Nestled in one of the poorest counties — in one of the lowest dairy-producing states in the United States — Ed Yoder, alongside his wife Lois and adult children, Emily, Karl, Kevin, Kendall and Mary Jo, carved a picturesque dairy out of a piece of wilderness.
“Ten years ago, we moved to Arkansas when a new Mennonite church started here and I came to be one of the pastors,” Yoder said. “We basically built everything new except the old hay barn and the land was almost completely woods so we had to clear everything first.”
Today, the dairy and cropland cover over 700 acres in Wesley, Arkansas, between Fayetteville and Huntsville. Ed, alongside his sons Kevin and Karl, milks around 160 mostly Holstein and Holstein-cross cows.
The dairy business is engrained in all of the members of the family, Ed grew up on a dairy in western Oklahoma before he married Lois and they developed their own dairy alongside her family in Indiana for 25 years before leaving for missionary work in Ireland for five years. Both Kevin and Karl’s wives also grew up on dairies and the family friendliness of the industry as a whole is part of what kept Ed involved in the business for so long.
“A dairy farm is a good place for a family and I think that’s basically the reason we started and stuck with the dairy all these years,” Yoder said. “Family values is a big part of our operation, and I’m glad it has allowed us to work so closely with our sons and daughters.”
Familiarity with the dairy business prepared the Yoder family to build their dream dairy facility but nature brings unexpected challenges for all farmers and they have spent the last 10 years adapting to change and fine-tuning their operation.
When the facility was being built in late 2010 to 2011, the Yoders planned to emulate the grazing-heavy Irish dairies they witnessed while on mission, but the difficult dry years following forced them to move to a more feed- and crop-based approach.
Today, the Yoder family farms all of their own feed for the cattle, primarily corn and sorghum silage. The excess silage, about one-third of the total crop, is sold to area beef producers as a source of income for the farm and the family has taken steps to ensure the bountiful nature of their harvests continues in perpetuity.
“As soon as we harvest a crop, we go back over it with wheat, clover or radishes,” Yoder said. “We don’t like to leave the soil uncovered and it has helped us limit the erosion happening, especially on our river bottom ground.”
The Yoder family keeps careful watch over their soil tests and the overall health of their land, on which chicken and cow manure are used heavily as fertilizer.
“We also have easy access to chicken litter for fertilizer, and that has helped us keep our costs down to some extent,” Yoder said. “Of course, all of our dairy manure is also put back on the farm and that helps as well.”
The Yoder dairy is made up almost exclusively of replacement heifers born and raised on site and even the original cows at the dairy were purchased from stock raised by relatives near Yoder’s family dairy in Oklahoma. Ed and his sons exclusively use live bulls, with Angus or Angus-cross bulls for all of their first-calf heifers to increase calving ease and marketing opportunities.
“The ease of marketing a beef or beef-influenced calf is just much better than marketing a fullblood dairy animal in the current market,” Yoder said. “Even for the heifers, they market better when they’re out of a black bull.”
The beauty of the Yoder dairy isn’t just in the view of the rolling hills from their farm or in the family relationships they’ve developed. It’s also in the innovative strategies the family has used to remain profitable even in rough years. Moves, like adjusting their practices by feeding out their Holstein steers to take advantage of their abundant feedstuffs, have greatly influenced the success of the dairy over time.
“With 160 cows supporting three families, it’s a stretch and so we offset that some with raising up some of the steer calves, selling corn silage and other extras we harvest,” Yoder said. “Even the boys have their own businesses raising dogs and so every little bit helps.”
Like any multi-family farm, every member has a unique role and skills they use to contribute to the betterment of the operation.
“The boys each have a unique role in the dairy,” Yoder said. “Kevin is more on the cow side of things, taking care of our veterinary needs, and Karl is more on the machinery and farming side.”
While the family has faced difficult years before, 2020 has been as challenging a time as they’ve ever witnessed before. However, Yoder said the family has seen a continued demand for their milk despite the COVID-19 crisis.
“Our milk normally goes to Fayetteville just down the road to a bottling plant,” Yoder said. “Arkansas is still a very deficient state as far as dairy and milk availability goes, so we’ve continued to have good demand for our milk.”
Preparing for difficult years by continuing to operate frugally in good years is a strategy that has served the Yoder family well in the past and continues to be a principle Ed wants his sons to emulate, much the same way he did with his own father.
“It’s probably more caught than taught,” Yoder said. “With my dad, he might not have said it but the way he operated was based on the basic principle that he couldn’t control milk prices but he could control his expenditures.”
Faithfully following this principle and stepping forward in their own faith, the Yoder family plans to continue their dairy dynasty for many years to come.
“There’s the basic principle that if you’re honest and work hard, God blesses you,” Yoder said. “And, while it hasn’t always been easy, the dairy has put food on our table and provided a good family life for us.”