By Linda Geist
The sun sets on the well-worn path to the dairy barn where Michelle Eilenstine milks cows. She travels the familiar path seven days a week, 365 days a year to tend to the cows. She dreamed of taking this road as a young girl.
At 12, Eilenstine helped her father with afternoon milking. By 14, she walked a mile across a pasture after school to milk her uncle's cows. Her 4-H club, Udders and Hooves, and Mountain Grove High School FFA laid the foundation for an animal science degree from the University of Missouri, Columbia.
THEIR OWN PATH: Michelle Eilenstine of Mountain Grove is part of MU Extension's Women in Dairy program, which gives women dairy operators an opportunity to learn and socialize.
However, Eilenstine always planned to return to the family farm with degree in hand. Like her father and grandfather, she was born to be a dairy farmer. She is one of Missouri's 85 principal operators of a dairy farm who are female, according to the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture.
"I always liked being in the barn," she says. "It's very relaxing."
Eilenstine and her husband, Loren, operate Ram-Elle Holsteins and Jerseys. They have 35 head of cows and hope to expand their numbers, along with the technology to care for them.
Rebuilding the dairy
In 1982, 11 of the family's dairy cows died when a tornado touched down. It destroyed the house, milk barn and hay barn. The family replaced these buildings. In 2003, they added a freestall barn and manure system using Missouri State Milk Board guidelines. They worked with MU Extension dairy economists and engineers to rebuild the operation.
Rebuilding a dairy herd takes time and money. The tornado occurred during a time of high interest rates. The rebound has been gradual and planned. Today, Eilenstine hopes to improve technology at the farm.
"We look to use advancements in technology to improve the herd's performance in the future," she says. For example, she uses her smartphone to track cow records instantly. "Even on a small farm, topics like electronic calving monitors and robotic milkers pop into the conversation when talking about the future of the herd," she says. She hopes to expand the herd to 60 head through heifer replacement.
A woman's world
Women operate only 1.1% of dairy farms, according to a 2007 USDA report. For Eilenstine, dairy farming can be isolating because it is so labor-intensive.
Chores and socializing must fit between morning and evening milking. Slow-cooker and oven meals are routine. The family schedules holiday events around milking time. "That can be a challenge," she says.
The physical demands of the job — from lifting pitchforks filled with hay and moving heavy gates and equipment — take their toll. Cows need to be milked no matter the weather — heat, cold, ice and mud.
Despite the challenges, Eilenstine lives and breathes dairy.
Eilenstine is one of Missouri's small group of women dairy farmers who are deeply passionate about what they do for a living, says Reagan Bluel, MU Extension dairy specialist. Bluel leads the MU Extension Women in Dairy program that began this year to offer social and educational opportunities for women dairy farmers.
Eilenstine participates in MU Extension's Women in Dairy program to socialize with other women who have the same joys and problems. Most dairy meetings focus on male operators, she says. "It's nice to be able to share problems with other women."
Bluel says the group gives them time to talk about the unique challenges and joys of dairy farming. She recalls that a week after their son's birth, her husband returned to the oil rig where he works. Eilenstine was nursing their son and had to bring their week-old baby to the milking barn with her twice daily to milk the cows. "It was a good day if he slept all the way through milking," she says.
According to Eilenstine, one of the primary goals of the group was to ensure that there was an opportunity for women dairy operators who work really hard day in and day out to seek solace and to breathe. "Women in Dairy programs give them a place to talk and to know they are not alone," she says. "They may want to talk about a newborn calf, plummeting milk prices or about a special cow that died. It's very personal."
Eilenstine believes in the dairy business. She also believes in hard work and not cutting corners. "You'll reap the benefits if you do things right," she says.
Geist is a senior information specialist with the University of Missouri Extension. She writes from Columbia.