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July 2007

Partnerships: Producers and MSU Extension Educators Work Together

Jacob McCarthy
Dept. of Animal Science

Stamp and Thomas

Tom and Deanna Stamp grew up on dairy farms. After marrying, they began a crop farm together, but before long found themselves returning to dairy. They turned to Michigan State University Extension when they began building their lives around their Marlette dairy farm in 1976, and continue to use Extension to strengthen their business today.
“Tom and I were crop farmers before we came back to the dairy and we were using Extension at that time but it probably intensified when we came back to dairy because there were a lot of new things we needed to get back up-to-speed on,” said Deanna. “Any class that was available we worked with.”

Today, the Stamps milk 200 cows and farm 3800 acres. They’ve consulted with Extension Educator Craig Thomas on many issues since he came to the area in 1995, and, with more questions surrounding dairying than ever, they’re unlikely to stop any time soon.
One of the areas the Stamps and Thomas have collaborated on is cost of production analysis. Each year they sit down and work to attach a price tag to each aspect of dairy farming.

“Because we’ve got a fairly large cash crop along with the dairy it’s really hard to weed out all the numbers into any sensible bookkeeping” Deanna said. “But I think we come up with a pretty accurate picture of what our costs are.

“This is a business, it takes a lot of equity and margins are often not as wide as you’d like them to be. Craig gives us a sounding board to help us look in depth at our financial situation. The bottom line is you’ve got to know your cost of production.”

Deanna said it has also been helpful to have Tom involved in a milk marketing group organized by Thomas that meets monthly in Sandusky.
“That’s been a valuable tool for farmers groups and it’s really grown,” she said. “The ability to [use the futures] market is fairly new to dairy farmers and so there’s a big learning curve. You’ve got the experience there that understands what’s happening in the market.”

Beyond simply being a source of knowledgeable information provided by Thomas and MSU Extension Director in Ogemaw County Fred Hinkley, though, Deanna said the meeting also creates a sense of solidarity and support among participants, valuable commodities when trying to make markets work for farmers.

“If you’re going to get into the futures market it’s a lot easier to make a decision if you’ve got a group around you that thinks the same way. People to bounce your ideas off of and then if you make the decision to place a position you’re either not alone in it or you’re sure of it from discussing it so much.”

As Deanna and Tom watch two of their children and three nephews get started in dairying, they know they likely won’t be milking cows forever. Two years ago they bought a nearby dairy that a younger generation will soon take ownership of, and Deanna said when that happens, she and Tom might refine their practice.

“Our thought is we’ll work out of milking cows and while they milk cows we’ll take care of the heifers and dry cows here,” she said. “That’s our long-range plan.”

Specializing in just a few aspects of dairying is a strategy Deanna said she has seen modeled by successful immigrant farms in the area, especially those run by producers from The Netherlands. Likewise, Craig said it’s a tactic he’s seeing other producers employ in an effort to streamline their businesses.

“There have been a ton of former dairy farmers that were at an age of investing a lot into the dairy business and didn’t want the grind of the 7 day work week and started raising heifers and forages,” he said.

Thomas said one thing he’s learned is that every farm is different, and that decisions like how to address changing regulations or other capital-intensive improvements can only be made by those immediately affected.

“You provide people with the best information and say, ‘these are your options,’” he said. “If they face a less than economical situation I let them know what it’s costing them and then let them make the decision.”
The Stamps say that process has worked for them. “A lot of times if we were making decisions that were based only on economics we’d be doing things a lot differently than we are now,” said Deanna. “Craig’s been good about helping us with the things we can change and accepting the things we can’t.”

With all of the advice he has coming in from nutritionists and crop specialists, Tom said it’s reassuring to be able to tap Thomas, too.
“We’ve got a lot of confidence in Craig. We make decisions that amount to $20,000, so it gives us somebody to pick on their expertise. Somebody on the outside we have a lot of confidence in.”





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