Five Generations of Dairy Work Ethic

Making it work at Ensenada Holsteins
By J.F. Pirro

Josh Bishop says the dairy operation at Ensenada Holsteins in Doylestown, Pa., isn't that big of a setup, but they all say that. He's milking about 100 cows, but his dreams are bigger - like doubling the herd size one day and adding robotic milkers, the plan before wholesale milk prices hit rock bottom.

Photos courtesy of Ensenada Holsteins.

What's significant at this fifth-generation dairy farm is the job the 27-year-old Bishop has done since his father, David, suddenly took ill in 2005.

David, who was in his mid-40s in 2005, was diagnosed with Antiphospholipid Syndrome (APS), a rare blood disorder that led to three blood clots. He was completely out of action for six months, and he couldn't milk for over a year.

"I never thought I'd have this much responsibility this soon," admits Bishop, who was just two years out of high school when he took on the brunt of the farm's work.

Bishop has certainly inherited his father's work ethic. "He really worked," Bishop says of his father and mentor. "I would always be like, 'Are we done yet?'"

Now, Bishop is up six times a week at 4 a.m. One day he sleeps in until 7 or maybe 8 a.m. He always works until dark, and is easily logging 100-plus hours a week. "But I don't hate going to my job," he says. "I like what I do."

David still handles the books and manages the nutrition, figuring out rations for cows in three different nutritional groups, based on the principles of total mixed ration (TMR). The Bishops do not feed all their cows the same; the groups are efficiently fed to meet their production needs. "They're fed for what they're milking," Bishop says. "We can't be putting feed out their back end."

David also manages the crops, the planting and harvest of some 550 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat and hay, all used to feed the herd. The Bishops own 102 acres, but rent and farm another 450 acres.

Bishop manages the barn, the milking schedules, the genetics - his real passion - and the help.

Employees include two high school boys; four students from neighboring Delaware Valley College who rent a farmhouse on the property; and a 15-year milker, Ruth Ann Moyer. David is back working full-time as well.

"Unfortunately, we both like the cows," says David, who recalls that when he finished college in 1977, there were 120 dairy farms in Bucks County. Now, there are 17.

His daughter, Nicole, works 20 hours a week on the farm, though she's a full-time nurse. She owns 15 to 20 of the cows. Otherwise, Bishop is a partner with his father, and they own the rest. Grandparents George and Margaret still live on the farm.

"It seems like we have a lot of help, but there's a lot to do," Bishop says. "Sometimes, I feel like I'm on the phone for an hour or two a day. If we had 300 or 400 cows, I'd be on the phone all the time."

Cash cows

If there's an area where a financial boon is possible in dairy farming, it's in genetics. The Bishops' most prized cow, Plummy, once drew calls from all over the world, including Japan, Ireland, Switzerland, Holland and Canada. Clients emailed for eggs/embryos, and the Bishops had as much as $200,000 in potential orders, but after two heifer and two bull calves, Plummy had an allergic reaction to the flush program that shut down her reproduction system. A single egg would have brought between $1,200 and $1,500 each. While an average flush is five eggs, Plummy was flushing 10 to 15 eggs.

"Her potential was so much greater," Bishop says. "We were sitting on all that money, which would have evened out those low milk prices. You hope for half those calls to pan out."

Ultimately, Plummy also pinched a nerve in her spine. Despite floating her in a 750-gallon tub of water for 18 hours a day in hopes that she'd recover, eventually the Bishops had to put her down.

Genetic involvement - selling productivity value in the quality genes from proven producers - has helped keep profitability up. The Bishops' bulls are sold to artificial insemination (AI) companies. The farm has on several occasions won a "Progressive Genetics" award from the Holstein Association as one of the top 500 breeders nationwide.

Plummy's granddam, Patty, is still living and has life rights to the farm. She's produced more than 250,000 gallons of milk during her lifetime. Another top cow, Taboo Planet, is ranked No. 7 worldwide under the Holstein Association's Total Performance Index (TPI). Ensenada Holsteins sold him for stud as a calf for a top-dollar return.

Bishop was buying cows before he was buying, or driving, cars and trucks. Ever since he was 13 or 14, he was selecting from top 100 listings online and in Holstein USA catalogs.

One of Ensenada Holsteins' prize cows, Plushanski Amel Patty.

In Spanish, ensenada means running creeks or streams, like the ones that cross through the Bishops' farm. Now, Bishop says when that name comes up in a prefix in the Holstein world, it's internationally known. "I always wanted cows people would know when they heard the name," he says. "I wanted cows you could advertise."

Some younger progeny from Patty is coming up, but there are always ifs. The Bishops use DNA testing to detect reliable fertility and whether there's a $100,000 cow or a $5,000 one. "But, most of our cows are here for milking purposes," Bishop says.

There's a raw milk pickup every other day. The farm's rolling herd average per cow is 27,000 pounds a year.

They rotate 10 automatic milkers, twice daily. It takes about two hours to milk the herd. "It's the life of a dairy farmer," Bishop says. "That's why no one wants to be a dairy farmer. I'll have friends who want to go out to dinner, and just when I think I'm going, I'll have to cancel because I have a cow in labor."

Dairy farming genetics

In the second or third grade, Bishop's class had a career day. Each child was to dress up a cutout figure in the classroom in his chosen profession. He said he wanted to be a farmer; the teacher made him pick something else. "She wanted me to broaden my horizons," he says, "so I said, 'veterinarian.'"

He remembers showing in 4-H, attending cow sales and shadowing his father. "He made me work," Bishop says. "He didn't give me everything, but my dad always included me."

Bishop is off to an incredible start. Twice already, in 2006 and 2010, he's earned a $2,500 Young Farmers grant from the Bucks County (Pa.) Farm Bureau. In between, his brother-in-law, Brian Bahnck, won it. He's an on-farm equipment mechanic. The bureau picks three winners a year, but as Bishop says, "There just aren't that many young farmers in Bucks County."

He knows he's continuing a tradition of excellence: David and Sharon Bishop received a "Master Farmer" award for the mid-Atlantic states in 1997, which annually recognizes a select few farmers for high achievement in farming and community service.

David, whose condition baffled doctors before they gained a handle on it, fully realizes he could have not survived his initial episode. He's proud to be alive and to have groomed a son to follow in his footsteps.

"I say I taught him all I know, and then he learned on top of that," David says. "I could walk away today and everything would be fine. But I always gave him responsibility, and always told him he had to think for himself. Now, he has his own opinions, but that's good, that's what you want. Then we work it out. If we can't come up with a solution, then my wife decides which way we go."

He says his Delaware-Valley students often return home to find that their farmer-father has sold the cows, and what they thought was a farm, and a future, suddenly wasn't. "I never ever wanted to see my son look like these other college students have - like their whole life crashed right in front of them," David says.

A fine line

Still, the most difficult aspect of dairy farming remains profit margins when most of the money goes right back into the business. "It's not like I have $10,000 in my pocket to spend on a cruise," Bishop says. "I would put the money into something else, but I still don't have it."

He remembers attending congressional hearings on milk pricing in Washington, D.C., a couple years back, and listening to one California dairy farmer tell of dairy farmers from his area who committed suicide. They couldn't take the pressure and the loss of planned profits.

"I have a positive outlook," Bishop says. "We pencil everything out and try not to overspend. Whatever we do, we try to be efficient with it. Everything has to have a return."

With the 2012 Farm Bill, he'd like to see fairer pricing for milk, or some sort of price-on-demand plan. Big farms, he says, can double their herd and double their milk on the market, creating an overabundance that keeps smaller farms from expanding.

With the average age of a dairy farmer at about 62, he's hoping that when the older sect can't farm anymore, the price of milk stabilizes and there's less competition. In the meantime, he's continuing to improve genetics and expose dairy farming to folks even younger than him.

Every year, a local 4-H lease project at Ensenada involves six to eight kids who are taught to show cows they pick out in April. They then work with her through shows in September.

Once, Patty won fifth place in the Holstein International Global Cow of the Year contest, sort of the Miss America Pageant for Holsteins. "You had to be nominated," Bishop says. "It was special to be among just a few cows at that level in the world."

The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th century America, agrarian culture, land use and sports and recreation topics.