After the Cummings family completed morning milking on their Hidden River Ranch Dairy, we gathered around the kitchen table of their farmhouse on a beautiful fall morning to talk about their lives on the farm. Todd and Joni sipped coffee while their daughter, Chloe, found contentment and joy in playing with her toy horses around us.
The Cummings’ family farm is located in the small, unincorporated town of Ogema, Wisconsin where Todd grew up. Todd’s parents dairy farmed when he was a kid and still continue to do so today. While growing up, Todd developed a strong love for farming, which led to where they are today.
Since 1991, Todd and Joni raised beef cattle on their farm, just 3 miles down the road from Todd’s parents, while also both working off the farm. Todd was a logger and Joni worked as a vet technician. It wasn’t until 2011 that they started dairy farming full-time.
Today, the Cummings sell their milk to Organic Valley, own 220 acres, and rent an additional 300.
A love for farming
Before they even met, Todd and Joni both had dreams of living on a farm, even though their ideas of what that meant might have been different.
For Todd, farming has always been a big part of his life. By the age of 8 he was already learning to drive a tractor, and by 12 years old he was doing most of the milking on his parent’s dairy farm.
When Todd talked about growing up on a farm, he said, “It was the greatest thing in the world. I don’t think you could have a better childhood. I was outside all the time with the cows.” When reminiscing about his best childhood memories, he shared, “We would pasture the cows out by the woods where there was no fence. Sometimes our cows would get mixed up with my uncle’s cows, but we always got them back. They knew where they went. We had a stall barn and those cows knew which stall was theirs.”
For Joni, it was her love for animals that drew her from the city to farm life. But little did she know that her dream of a hobby farm with horses would turn into so much more. When talking about dairy farming, she said, “I love it, I do. I never knew I’d be attached to the animals as much as I am.” She continues on, “When I was growing up, I just wanted to get to the country and have animals.”
You could say that farming runs in the Cummings family blood because when Chloe was asked what she likes most about farming, her response fit right in when she said, “I love my cows.” She also went on to talk about how much she enjoys feeding the calves.
Todd followed up, “Cows are a member of the family.” “Yes they are,” agreed Joni.
Life on the farm
When it to comes to responsibilities on the farm, Todd and Joni always work together to complete the day’s work, and even Chloe is happy to pitch in. At the young age of 11, she’s already no stranger to hard work. She loves to help out on the farm and is becoming very good at milking at cows, mentioned Joni.
Like any dairy farm, their day revolves around milking. For the Cummings, a typical day starts around 6 am and ends around 7-8 pm. They currently milk about 35 cows with their herd ranging from Brown Swiss to Jersey-Normande Cross.
Milking takes about 2-3 hours on the Cummings farm and is done on a raised platform. The cows walk up a short ramp on the right to reach the platform and when milking is completed, they walk down stairs on the left to exit. With this setup, they are able to milk 8 cows at one time.
When the Cummings first purchased their farm though, the barn was not setup for milking. The barn on the property was actually built for horses. When they made the decision to start milking, they converted that horse barn into a milking barn. When asked about the process, Todd jokingly said, “They didn’t think we could pull it off, but they didn’t tell us that at the time.” They completed the job in just 3 months.
The Cummings produce 100% grass-fed organic milk, which means that their cows are fed a diet consisting only of organic forage (e.g. grass and hay) and no grains. This specialty milk is sold to Organic Valley for their grassmilk product line.
But even before the Cummings joined Organic Valley’s grassmilk program, they were already feeding very little grain to their cows. When talking about their decision to be 100% grass-fed organic, Todd said, “We wanted to be able to make a living off the farm, and I figured that was the way to do it. Plus, we were already doing it that way; we just weren’t certified. They were able to inspect everything we had and we were ready, without having to wait [for the 3 year transition period].”
He also went on to say, “I wouldn’t go back to feeding any grain. Our cows are healthy when they aren’t pushed heavy with grain; they seem to do a lot better. We were gearing toward that when we bought the cows, to not feed grain.”
Because of this grass-fed diet, the cows spend as much time as possible on pasture during spring, summer, and fall, while also having access to baleage year round. Baleage is wet wrapped forage of relatively high moisture content that is baled and wrapped in plastic to keep oxygen out. This allows for fermentation and preservation of valuable nutrients.
Farming as a career
Like every career path, farming also has its drawbacks. For the Cummings family, I think they’re all in agreement that the loss of animals is one of the tougher things they deal with on the farm, as well said by Todd. “The hardest part is losing animals when they get older. When you try everything to keep them alive but you just can’t.” Joni nodded in agreement, “It’s heart wrenching.” Chloe feels as though “they are all like pets.”
Although losing animals is difficult, raising them is extremely rewarding. “I think the best part is seeing the animals grow from a calf to a milking cow and then have calves of their own,” said Todd. Joni is also proud of the cows they raise. She said, “They’re in good shape and healthy.”
Todd continued on to talk about how it’s also very rewarding to care for the land and in return see it produce exceptional crops. He said, “We can see things get better every year.”
More than dairy
As you know, along with hard work also comes a little play. For the Cummings family that means owning almost as many horses as they do cows.
What started as one horse when Joni was 12 years old grew into owning 26 horses at one point in time. Today, the Cummings are owners of 10, well-loved, horses.
But for Chloe, riding doesn’t stop with just the horses. Chloe isn’t shy about hopping bareback onto her favorite cow, Meathead, while Meathead grazes in the pasture.
Disappearing family farms
The loss of family farms has a big impact on local communities. Family farmers are the biggest supporters of local jobs and businesses, from shopping at the local grocery store to working with the local mechanics; the two are very closely tied. As Todd put it, “a lot of small businesses are going out with the farms. Whether it’s the hardware store in town or equipment dealers, the small farms, small everything is disappearing.”
“There used to be 11 dairy farms and there are now 3 dairy farms left in the whole township of Ogema,” said Todd. That number includes their farm.
“I know a lot of people who lost their farms. It’s just a horrible thing to watch. It’s their whole life,” he said. “I’ll just quit and do something else, well it’s not that easy. It’s not just a job; it’s your whole lifestyle,” Todd commented when talking about the hardship farmers face.