Flexibilty Helps Thinking Outside the Barn

June 8th, 2011

Paul and Shirley Hoover

Paul ’79 and Shirley ’80 Hoover milk about 70 Jersey cows at their farm in Greencastle, Pennsylvania. They let their cows go dry each winter to give themselves a break, and feed them almost entirely with grass – unusual approaches they’ve adopted to minimize cost and stress.

The fact that Paul ’79 and Shirley ’80 Hoover had no background or experience in the dairy industry did little to stop them from entering the business in 1991. Neither did the fact that they had five children at home.

And after two years in partnership with another couple, they struck out on their own, founding Willow Bank Jerseys with 30 cows and a bit of beat-up equipment on a rented farm beside I-81 near Greencastle, Pennsylvania.

The Hoovers’ inexperience led to plenty of rookie mistakes at Willow Bank. The time the cows’ teat dip got accidentally switched with an acid solution was an early lesson, generating some ugly veterinarian’s bills.

“The school of hard knocks is no joke,” says Paul, able to chuckle now over the early follies. But at the same time, the Hoovers’ inexperience blessed them with an enormous asset – open minds.

“You learn to think. You don’t just do something because that’s the way Grandpa did it,” says Shirley. “You be flexible. You change course in the middle when it makes sense.”

Change course they did in 1997, after they’d paid off their start-up loan and gotten their farm legs under them. Then, after consultation with friends and mentors, the Hoovers decided on an unusual, seasonal approach to milking, allowing their entire herd to go dry for about seven weeks each winter.

A major advantage of seasonal management is simple economics. Utility costs, for example, are far lower when the Hoovers aren’t milking. The dairy herd’s synchronized lactation cycle allows the couple to minimize expenses by buying supplies in bulk quantities, drastically simplifying farm management.

At least as important, though, the dry weeks give Paul a much-needed annual break from the daily farm grind (Shirley works part-time off the farm at a hospital in Hagerstown, Maryland.) Almost every year, he’s gone on service trips with Mennonite Disaster Service and other groups during the farm’s idle period, and each time, he returns refreshed and eager to start up again.
While Paul is “not a die-hard” on by-the-book organic agriculture, his 70-some Jersey cows are almost exclusively fed on grass – an approach that made economic sense for the farm, and one that happens to carry a variety of environmentally friendly side-effects. By grazing the pastures, the cows harvest and fertilize their own inexpensive and healthy food, also allowing Paul to spend far less time on the tractor and far less money hauling feed in and hauling manure back out of the barn than his conventional dairy neighbors.

The Hoovers have been members of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture ever since they began farming, in part due to the group’s willingness “to think outside the box,” says Paul.

Change on the farm is afoot again; the spring of 2011 will be the last milking season at Willow Bank Jerseys. An intermodal rail terminal is going up a few fields away, and the Hoovers’ rented pastures will grow warehouses soon. Besides, Paul and Shirley’s mission all along had been to raise their children on the farm, and with their youngest graduating from college this spring, that goal has been met. They’ll be moving to Harrisonburg, Virginia, where Shirley’s sister, Sharon Miller, EMU assistant professor of music, lives. Shirley is looking for a hospital job, and Paul is open to ideas, as they embark on a new season of their own lives.

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