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Small dairy fits the bill and the bills: Simplicity secures sustainability

Tom Waitt of Sheridan, Indiana, is a hands-on dairyman who positively loves his career. Like others who farm on a smaller scale, the self-described “electric Amish” dairyman knows each and every one of his animals. Tame as tame can be, his Jerseys provide income and joy to keep the farm going.

Farmshine Editor

SHERIDAN, Ind. -- For sure, Tom Waitt looked like he was pleased with the day. His good mood was unmistakable ... evident by a welcoming smile, bright eyes, firm handshake and a sense of humor.

"We're electric Amish," he joked as we entered a tiny milk room reminiscent of half a century ago. Just beyond the opposite door were the old but tidy stanchion barn used for milking and an in-barn calf area where baby Jerseys looked not only comfortable, but healthy and very well cared for. A quick walk-through revealed no secrets other than excellent housekeeping from corner to corner and floor to ceiling -- a sure sign of dedicated management.

"Come on, let's go out and see the cows," Tom said cheerfully after the quick introduction of his "Amish" facilities.

We boarded a 4-wheeler and drove to the far end of a lush and level pasture where a fence row of trees provided shade from the mid-morning sun. Cool and comfortable as the shade may have been, the herd approached us before we had even stepped out of the John Deere Gator. Curious and friendly, the Jerseys began to surround us all, even the stranger who was now in their midst. As they did so, Tom appeared even happier than before, smiling from ear to ear. He was visibly proud of his girls and had brief stories to tell about many of them. As we stood there in the sunshine, admiring the animals and the beautiful day itself, the Jerseys weren't at all shy about nuzzling their visitors. They were as tame as tame can be and Tom -- one could tell -- was loving it.

And that's why he's a dairyman. He loves the animals and the lifestyle of dairy farming. Small-scale dairy farming, that is.

Tom's wife, Sally, is a full participant in operating the 105-acre farm, sharing not only the work load, but also the passion. Dairy farming is a way of life that the couple enjoys and it was "a great place to raise their family," she affirmed. Their four children are Ross, 28; Katie, 26; Luke, 22; and Samuel, 20. Like their parents, they’re all Purdue gradates, except for Samuel, who’s studying elementary education at Purdue.

Dairy farming was a career choice for Tom and Sally in the most profound way because, quite simply, they’re both educated and trained for other careers. They wouldn’t have to do what they do if they really didn’t want to. The fact is, Tom is a full-time teacher at a high school; Sally works at a veterinary clinic. Both have had their respective off-farm employment for 20 years. And still, they chose to be full-time dairy farmers for just as long. It can be a grueling schedule.

For Tom, who started the new school year on August 12, a typical weekday looks like this:
• 4:00 - 6:30 a.m. -- milk, feed, clean.
• 6:50 a.m. -- leave for school.
• 3:30 p.m. -- return home from school.
• 5 p.m. -- milk and feed.
• 7-9 p.m. -- field work if necessary.
• 9:30 -- bed time.

When school is not in session, Tom milks at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. and does fieldwork and other chores during the day.

Sally works at the clinic all day Mondays, Wednesday mornings and Saturday mornings and is available to help with chores and milking during other times.

The farm supports itself. It’s not a hobby; a reality which is supported by all that’s visible from calves to crops. “The farm pays for itself and my school income helps send four kids to college,” Tom afirmed.

Sally comments on the viability of their operation with these words: “The key to our success is keeping our operation small enough so that we can till the fields, use manure as fertilizer and rotate crops. Also, we raise most of the cows here so we get to know them well.”

Asked what they’ve done to reduce their work load, considering that clinic and class schedules can sometimes interfere, the couple responds:

“The cows are on pasture from April through December 1, so not as much cleaning is necessary then.” (There is no barn cleaner in the stanchion barn.)

“Our son, Ross, helps from December through May as he has a seasonal job at a nearby orchard and it is closed then. Our two other boys and their cousin help us with any square baling of straw and hay in the summer. Also,we have a baleage wrapper to make round bales of hay baleage to feed the milk cows which is easier than feeding square bales and it is an excellant quality of forage. We keep modern equipment so repairs are at a minimum.”

Aside from their own 105 acres, Tom and Sally rent another 15 acres. Crops include 50 acres of alfalfa, 30 acres of corn, 10 acres of wheat and 10 acres of soybeans. Twenty acres are in pasture and/or woods.

Farming is something Tom has always wanted to do since boyhood and he succeeded in achieving his dream. He grew up on a farm, went to Purdue, worked and lived at the Purdue Dairy and worked at a dairy near Laporte, Indiana, for two years after graduating from Purdue. His family lived in Sheridan and his Dad owned a farm near here so the couple bought this farm in 1983.

The Jersey herd totals around 80 in all, of which 35 to 40 are usually in the milking string. Around 15 cows are routinely dry; the rest are heifers and calves.

Tom started teaching when their youngest son was born, preparing for his second career by going to night school in Indianapolis. Some years before, he had already earned his degree in animal science from Purdue, which is where he met Sally, who is originally from Massachusetts. Like Tom, she also holds a dregree in animal science.

“We have no regrets and wouldn't change anything,” she says of her now 20 years on a Midwestern farm. “It is peaceful and quiet here but we are only a 10-15 minute drive from town and a half hour from Indianapolis.”

Asked to name some challenges that they face in their chosen fields, the couple responds that neither teaching nor dairy farming pay a lot. “Also, the weather can be very unpredictable and we have no control over milk prices,” they added. Due to the pristine care of ther cows and emphasis on consistent high quality milk, they earn quality awards and premiums from their cooperative, Prairie Farms.

It also helps that their cows are so calm. “The cows see us and interact with us as we feed them and milk in the stanchion barn,” Tom explained. “Every year one of our calves also goes to the Indiana State Fair in the petting area and we give several farm tours so the cows are used to people.”

As for the future, the Waitts would like to one day have a creamery on their farm. With Indianapolis just a half hour to the south, they believe that processing their own milk is a worthy idea, especially with less than half a dozen operating dairy farms left in their county. “We feel there would be a big market for it because we are so close to Indianapolis and other nearby towns and people like to see where their food is coming from,” the couple affirmed.