J-Team Dairy is home to 200 Holstein cows in Orange County, Virginia. Today, it’s one of two dairies in the county, compared to a dozen dairies 20 years ago.
Molly McWilliams says the secret to her dairy’s survival is simple: “Put your cows first, and they’ll take care of you.”
McWilliams, 29, is a fifth-generation dairy farmer and new mom to a one-year-old daughter who she hopes will one day make the sixth generation of J-Team Dairy. To get there, McWilliams prioritizes innovation, sustainability and of course, her cows.
“Put your cows first, and they’ll take care of you.”
In 2002, when McWilliams was a young girl, her family made the move to Orange County to begin their own dairy; they’ve been improving it ever since. What started as 65 milking cows has grown to 200, all the while maintaining a focus on animal health and production.
A major improvement project McWilliams oversaw was upgrading their free-stall barn to sand bedding with sprinklers and a fan system in 2014. That investment has paid off, especially in those hot summer months, by reducing overall herd somatic cell count and improving udder health. “If we weren’t to upgrade the facility, in 2014, I probably can say we wouldn’t be in business as it was.”
Today, McWilliams is installing a new manure storage system and pack barn for young stock and dry cows, and she hopes to begin investing in robotic milking systems in the next five years. “I think it’ll be robots that would probably keep my daughter interested,” she said. “When you cut out that labor factor, granted there’s still labor involved with robots, but when you cut out the everyday having to milk factor, I think it’d be intriguing to come back and stay on the family farm.”
The dairy’s commitment to sustainability is another top priority for McWilliams.
Earlier this year, J-Team dairy partnered with Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative Association and Piedmont Environmental Council to plant more than 200 trees in a riparian buffer project that will help promote water quality in the area. The commitment provides needed funding for J-Team Dairy to continue investing in other sustainability improvements including cover crops, no-till farming and nutrient management plans.
McWilliams is looking forward to the project’s potential long-term benefit for the dairy.
“It was exciting. My daughter was six months at the time, so it’s just sort of neat to have. She was there when we planted the trees, and when she is 25 years old, these trees will be huge.”
McWilliams’s investment in dairy’s future goes well beyond trees, however. As the coordinator for the Virginia Dairy Princess Program (and as a Virginia Dairy Princess alumna herself), McWilliams organizes opportunities for dairy advocacy in multiple ways.
“Getting that close-knit group of girls together and out to tell our stories and just to have a face to represent the dairy industry has been exciting,” she said.
One unique experience McWilliams organizes for the group is meeting with the First Lady of Virginia for lunch and conversation about the dairy industry. “And I just sort of go, ‘Wow, this is a core memory that they are having.’ And one day they’ll be able to say, ‘Hey, we had lunch with Mrs. Virginia,’ so that’s pretty neat.”
McWilliams said she’s proud to be part of the 2% of the nation that works to provide food for the world. And she’s hoping her daughter can be part of that elite group as well.
“We care for our cows, we care for our employees who are working for us, and that we are going to do what we need to do to make sure that our cows are taken care of, first and foremost,” she said. “And we work hard to make sure that they’re getting wholesome, safe, quality food.”