News & Resources

YC’s Weber Navigates the Challenges of Launching a Dairy

November 16, 2020

James Weber is learning as he goes along – but the coronavirus pandemic, disrupted international markets, shifting technology and turbulent political debates make life as a beginning dairy farmer challenging, as Weber, explains in this week’s Dairy Defined podcast.

Weber, 30, operates Weber Family Dairy near Frankenmuth, Michigan. He’s a member of the Michigan Milk Producers Association dairy cooperative and the 2020 chairman of the National Milk Producers Federation’s Young Cooperators program. “There are lots of life lessons that are learned, that can only be learned through living them,” Weber says in the podcast. “One of the things that I’ve learned about through COVID here was risk management. And that’s just one of those things where you have to live it to learn it.”

To listen to the full discussion, click here. You can also find this and other NMPF podcasts on Apple Podcasts, Spotify,  and SoundCloud. Broadcast outlets may use the MP3 file. Please attribute information to NMPF.

Transcript

Theresa Sweeney-Murphy, NMPF: Hello, and welcome to the Dairy Defined Podcast. The National Young Cooperators Program kicked off it’s 2020-2021 program year last month, convening for its first ever Virtual Leadership and Development Program. Now in its 70th year, the program, managed by the National Milk Producers Federation, was created to provide up and coming leaders in the dairy industry with a better understanding of issues facing farmers and their cooperatives.

Today, we’re talking to Chairman of the National YC Program, James Weber. James reopened his family’s dairy farm, Weber Family Dairy, in 2015. Together with his parents and fiance, he milks 120 Jersey cows and farms 800 acres just outside of Frankenmuth, Michigan. James is a member owner of Michigan Milk Producers Association and the recent recipient of the co-op’s coveted Outstanding Young Dairy Cooperator Award. James, we know it’s a busy time for you. Thank you for taking the time to be with us today.

James Weber, Weber Family Dairy: Well, thank you for having me here, Theresa. I’m happy to participate and speak a little bit about the dairy industry.

Theresa Sweeney-Murphy, NMPF: So, James, please share a little bit about yourself. How did you get into dairy farming, and what does your operation look like today?

James Weber, Weber Family Dairy: Yeah. So I grew up on my parents’ 40-cow Holstein dairy farm, where we were still milking a stanchion barn. And when I turned 18 and finished high school, I was searching for a path. And I took a stab at a two-year Dairy Management Program at Michigan State University, where during my second semester, I really started to fall in love with dairying. And I learned more about what dairying could be because all I had known was my parents’ dairy farm.

So that program led me out to California, where I went on an internship. I worked on a couple of large commercial herds in that state and then obtained a Bachelor’s in Dairy Science from California Polytechnic State University. I worked on a large commercial herd in Texas, and then eventually made my way back to Michigan because I wanted to be around family. And I had the opportunity to restart the the family dairy. And I chose Jerseys because in my time out West, I was on a herd that had Holsteins and Jerseys and just really liked that breed in comparison to the Holsteins. And on October 7th, 2015, 131 Jersey cows showed up at our farm.

Theresa Sweeney-Murphy, NMPF: It’s been a volatile year. What are some of the lessons that you’ve learned, and how will it change how you do business in the future?

James Weber, Weber Family Dairy: One of the things is that nobody saw COVID coming. Even when we had early whisperings of it over in Wuhan, we really didn’t know what it was going to become. I was one of the more foolish people who back in 2019 decided, well, I’m going to take a chance and not pay the fee for the Dairy Margin Coverage Program. And I opted out of that, and that was a big mistake financially not participating in that. So huge lesson learned. Sadly, it came at a large financial cost, but that’s how these things typically go. So moving forward just for my lesson learned there, it’s participate in risk management for a business because who knows what the future is going to do?

Theresa Sweeney-Murphy, NMPF: You live in Michigan, which was an important state in the recent presidential election. After a year of being pelted by political ads, what are your thoughts on politics?

James Weber, Weber Family Dairy: So, politics have been frustrating for everyone. When you hear about different candidates just back and forth attacking each other, it seems kind of immature. I understand why it’s done, but what we could really use is those people working together for a common goal. If we were just at each other’s throats, if there’s discourse within our industry or the country in general, we suffer from that.

So unity, it’s only going to help everyone. And that’s what I would really stress with lawmakers is keep open opinions, keep an open mind, learn from others. When you have an open mind, and you’re willing to learn from other people, you can really start to grow as an individual.

Theresa Sweeney-Murphy, NMPF: What message would you have for lawmakers on what they can do to help dairy farms succeed?

James Weber, Weber Family Dairy: If I had the chance to speak with lawmakers, I would try and talk to them about how important collaboration is between the parties, just for the betterment of everybody in this country. That means working together. And specifically for farmers, it would really involve opening up the free market, allowing the free market to take place. Government supplemental programs or assistance programs are key when we have disasters like COVID-19. But the thing that really allows for economic prosperity for our farmers, and I imagine for just about any industry, is just allowing that free market to work.

In dairy specifically, we can really use help with trade by protecting the dairy industry from geographical indicators that we’re seeing Europeans take advantage of, defending against like plant-based imitation, upholding those so that the American consumer can be confident in what they’re buying and knowing what they’re getting. Like I said, I think whenever the free market opens up, the American farmer will benefit, the rural communities will benefit. And in the end, it’s just a win for everyone in this country.

Theresa Sweeney-Murphy, NMPF: What are some of your biggest challenges as a young farmer, and how are they different from what a more established dairy farmer would face?

James Weber, Weber Family Dairy: As a young farmer, I think one of the biggest challenges for myself was just inexperience. I spent a lot of time educating myself. And when I entered the dairy industry, I was very confident in my abilities with a cow. But the challenge was, I was also running a business. And while I had some minor intro to business classes in college, and I’ve always had a pretty good knack for working with financial numbers and stuff like that, it was still more of just the inexperience.

There are lots of life lessons that are learned that can only be learned through living them, that you can’t learn in a classroom or in a textbook. And I mentioned earlier, one of the things that I learned about through COVID here was risk management. And that’s just one of those things where you have to live it to learn it.

So being young, I think the inexperience is a big thing. Having a very young farm like we do where we’re only five years into the business, just the financial stability is something that I don’t have that I’m hoping to obtain when I’m 15 to 20 years in. And that just makes a big difference in the amount of stress that you carry from day to day when you don’t have to worry about, well, is the milk check on a cover all my bills? A solidified farm should have that stuff a little bit more safeguarded.

Theresa Sweeney-Murphy, NMPF: You were recognized as the Outstanding Young Cooperator by your co-op, Michigan Milk Producers Association, last year. And then you were elected to serve as Chairman of the National YC Program. Why did you decide to become so active in the YCs, and what have been some of your biggest takeaways from your experience over the past year?

James Weber, Weber Family Dairy: The simplest reason as to why I’ve started to participate in so much is because I do a really bad job of saying no to people. But beyond that, just getting involved more with my co-op, with NMPF, and my community all around is because I want to create my own destiny. I want to help positively impact the American Dairy Industry, and I want to better myself. I’ve always been a huge proponent of people growing internally and developing themselves in any form. It doesn’t have to be just in leadership roles or anything like that, but just always trying to improve on yourself because there’s no limit to where a person can go. And the YCs were an outlet for me to do that.

Growing up, I always tried to have my achievements in sports and things of that nature because that’s what I enjoyed at the time. And now it’s just, how can I create more for myself and do more for myself within the dairy industry as that’s the career path that I’ve taken? So the YCs being a national organization is a huge outlet to connect with different people, and there’s endless opportunities. There’s so many different paths you can go down within the YCs, and it’s just limitless opportunity.

Theresa Sweeney-Murphy, NMPF: What does being a member of your co-op mean to you, and how is it helping you reach your goals?

James Weber, Weber Family Dairy: Being a member of a co-op was incredibly valuable to me. When I started the dairy farm, one of the things that I always thought is just, I know where my milk’s going. I had my co-op in mind, and it was as simple as that. I have a group of experts who know how to market my milk to its greatest potential. And that took so much weight off of me because I didn’t then have to worry about it.

The unity of the membership is a really fascinating thing. In the dairy industry, we say all the time that we’re in this together. And even though we are each other’s competition, there is that unity, that feeling where people are going to help you out, even though you staying in business might not be the best for them. I’ve always appreciated that about the dairy industry. And in addition to that, being a part of a co-op, there’s so many resources available that co-ops typically provide to their membership. And it’s just things that you wouldn’t have if you were on your own, the common theme of teamwork, working together to achieve the best results for the member body. And I’ve always enjoyed that.

Theresa Sweeney-Murphy, NMPF: Lord willing, James, we both have most of our careers ahead of us in the dairy industry. What are some of the recurring and emerging threats and opportunities that you see for your business and for our industry as a whole? And what are your plans for the future?

James Weber, Weber Family Dairy: So in our area, I think some of the main threats, and this is probably nationwide, I think labor is a really big one. We saw this with the recent election. There were some ballot initiatives in different states that raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour. And this is a trend that’s not going to stop at $15 an hour or at the states that it’s limited to right now. And I think that creates a challenge. We have to increase our efficiencies on our farm in order to compensate for that increase in labor expense. And doing so, it’s always a challenge, but it’s an overcome-able challenge, I think. I think that we will do it. It’s just a difficulty.

Lab-grown milk is one that’s on the horizon that really hasn’t taken off yet, and I’m really unsure of where it’s going to go. Is it going to just be a hot button topic for a few years? And then they’ll realize it’s too expensive to produce this way or people are scared to consume a lab-grown product, I don’t know. I think it has a threat potential. If it just captures that 2% or 3% market share, we’ll probably be fine with that. But it’s just, I’m unsure of how it’s going to turn out, and I can see that being a threat.

I also think that just the rate at which certain expenses for dairy farms is increasing is a threat as well. And I always think, too, like large equipment, tractors, things of that nature… My dad always tells me how when he was growing up a hundred horsepower tractor was $30,000-$40,000. And understandably, there’s so much more technology in the equipment, and there’s a lot more that goes into it. But regardless, these pieces of equipment that we need to run our businesses, their cost is going up exponentially in comparison to milk, which still has the same pay price as it did 40 years ago. So it’s, again, we have to find our efficiencies on the farm to compensate for that, and it’s another challenge.

So, I know it’s a lot of threats that I talked about, but I always think there’s more opportunity out there than there is threats. I think that there’s a lot of potential for smaller farms to start marketing direct to consumer, and even large farms have done it successfully. I think there’s going to be some opportunity with the net initiatives to go to carbon neutrality. There’s going to be opportunities for carbon sequestration, and I hope that there’s some money made available to dairies and any farm that’s able to sequester carbon. And I think those farms will be rewarded for that. So there’s an opportunity there.

Our global exports, I think, will become an opportunity as well. There’s lots of reports that talk about how there’ll be a 25% increase, and I know the number is different everywhere you look, but I’ve seen 25% where the demand for dairy worldwide will increase at that rate in the next 10 years because of the number of people who are going to be coming out of poverty and joining the middle class. And then they’ll have the desire for high quality proteins, which the dairy industry is ready to meet easily. More opportunities within the states here, I think improving consumer confidence. I think we have the opportunity for the American people to start seeing the dairy industry as allies, not only in their food safety and the quality of the food that they receive from us, but in our environmental impact and how we’re treating the planet and how we are part of the solution rather than the problem.

You watch documentaries and it seems like we’re always criticized on it, but I think that we’re really starting to see people outside of Hollywood understanding the truth of it. And I think that’s going to be a good thing for us going forward. Talking a little bit about the carbon sequestration and things of that nature and how we might receive some funding for that, I think cover cropping is a great one. Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to learn about some of the different biodiversity opportunities out there, and the cover cropping is one where it might link in with the carbon sequestration, alternative energy sources. There’s all sorts of positives. And it’s, again, very dependent on where you’re at in the country and what kind of companies and grid system that you have available. But that’s a good one to talk about.

And I think robotics, moving forward, there’s going to be more and more automation. It links in with the increase and expenses of labor. If we see that, it’s going to be more budget-friendly to look into automation. And the dairy cows like robots, that’s pretty well known. So I think it’s only going to continue to go, and I think that leads to opportunities and improving our quality of life as dairy farmers. We can become more reliant on technology versus having to put in more hours and longer days. And I think that’s, all around, an opportunity and a benefit to our industry.

You also asked about my future plans. On this farm, we made the decision earlier this year that we were going to expand. So we’re going from the 120-cow Jerseys to 240. Our project this fall is we’re putting up a sizeable feed pad so we can store our feed and drive over piles and some bags. Whereas right now we just have them spread out on the ground, and it’s just made for a lot of mud in the winter time. We’re putting up a 240-cow free stall barn and just some manure storage as well. So the increase in size for the herd is going to be done internally. We’ve had lots of replacement animals coming through in preparation for this. This is my attempt at trying to free myself up a little bit where we can be a little more efficient on our labor, hire in some people, and then create a little bit more freedom for everyone involved on the operation.

Theresa Sweeney-Murphy, NMPF: Thank you for joining us, James.

James Weber, Weber Family Dairy: Thank you for having me, Theresa. It’s always fun.

Theresa Sweeney-Murphy, NMPF: That’s it for today’s podcast. For more information about the National Young Cooperators Program, visit our website, www.nmpf.org. From there, you can also find recent podcast episodes from the Sharing Our Story page off the news heading from our homepage. Or you can make it easy on yourself and subscribe to our Dairy Defined Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and SoundCloud. Thanks for listening. We’ll talk again soon.