Cheryl McDaniel has found her calling as a dairy farmer. It’s not something she expected to be—she didn’t grow up on a farm and previously worked in the office of one of the local schools. However, her bright smile and easy laugh as she is taunted by a playful bull or demonstrating the milking machine at Heavenly Acres Farm in Ruckersville it’s pretty easy to see she’s found her peace.
“I love it, I just love it; the pleasure of coming down here with the cows, seeing the babies and working your own schedule,” McDaniel said.
Along with her husband Billy, the McDaniels operate Heavenly Acres Farm with a bit of help from a robotic milking machine—with computerized information sheets about the health of each of the 46 lactating cows using tags on their ears.
The cows stay inside a barn with stalls lined with fresh straw and when they’re ready to be milked they walk over to feed on a trough of sweet feed as a robotic arm connects to the tits and does some of the heavy lifting for the couple.
“It takes about two weeks to train the cows to go to be milked on their own,” McDaniel said.
As a cow approaches the chute, the gate closes behind her and she enjoys the sweet feed until she’s milked—unless it’s not yet time for her and the gate will open for her to leave. The robotic arm uses brushes to clean the utters twice before air drying and then attaching to the teats.
“The robot will detect if there is mastitis, blood or any other change and dump the milk automatically,” she said. “We’re very lucky to have the robot that tells us a lot of information. Mastitis is common but can be fatal.”
Inside the barn are two bulls to keep the bovines in the “family way,” which keeps the milk coming. The bulls have gotten smart enough to know if they enter the open chute they’ll enjoy a bit of sweet feed until the arm realizes there’s not a female cow in there and open the other gate.
Heavenly Acres Farm has been in Billy McDaniel’s family for years, operated previous as a beef cattle farm. McDaniel herself has only been dairying since 2014, but Billy had tried it previously to their meeting.
“At the time the price was not profitable and he couldn’t find any good help,” she said. “It’s not possible to milk 40 cows a day by yourself. When he said he wanted to get back into dairying I thought ‘uh oh’.”
The duo purchased the robotic milking machine— at a quarter million dollars—but McDaniel said “it’s the only way we are be able to do it ourselves.”
That doesn’t mean it’s an easy life for the farmers. McDaniel said farming is still an everyday job; there is mucking the barn and stalls; keeping tabs on which cow is pregnant and knowing when to dry them out in preparation for the birth—which can bring its own problems. The McDaniels lost one calf in May.
There is a lot of information to keep track of per animal, but the pair gets help from the robotic arm and computer software. In addition to health reports, the machine will detect any fluctuations in milk production, how far along a pregnancy is, how many visits to the machine the cow is making, how many lactations a cow has gone through and so much more. A lactation is the number of calves the cow has produced.
“Cows usually last around four to five lactations and then they’re about done producing milk,” McDaniel said.
The robot is able to handle up to 60 cows so Heavenly Acres is to yet milking at full potential, but McDaniel said she expects it to happen soon.
One of the biggest changes for McDaniel is the change from being a person who planned everything to becoming a farmer.
“I knew what I had to do at work every day,” she said. “I knew what I do when I came home every evening. But with farming, you cannot make plans because as soon as you do something happens and your whole day is shot. That was new for me.”
Both Cheryl and Billy grew up in Greene County. Billy’s sister lives in the home they grew up in at the edge of the farm, while his mother lives nearby. Cheryl grew up as a Lamm and her mother and father still live in the county, as do her three brothers.
“My family gets together every other Sunday for a lunch,” she said.
She has two grown sons with her ex-husband and the McDaniels have one daughter, Landon, 12.
Landon hasn’t come around the dairying yet, McDaniel said, but she likes to show her animals and is excited for the inaugural Greene Farm and Livestock Show Aug. 8-10.
Dairy farms across the country have been struggling as milk prices have decreased, as have the prices on the calves.
“The calves would fetch $300-400 a piece and now we’re lucky to get $30 each,” McDaniel said. “When we first started we’d get about $28 per 100 gallons of milk. Now we get about $15 per hundred.”
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture 2017 census there were 1,048 milk cow operations with inventory, 120 less than the last census in 2012. Greene County had eight operations in 2012 and seven in 2017, according to the census. In 20 years, the number of dairy farms in the United States has been reduced by more than half to 54,599.
The couple also grows heavy non-antibiotic tom turkeys for the Virginia Poultry Growers Cooperative in Harrisonburg.
To celebrate Virginia Dairy Month in June, the farm will be open for tours of the automatic milking parlor on Saturday, June 22 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. with hot dogs and ice cream, as well as activities for the kids. Heavenly Acres Farm is at 1570 Fredericksburg Road in Ruckersville. The event is sponsored by the Greene County Farm Bureau’s Women’s Committee.