Thank a Farmer: Kerry Nobis of Nobis Dairy


Kerry Nobis, Michigan Dairy Farmer

I made the long trek (I kid, it’s all of about 11 miles) out to Nobis Dairy Farm on a rainy Saturday at the beginning of this month, and what I learned is that Kerry Nobis is highly underrated.

Whip smart and incredibly funny, Kerry is one of those rare people who can really make me think about something in a different light than I ever have before. When I asked him what he wanted consumers to know most he said, “[farmers] are really smart. It’s the only industry I know of where you can go to a meeting and have the top thinkers in an industry conversing across the table with what is essentially the people who make up the bottom tier of the industry. And they’re all on the same level, they’re discussing concepts that take years to understand as peers.”

And of course, he’s right. It’s something I have witnessed a hundred times as well, but I’d never given it much of a second thought. Modern agriculture is not your Grandpa’s farming, and no where is this more evident than when you have an everyday dairy (or hog or poultry or beef or…) farmer sitting across the table from the highest regarded Ph.D’s in an industry and exchanging ideas with them on a level playing field. It’s an incredible accomplishment for the agriculture industry.

Let’s meet, Kerry:

Kerry, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your farm? How many cows do you milk? How long has your family been in dairy? 

I manage the cow side of our farm (as opposed to the field crop side); along with my father (Ken), who works in a part-time capacity (he is the President of the Michigan Milk Producers Association, which is a full-time job, and then some). My Uncle (Larry) runs the crop side of the farm. My father and uncle own the farm in a partnership. We milk 1053 cows (as of 11-22-2013), and raise all of our heifer (female) calves (813 under 2 years of age, again as of 11-22-2013).

IMG_8441Cows in the main barn at Nobis Dairy. These ladies took a moment to gossip about me in-between bites.

So, Holsteins. I’ve seen estimates that the iconic black-and-white cows make up at least 90% of the U.S. dairy herd. Why is that?

In short, it is because they give more milk. They are also very efficient animals, in regard to the ratio of feed they eat to the amount of milk they produce. Also, they are bilingual, although they hate Tejano music.

And those Holsteins keep you pretty busy, right? Whenever I’m talking to someone about my own farm I always find myself downplaying the schedule and saying, “it’s not like we’re a dairy.” How long does it take to do milking chores? And how often do you have to do that? 

Milking at our farm is done 3 times a day (i.e., each cow is milked three times daily), at around 6 hours per milking. The time in between is used to clean the milking/milk storage system and the milking parlor in general. And by daily, I mean 365 days a year. Cows cannot skip a day or even a milking, without suffering some discomfort and ultimately, damage to their bodies. I should also clarify your use of the word “you”, as in “how often do you do that?” The “you” in question is not me, we have a staff of 8 full or part time people that specialize in milking cows. I haven’t done it (regularly) in years, though rest assured, I spent many, many hours paying my dues in the milking parlor between the ages of 15 and 30. The job also requires another person to bring the cows in to the milking area, that person also cleans their habitat while they are being milked.

IMG_8466Employees milking cows in the parlor at Nobis Dairy. Kerry said they used to have a parlor that was set up so the cows stood broadside during milk. Now, with this newer parlor, they stand with their back to the aisle. This keeps workers safer during the milking as they’re less likely to get kicked or stepped on by a fidgety cow.

Of course, milking isn’t all there is to do. There are barns to clean, calves to welcome into the world, bookkeeping to be done… and cows have to eat. Let’s talk about that. What are your cows eating day-to-day? 

The cows are fed a “ration” that consists of haylage (chopped and preserved alfalfa), corn silage (chopped and preserved corn, including the stalk,leaves and cob), soybean meal, ground corn, straw, dry hay, and a supplement that contains all of the necessary vitamins and minerals. Currently, they are also being fed a pelleted form of Canola. We utilize different feeds like the Canola as they become available/cost effective, as long as the cows like them. If the cows turn up their nose at something they are fed, well, that’s a deal-breaker. The cows are the ones doing the work, they have the final say over what they are fed (Figuratively. Very few of them actually talk).

Since you mentioned calves and bookkeeping, let me address those as well. We have a very specific and rigidly followed protocol for raising calves, one that we are heavily invested in. We make sure every heifer calf stays warm, dry, and is fed an amount of feed (in this case a milk replacer mix formulated by Purina) that will allow her to be as strong and healthy as she can possibly be. Their habitat is kept clean, dry and comfortable, and anything equipment that comes in contact with them is kept very clean. The calves begin a vaccination program (not terribly different than the way a human child is vaccinated. An American human child, anyway) on day one of their life.

Bookkeeping is a tremendous undertaking as well. The cost of producing high quality milk is tremendous, and causes traditionally tight margins at the farm level. But my father and uncle handle that part of the business (probably a wise decision not to put me in that position). When I talk about bookkeeping, I am talking about the amount of work it takes to compile data and keep the records necessary to keep a dairy safe, efficient, and insure that we are shipping the best possible product every day. We keep track of virtually every event in a cow’s life: birth, breeding, conception, feed (down to knowing how much each group of cows is eating, per cow, on a daily basis), birth again, vaccination throughout, medical issues throughout, and finally, leaving the herd (be it because she was sold or because she died, which cows sometimes do. Humans do it too, I’m told). This is all done via PC, and sometimes written record coupled with PC. This information is used for various pursuits, the most important of which is keeping the milk from cows that have been treated with an antibiotic (again, cows are sometimes treated with an antibiotic when they fall ill, much like humans. We are not Christian Scientists here at Nobis Dairy) separated from the milk that we ultimately sell.

Data is also used to evaluate the efficiency level we are achieving regarding breeding, feeding, and rates of occurrence of many different events in a cow’s life, and what that may mean relative to our management practices. This is an intense, ongoing and unending process.

IMG_8458This milk cow was waiting patiently in line for the milking parlor until she noticed someone she didn’t recognize prowling around with a camera. I know what curiosity does to cats. I’m not sure about cows.

Shifting gears a bit, you’re a fan of a certain level of accountability — whether it’s legislative or organization-administered. And as a dairy farmer you, of course, deal with quite a bit of it. If I understand correctly, much of that is at the state level. Can you tell us a little about what kind of accountability measures are in place for dairies in Michigan?

We are visited by a state inspector several times a year, and said visit is never, ever announced beforehand. We are subject to surprise federal inspection as well, although that occurs much less regularly. Milking equipment and structures are inspected, as well as water, waste removal systems, sanitation in general, and about a thousand other items. Milk being sold in any store in Michigan is tested several times (for composition, cleanliness, presence of agents such as antibiotics, etc.) before it reaches the consumer, it is possibly the most tested (and presumably, safest) food item sold in America.

And your farm is active with the Michigan Milk Producer’s Association which has its own set of rules and regulations, right? What are those like? 

MMPA has a program that producers can voluntarily submit to that evaluates a dairy from top to bottom, focusing on animal welfare. NDF has undergone said inspection, and it was more detailed than I had anticipated. I was pleasantly surprised with the level of commitment to the animal the evaluation was built with, even though it was not all sunshine and lollipops for us (don’t get me wrong, we passed with flying colors, but they detected a few flaws for us to work on). I am not a fan of less regulation/less government. Rules are great; they have helped keep this country flush with the safest and most abundant food supply in the history of this planet. They need to be created and administered responsibly and sensibly, however, to be truly effective. That requires an attempt by the legislators and bureaucrats to understand how agriculture works before trying to regulate it. Prior to the Farm Bill disaster, I felt they had been consistently improving in that regard. Now? We’ll see, I suppose. Perhaps if our drones were dropping ice cream and bacon instead of bombs, we wouldn’t have to focus on perceived threat. We could spend a little more time (and money) talking about how we are going to utilize and regulate this country’s unparalleled agriculture industry so that it can be of the greatest benefit to all Americans.

We’re a big fan of dairy products in our family, so I didn’t need a lot of convincing, but it sounds like dairy is probably some of the safest food you can find in a store — and packed with protein to boot.

IMG_8448Cow in the “hospital pen” at Nobis Dairy. Thick bedding gives cows with (generally minor) ailments a chance to recover away from the herd.

So last, but certainly not least, can you leave us with a little dairy deliciousness? What’s your favorite dairy-based dish? 

I’ll give you my top three, as they relate to people named “Tom”:

  1. The chocolate milkshake. The Tom Petty of dairy treats, the milkshake is perennially excellent, yet never quite gets the acclaim it deserves.
  2. Yogurt (Greek or otherwise). Can’t beat yogurt for the combination of deliciousness and health benefit. This is the workhorse of the industry. Not a lot of flash, just day in and day out quality. Think Tom Hanks. Always good, sometimes great, never below average.
  3. ½% Fluid Milk. Refreshing when served as a cold drink? Check. Start you day off right when poured over your favorite breakfast cereal? Check. Add fluffiness to scrambled eggs? You bet. Healthy, Tasty, and of unparalleled versatility, regular old white milk is a staple in my household. The Tom Jones of the Dairy industry. Been there forever, can do it all, stays consistently sexy as it ages.
  • Honorable Mention: Cheese-stuffed crust pizza. I’m ashamed that this even exists, but damned if I don’t love it. Can say the same of radio’s “Bob and Tom Show”.

Thank a Farmer: Pete Blauwiekel at Blue Wing Farms

PetePigsIf, at some point, I become half the hog farmer Pete Blauwiekel is, my work on this earth will be done.

So, when I decided I wanted to run a “Thank a Farmer” series on the blog this month, it’s only natural that he was the first person who came to mind — it’s merely a bonus that he also brings bacon into the world.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Pete without a smile on his face. In addition to raising pigs, he volunteers his time heavily to the local 4-H swine program — something my own kids have benefitted from — and you can tell when he arrives on busy swine show days, because the whole barn functions like a well-oiled machine with him at the helm.

He’s one of a very small minority of hog farmers who are still raising pigs farrow-to-finish these days. It’s the same way we operate, bringing baby pigs into the world and then raising them up for the table. In 1992, 65% of hog farms were structured this way, but by 2004 that number had dropped to just 18%. And, as the industry continues to consolidate, it’s a structure that will continue to fall by the wayside. I don’t know if that’s good, bad or otherwise; it just is.

But that’s enough from me. Let’s get to know Pete: Read More “Thank a Farmer: Pete Blauwiekel at Blue Wing Farms”

On Gratitude and the Trendy-ness of Thanks


The other day, an acquaintance and friend on Facebook lamented the latest social media trend of sharing one’s gratitude publicly. “Live it!” she posted, after charging her friends and family with publicly giving thanks only because it is “politically correct” to do so. People are thankful for their spouses one day and complaining about them the next, she offered as example.

As many of you know I’ve been maintaining a gratitude practice for over a year now; mostly weekly, sometimes daily, and I try to post about it here often. This, of course, is small apples compared to some people I know — those who have made a career out of practicing gratitude — but it’s also long enough to feel as though I’ve learned a thing or two. That gratitude and irritation are not mutually exclusive emotions, and that the attempt to make them such is not necessarily a righteous one, are not the least of those.

The Man and I have been married for almost eight and a half years now, together for almost thirteen. We’re quickly approaching that point in our lives where we’ve been together longer than we’ve been apart or with someone else. And through it all, I can honestly say one of the most beautiful things about this very messy ordeal we all call marriage, is at times I’m both grateful for and irritated with him all at once. In fact, it’s the minor irritations and annoyances that often spur me to remember how much he means to me. The way I have to poke him in the arm every single night when he falls asleep on the sofa and has to be reminded to go to bed. How after almost a decade he still hasn’t figured out how to start the dishwasher, though he’s become quite adept at filling it up with dirty dishes and leaving it that way. (Seriously, he even puts the soap in.) Even the obnoxious way he “rearranges” the sheets with his feet every night to get them just so before going to sleep ultimately leaves me smiling and shaking my head at his little quirks, kvetch about it as I sometimes may.

And life’s little annoyances outside of marriage are no exception to the rule. They certainly don’t invalidate the gratitude I feel about the things and people to which they apply. Ask me what’s for dinner at six o’clock on a busy Wednesday and — even with meal plan in hand — I’ll probably sigh, but I am no less thankful for the abundance of food in our cupboards. Catch me in the middle of a technological glitch as a deadline fast approaches and you’ll probably hear choice words that could make a sailor blush, but I’m still thankful to live in an age where technology brings virtually everything the world has to offer to my fingertips.

And by the same token, nor does the gratitude practice somehow make me miraculously less human, give me the superpower to leap tall buildings breeze through life’s most frustrating moments with unrivaled grace. Being grateful, I’ve found, does not mean being without faults, though it may serve to counteract them in the sum of traits that make up my character.

Of course this has always been true. It’s simply through deliberately pausing to reflect on the little things in every day life for which I am grateful that I’ve fully realized it, and, more importantly, been able to approach frustration with it in mind. Which is, perhaps, the even greater lesson the practice has taught me; intent follows action.

The truth is, while I can’t tell you why I started my gratitude practice all those months ago, and I suspect the influence of others was not the least of those that prompted me to begin, I can tell you the reason I continue it now. It enriches my life, elevates my happiness, and has fostered many life lessons. My intentions in beginning a gratitude practice may not have been pure, but by repeated action they have become decidedly so.

The other day, in an email to the ONE Moms delegation about working with people on both sides of the political aisle, I wrote, “We have to meet them where they’re coming from,” and while the context is a bit out of place for this post, I think the premise still applies. We have to meet ourselves where we’re coming from, because where we’re at is the only starting line we have. So if it takes a pre-Thanksgiving Social Media trend to get people pausing to appreciate that for which they are thankful, I say so be it! Even if 99.9% of those people who have picked it up for this month cast the practice aside once December knocks on our door, that means 0.1% of the probably hundreds of thousands who tried it out will have picked it up for good, and thus gained a tremendously enriching perspective on life. I have a hard time finding fault in that.

Miscellany: Operation 13.1 + Good Stuff to Start The Week

I haven’t been the very best NaBloPoMo’er this year. Last year it was quite a catalyst for me and so there is an inkling of guilt over it not being the same fit again this year; as if I owe it something. Which is silly of course, if anything, not being in the same place in my life and work a full year later is a good thing. With any luck I’ll be in yet another entirely different place at this time next year.

In fact, in one of many efforts to ensure just that, I began what I’m calling Operation 13.1 today. The ultimate goal of which is to participate in the Detroit International Half Marathon in October 2013. I took The Pig Dog with me on my 20 minute walk/hike through the woods and we kicked up a few does. (And no, I don’t know why he looks drunk in this picture.)

I’m going to try to complete as many of the four to six walks/runs per week in the out of doors, both because I hope being active out there will help stave off the seasonal depression as long as possible and because doing so allows me to continue to take The Pig Dog along.

Speaking of whom: he has his first stock work lesson scheduled for tomorrow. I’m hoping he’s ready so we can train throughout the winter. In some part as another way to stave off that strong urge to hibernate, but also because he’d then be ready to work come spring; something that would be of the utmost help. At just shy of eight months he’s on the cusp of readiness. Some dogs are, some aren’t. He has been turned on for a few months now, but that’s only part of it. He needs to be able to handle the pressure, take the correction, channel his instincts.

In speaking with the trainer we’ll be working with last week, I found out that his lines tend to be a little hard to get started. “They’re keen,” she said, “but can be hard headed.”

Which is, obviously, exactly what I need in the first dog I ever start on stock. Right? Right!

Which brings me to the first of a few good things I’d like to share to (hopefully) kick off your week on the right foot. Ever since we started considering stock dogs as a way to help alleviate a bit of the workload around here, I’ve been glued to YouTube videos on the training and work of Border Collies. Since the beginning I’ve tended to gravitate to the trainers from across the pond, they just seem to jive better with my preferences and expectations. I found this video today and it’s by far one of my favorites. Is there anything more beautiful than a working animal? One in perfect sync with his human? I think not.

Other Good Stuff

My friend, Karen, is kicking off a 10 Days of Thanksgiving daily journaling prompt series. She’s basically my journaling hero so I’m super excited about it.

If there was ever a reason to fall head over heels in love with The Blair Family, I cannot think of a better one than this Olive Us Episode on Post-Dinner Kitchen Clean Up. Seriously, you guys. It made me want more kids. And I pretty much despise kids. It’s that good.

I have a nineteen pound turkey thawing in my kitchen sink, so tomorrow afternoon I’m going to do this to it and then blog about it. Not the least of the reasons for which is that it will give me an excuse to write ‘spatchcocked’ repeatedly. It’s an even better word than ‘persnickety’ and I love ‘persnickety’.

I’m also going to tweak this recipe to go along with it. Because, mushrooms and bacon and stuffing! All at once. It’s self-explanatory, people.

Thirty Days of Little Things: Day One

IMG_3627692 Since returning from Ethiopia I’ve felt a bit like my wheels are spinning. I have a lot to say, but am unsure how to say it. I have a lot to do, but am unsure how to do it. I’m so small and the world is so big. And yet, I’m so big and the world is so small.

It wasn’t until just recently that I realized my problem, I feel as though the peak of 2012 is over. It’s hard to keep running forward when your mind is stuck at a checkpoint three miles back, thinking it was actually a finish line. It was not a finish line, but the race from here on out seems bigger than me. I trained for a 5k and was somehow accidentally entered into a marathon. While my legs are happy to keep going my mind is carrying on about how this was a huge mistake and someone should pay. My mind is a whiner.

Of course, much of this has led to thoughts about next year. Somehow it’s easier to imagine continuing in a different calendar year. (My mind is also OCD.)

I’ve thought about whether or not I’ll do a Reverb this year, and what I’d like 2013 to look like. But I’ve also noticed a change in my thinking about the future since returning, a greater awareness about the state of mind in which I enter things. As I look through pictures from the trip, I’m struck by how the tiny details, the shots of places we passed by, are what take me back. How this picture of benches at a secondary school remind me of the way the dry grass on the school grounds crunched under our feet, how the teacher in the math classroom we visited tossed the chalk to and fro between his hands as he paced the room, the smell of the tiny room they called a library, the way its shelves held technology books published in 1992, and how Liz’s scarf framed her face.

Somehow I feel as though this year’s Little Things practice helped put me in the right frame of mind leading up to the trip — leading up to all of this year’s experiences and opportunities, really — and so, as I look forward, I can’t imagine a better way to get myself in the right frame of mind for the coming holiday season and new year than a month of Little Things practice. Today, the little thing I’m grateful for, is the tiny details and somewhat obscure scenes from Ethiopia, those that take me back. Tomorrow I’ll share another little thing, and then another the day after that, and another the next. I hope you’ll come back throughout the month and share the little things you’re grateful for, too.

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Thirty Days of Little Things is the daily incarnation of my (mostly) weekly gratitude practice. It will run everyday throughout the month of November. It also (conveniently) coincides with NaBloPoMo. To join in tell me what you’re grateful for today in the comments, or write your own post and leave me a link so I can check it out. I’d love it. No really. Of course, you can also read about more of my Little Things while you’re here. Because I’d love that, too.