This dairy wife’s day is never done

  • By John Wolcott HBJ Freelance Writer
  • Thursday, June 28, 2012 9:16am

STANWOOD — Minding a herd of 120 dairy cows on a 115-acre farm south of Stanwood, handling the finances for the family business, sharing time with a husband and four children and traveling the state promoting the dairy products industry keeps Tammi Schoenbachler busy.

But she takes everything on with a smile and a positive attitude.

“The hours are a bit long,” she said. “The cows get milked at 3 a.m., which takes about four hours, and again at 3 p.m. There’s plenty to do all day long on a farm, but it’s what we love and we wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.”

She and her husband, Fred, bought Sildahl Farms in 1988 from Fred’s parents, whose family in Europe has a 500-year history in Switzerland’s Sildahl Valley. That explains why a Swiss national flag flies from the farm’s tall pole, just below the American flag.

Schoenbachler grew up in nearby Happy Valley. All four of their children — Alycia, Adrienne, Brooke and Blake — are involved in the farm work. Youngest daughter Brooke, a student at Skagit Valley College, takes care of the calves at the farm and will continue her studies in dairy sciences at Washington State University.

The dairy business is challenging as well as rewarding, Schoenbachler said, but while she and Fred encourage their children to look at dairying in their future, they urge them to consider other careers as well.

“It’s great that all of our children are involved in the farm work, and showing cows at the annual Washington State Holstein Show in Lynden,” she said. “Whatever career they choose, we know that when colleges or employers look at their applications that show they’ve worked on a farm, it shows they’re organized and have a great work ethic.”

Schoenbachler does the bookkeeping and other financial work for the dairy, including paying two employees who help with milking and other chores.

“It’s always difficult to figure our break-even point,” she said. “One of the things we did right was to keep our farm and herd the same size. We can handle the 120 cows and run the farm as it is and we maintain an organized schedule of what needs to be done, including keeping an eye on each cow and making sure their health is maintained.”

Unlike many dairy farmers, Schoenbachler said they operate with cash on hand rather than a bank’s line of credit to maintain and improve the farm.

“We have no control over the milk prices in Washington state, so we have to be efficient and run the farm economically,” she said.

To keep expenses down, the Schoenbachlers pasture the herd on their land, grow most of their own feed and store their own silage.

Fred Schoenbachler has become expert in breeding Holsteins. As the most common milk cows in the nation and the world’s highest milk producing dairy animals, there is a larger market for Holsteins than for other breeds.

The Schoenbachlers’ herd is registered, giving the cows the quality assurance needed for profitable marketing. Fred Schoenbachler said breeding is a small part of their operation but he’s working on growing that aspect of the dairy to improve the farm’s bottom line, which is greatly limited by fixed milk prices.

Eight years ago, Tammi Schoenbachler joined the Washington State Dairy Women, a grassroots organization that raises money for education scholarships. As a state dairy ambassador adviser, she mentors the industry’s dairy ambassadors across the state at school presentations, assemblies and events.

In April and May, she traveled 2,300 miles for activities and events promoting the Washington dairy industry, which dairy farmers statewide sponsor with Les Schwab Tires.

“It’s a great business and also a great life here,” she said. “We’re in a beautiful rural area, close to Stanwood, with great neighbors who have dairy and beef cattle. We all help each other if equipment breaks down or something needs repairing. It’s a very close-knit community.”

Dairy industry overview

Dairying in Snohomish County remains an important slice of the local agricultural economy despite a dramatic decline in the number of farms, from 654 dairies with 22,000 cows in 1960 to 28 farms with 11,000 cows today, according to the Washington Diary Products Commission.

Still, industry statistics show that county dairies produced 260 million pounds of milk valued at $23.4 million in 2010.

Despite having the smallest number of farms and herds since dairying began in Snohomish County in the late 1800s, the remaining farms have survived by being creative in reducing operational costs and dramatically increasing annual milk production to an average of 23,737 pounds per cow.

Washington dairies’ annual milk production has reached 6 billion pounds from herds totaling more than 260,000 cows.