Bruce Willis embarked on a career in the dairy industry 22 years ago. He’s seen plenty of change in that time and envisions plenty more in the years ahead. A few things, however, remain the same.
As part of The County Line’s celebration of June Dairy Month, Bruce and his wife, Sheila, agreed to be interviewed about the unique dynamic of a family in the modern dairy business.
“It’s not for the faint of heart or the weak-minded,” Sheila says.
“She always says that, and it’s true,” Bruce agrees. “If you can’t handle a little pressure, you’ve got no business milking cows.”
When the Willises got their start in 2000, Bruce milked fewer than 30 cows on his farm just outside Columbia, on Bull Run Road. While his herd has steadily grown over the years, he sees even more expansion on the horizon.
‘Get big or go home’
“It’s getting to where it’s like, get big or go home,” Bruce says. “I’m hovering around 100 cows right now, but I’ve went about as far as I can go with 100 cows. It’s pushing me on, I can feel it, it’s almost like something behind you saying, ‘You know you’ve done this about as long as you can do it; you’re going to have to jump it up a notch.’”
“Years ago, 35 would have been considered a huge herd,” Sheila adds. “Nowadays, a 100-cow dairy is considered small.”
The shift to fewer, bigger farms is not a new one. The number of dairies has been in decline for decades, and slimmer margins have forced farmers to expand production.
“Since I’ve been doing this, I’d say the profit margin is really the biggest change,” Bruce says. “In other words, it’s gotten to where you’ve got to milk more cows to make the same amount of money. The margins just keep getting thinner.”
Willis knows that the shift to bigger farms will only continue. While he says 100 cows is close to the maximum his farm can currently sustain, there might come a time when further expansion is the only path to continue in the business.
“If I stay in the dairy business, we’re looking at more cows, especially if one of my sons wants to come in,” Bruce says. “We’re looking at more cows in order to pay that extra person. If that doesn’t happen, then I don’t know, I may—if I decide to get out—maybe go beef, lease my land, I don’t really know. I’d kind of like to stay in a few years, really.”
Bruce adds: “If I stay in the business, if one of my sons decides they want to stay in with me, we’re going to have to push [the head count] up there a little bit.”
More than milkin’: The work never ends
For Bruce’s the first decade-plus in the business, he did all the milking himself. Every day, twice a day, seven days a week.
“He probably did that for 12 or 15 years,” Sheila says. “Up early in the morning to milk and then managing all the crops and everything else. “The boys and I would feed calves, and then as they grew older, they assumed more responsibilities. They helped with the milking or they’d help clean up so Bruce could get out of the barn.”
Now that their three sons are grown, Bruce and Sheila have relied more on hired help to maintain production and farm operations.
“Thankfully, we have two really good milk hands—Antonio Robles and Jackson Bisera,” Sheila says. “They are as much a part of this operation as any of us, because they are day-in, day-out in the barn. Antonio has been here 10 or 12 years, and he’s our cow whisperer, just really good with animals.”
With reliable help he can depend on, Willis says most of his personal responsibilities on the farm—and the stress that accompanies—is more focused on crops and sustaining his herd. He currently grows 90 acres of corn, which he says will support 95-100 cows on “an average year.”
“On a good year, you’ll have a little extra corn,” he says. “For me, the crops and feed are the bigger [focus] than just the dairy, because I have employees that are handling that end of it. The crops—that’s where the stress comes in more than anything. Like right now, we need rain, and if we don’t get it, I don’t make corn, simple as that.”
Willis knows that crops and feed present a major challenge to any farmer looking to expand production. He notes that a farmer would need more land and more crops, which would mean more work and higher expenses.
“That’s another thing about when you jump up a few cows,” he says. “You’ve got to have more corn, you’ve got to have more facilities to house the cows, and the list goes on. It’s a heck of a challenge for anyone who wants to try it.”
Technology: The present and future of the dairy industry
Bruce and Sheila might not know exactly what their future in the dairy business might look like, but they agree on the direction the industry at-large is headed.
“Like with everything else in the world, technology has come a long way,” Sheila says. “We’re not as automated as a lot of people are, but you’ve got robotic milkers nowadays, and then you can get these tags for cows, and you can scan the code on their tag and it gives you all the information right there on your phone. Technology changes have been big.”
“I see technology just continuing to play a bigger role in it,” he says. “I think you’re looking at more automation, robotic milkers and things of that nature and really fine tuning that side of it.”
‘I like the challenge’
Milk prices are unpredictable, and there’s nothing much producers can do about it. Profit margins continually shrink. Days for a dairy farmer are long and strenuous and often stressful. Still, Bruce enjoys an undeniable sense of satisfaction that comes from his doing his job.
“For me, it’s a challenge,” he says. “That’s what I like about it. It’s always something, and every day is different, always something different and there’s always something wrong.”
The explanation reminds Bruce of his grandfather, who often repeated a saying, one that somehow did not steer the grandson way from the dairy industry but instead sums up what he likes most about it.
“He always said, ‘When you’re milking cows, there’s always a problem, every day,’” Bruce says, smile across his face. “There’s always something broke or always a cow sick, and that’s the truth. It’s a great challenge, but that’s kind of what I like—it’s something different every day.”