growing up and Jason still helps out on the farm on weekends, Brian said.

“Jason works for USDA in Louisville and is assistant manager of milk pricing in this region, and my uncle, Glen Nierman, helps out with the field work, planting crops and driving tractors,” he said.

Brian’s three sons, Ryland, 20, Brayton, 12, and Camdyn, 10, stepped up to help on the farm over the past few months after his knee replacement in December.

“The boys helped their grandfather, Roger, get things done on the farm while I was recovering,” Brian said.

After their dad’s surgery, Ryland, a junior at Purdue University, milked morning and evening, balancing college finals, while Brayton, helped out before and after school, juggling basketball games and practice.

The Niermans also have a full-time employee, Mauricio “Alfonso” Martinez, who has been with them six years and they couldn’t have kept the farm going without him, Brian said.

Camdyn helps take care of cows in the milking parlor, Brian’s wife, Amy, is southeast district director at Purdue Extension and their daughter, Shelby, graduated in May with a master’s degree in health sciences from Purdue University.

Long Lane Farms has 140 registered Brown Swiss cows, and 120 of them are being milked. The farm has 130 heifers and calves.

“We milk in a double four herringbone parlor that was built in the 1970s and has been remodeled twice, and we milk eight cows at a time,” Brian said. “This is done twice a day at 5 a.m. and 3 p.m. and takes about three hours each time.”

The farm produces 7,000 pounds of milk per day, which amounts to about 60 pounds per cow daily, and in the future, he would like to convert to robotic milking with a new facility.

Brian admits there are challenges of being a dairy farmer, including the twice-a-day milking, which must be done seven days a week, 365 days a year.

“That includes holidays, subzero weather and 100-degree days,” Brian said. “Also, the price of milk is not consistent, so you don’t know from month to month what price you might get.”

On the bright side, the Niermans enjoy showing cattle at the state and national shows and have registered Brown Swiss and have sold cattle to seven foreign countries and 30 different states in America, Brian said.

“You just have to have a passion for dairy farming and grow up with it,” he said. “The cows are like family, and if one of them is sick, you feel its pain just like a family member would.”

Peters family

Another Jackson County dairy is Green Lo Farm, owned and operated by Greg and Deanna Peters, also located in Brownstown, on the southern edge of the county.

“It’s called Green Lo because on one side of the farm, there’s a low-lying area,” Greg said. “We don’t really pasture that as much now, but years ago, we used to run the cows down in the low area.”

Peters said he is the fourth generation in his family to milk on the dairy farm, and it’s just him, his wife and a part-time employee who run the farm.

“I grain farm a little of my mom’s ground, too,” Peters said. “Her name is Joyce Peters. My father, Robert Peters, passed away about a year ago.”

He said they are milking about 60 cows and have another 40 or 50 heifers and dry cows.

“A cow gets to be a cow after it has a calf, so a heifer has not had a calf yet,” he said.

Acceptable heifers can be used as cow replacements in the herd someday.

Peters said he and his wife raise black and white Holsteins, and he milks with a robotic milker, so it runs pretty much all of the time, 24 hours a day.

“One at a time, the cows go in to get milked voluntarily for the most part as they see fit. The milker is open nonstop as the cows walk in,” he said. “This type of milking gives us a lot more flexibility on the farm.”

Peters said the robotic milker can harvest about 6,000 pounds of milk in a day. Then the milk truck picks up the milk and takes it to different processing plants.

The milk might go to a bottling plant or a cheese plant, and sometimes, the milk goes to Nestle in Anderson, he said.

“The best part of being a dairy farmer is I get to do what I enjoy every day, working with cows and being my own boss,” Peters said. “The worst part is being tied down because it’s 365 days a year, seven days a week, so a Sunday is kind of the same as a Monday or Tuesday.”

Spurgeon family

Mark Spurgeon and his wife, Diane, live on a dairy farm in Seymour that he started in 1973 when there were about 52 Grade A dairies in Jackson County, he said.

“We’re the only dairy left in Redding Township, and it’s an industry that is basically going by the wayside, like chickens and hogs,” Mark said. “The big farms are coming in whether we like it or not, and that’s the future agriculture we’re looking at.”

Spurgeon said his dad probably milked eight or 10 cows while he was growing up.

“Then I went off to college, and my roommate’s dad had a little dairy farm,” he said. “So we both convinced each other to quit college and make our millions milking cows.”

Spurgeon said that was easier said than done, and while his roommate lasted three years in the industry, he has lasted 48 years.

“We tend to stay in the 80 to 100 milking cow range and have a bulk tank that we put the milk in and we use a double herringbone I built many years ago,” Spurgeon said. “Pretty much what I’ve done is taken a little farm and turned it into something I could raise my family on and be part of the community.”

He said it’s a seven-day-a-week job, not something you can get away from, but it’s a lifestyle that you have to like and understand.

“You kind of need to have a farm that’s designed to make life doable, and there are a lot of aspects to this industry many people don’t understand,” Spurgeon said. “There’s a grass-fed, organic industry that is charging way too much for a milk product that is no better than ours, and it has no more nutritional value or health benefits than Grade A.”

He said Grade A is one of the most closely monitored food products out there, and every load has to pass the most rigid tests and standards that there are in the industry and in the whole food chain.

“These days, we’re trying to utilize phrases like local food to table, promoting small, making you think you’re getting something extra special,” he said. “Those in business today with our steers and our cows and our beef, we’re all doing an excellent job doing what we’re doing, but we have to do it on a bigger scale in order to make a living.”

Spurgeon said his is just a family farm that’s a community supporter. They support local churches and do a lot of trying to help people in need.

“Sometimes, you just want to do the best you can and be a good neighbor to everyone, and hopefully, that’s a good thing,” he said.

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