It’s been a little while since we last posted one of our 20 Questions with 14 Farmers. Summer is busy on the farm and it gets a little tougher to track down farmers this time of year. But we were lucky to have our next farmer share some of his thoughts (and humor) with us about his farm and his philosophy on a variety of topics. He’s not the average dairy farmer, he’s constantly challenging himself to be better and do more. And these 20 Questions are no exception. Being the overachiever he is, he actually answered 24 questions! So pour yourself a tall glass of milk or dish yourself out a big bowl of ice cream, and sit back and enjoy learning about a real-life New York dairy farmer, Ken Van Slyke.
1. Who are you?
My name is Ken Van Slyke. I am a seventh generation farmer with a dry sense of humor, and a wealth of useless trivia knowledge, with a dash of science geek thrown in for good measure. I proudly manage our family dairy farm, which is located in Pike, New York with my cousin, Tammy, her father, Greg, and my father, Gary. My wife, Tonya and I have two boys; Kyle, 13 and Kolby, 11. We have been married for 14 years.
2. Why are you a dairy farmer?
I am a dairy farmer both by choice and by family heritage. I see it as a great deal of fortune that I was born into a dairy farming family. I can’t imagine any other way to grow up. However, I have spent enough time away from the dairy in another career to make the conscious choice to return to dairy farming. Dairy farming provides a very unique career opportunity in that on any given day I am challenged to utilize all aspects of my education and skills. Life is surely never boring on a dairy, with something new and different to do every day. I am forced to hone my skills and continually learn new concepts. I also derive a lot of satisfaction from working with family – the previous generation and the next generation – to preserve green space, innovate new practices, and to produce a high quality food product that my non-farming neighbors can rely on to provide nutrition for their family.
3. How would you describe your farm?
The use of our mission statement is probably how I could best describe our farm: Van Slyke’s Dairy Farm, LLC is a sixth and seventh generation family farm committed to progressiveness and the production of high quality agricultural goods. Our business is focused on efficiency, responsible growth, and striving for excellence in everything we do in order to provide a good standard of living and a feeling of ownership for all of our team members. We proudly accept our inherent responsibility to provide the best care possible for our dairy cows, the environment, and to portray the best agriculture has to offer to the community every day.
On a more technical approach, we currently work with about 1,250 mature cows, 150 calves and 60 pre-fresh heifers on our dairy. The heifers from weaning to springer age are raised at a heifer facility about 35 miles from our dairy. We work about 2,000 acres to provide forages to our animals. At this time we do not grow any grains.
In 2010, we started a new enterprise called Bessie’s Best®. It is a business that produces compost from our cows’ manure and markets the product locally and nationally to garden centers and direct to consumers. I have also started my own business called PikeSide Enterprises that focuses on products and solutions to dairy farming’s current and future challenges with nutrient management and bedding usage.
4. What is your favorite thing to do on the farm?
It is undeniable that my favorite thing to do on the farm is to run machinery, especially the chopper. I love to see first-hand the result of our yearlong toils at harvest time. It takes coordination, concentration and a lot of forethought to operate the machine, direct co-workers, and make decisions for the farm “on the go.”
5. How many hours do you typically work in one week?
My typical workweek is probably about 55-60 hours for the farm, and another 20+ for PikeSide Enterprises. Many weeks run past 100 hours when we are cropping.
6. Did you go to school to be a farmer?
I was involved in FFA in high school, and I majored in agriculture in college. I focused on ag engineering and agronomy at SUNY Cobleskill for two years, then finished up my four year degree at Cornell, while focusing on the Dairy Fellows curriculum. I had the opportunity to intern at a very successful, progressive dairy in Pennsylvania before my senior year of college.
7. What do you for fun off the farm?
My wife and I put a lot of time and energy into our boys and their activities. We enjoy supporting them in their travel sports, educational trips, and also spending time with them at home. We enjoy using our boat on different New York lakes when the weather allows, going to Cornell hockey games, annual trips to a Jimmy Buffett concert, and traveling, especially to Disney, when we can. I personally enjoy snowmobiling, impromptu bonfires with friends, mowing the lawn, washing my truck, and building with Legos.
8. What personality trait makes you a better farmer?
I think I have a strong drive to get better at farming every day. I quickly get bored with the status quo, and I do not want us to ever be categorized as “average.”
9. Is your glass of milk – half full or half empty?
Technically, the balance of the glass is always full of air, regardless of how much milk is in it. Philosophically, my cup of milk runneth over daily. I am so very blessed to have the lifestyle I have, and to have such a great family around me.
10. What challenges you as a dairy farmer?
As a business owner, getting my Type-A personality under control and delegating is an internal struggle. I do have a great team of skilled people around me, and I have learned to trust in their abilities. I am also challenged by keeping our business nimble enough to adapt quickly to our volatile markets, and our ever changing, constricting regulations here in New York.
11. What is one thing you are most proud of in regards to the farm?
I am probably most proud of our family heritage of taking care of our animals and our natural resources, while remaining progressive. We have been recognized for our animal welfare standards and our environmental conservation. In 2010, Van Slyke’s Dairy Farm LLC was Conservation Farm of the Year in New York State.
12. Do you do anything special for your cows or calves?
I think all successful farmers do special things for their animals. It makes sense to do so. With our calves, for example, we provide warm, pasteurized milk three times per day, and in the colder months, we provide a fitted blanket for each one. For the mature cows, we provide plenty of bedding on top of mattresses, and sprinkle them with water and cool them with large fans in the summer.
13. What is one thing you recycle, reuse or repurpose on the farm?
The list of items that we recycle is very long… paper, straw, soy hulls, beet pulp, citrus pulp, wheat mids, truck tires, manure for fertilizer, and the list goes on. Probably one of more recent items we started to recycle is the cows’ bedding. We utilize a system that removes the large fiber from the manure and processes it in a way that results in a pathogen-clean, fluffy bedding for the cows. By producing our own bedding, selling Bessie’s Best®, and having a cover on our manure storage lagoon, we have reduced our potential manure volume by about 35% We have also been able to reduce or eliminate man-made fertilizers for our crops due to the use of our liquid manure as a fertilizer, without negatively impacting crop yields.
14. What do you usually wear to the barn?
I’m happiest in my carpenter jeans, and a button down shirt. In the summer, I have to trade the jeans for cargo shorts. In winter, it has to be Carhartt bib overalls. I only wear rubber boots when necessary. Otherwise I prefer lightweight, leather hiking boots.
15. Where does your milk go?
For now, our milk is marketed through a cooperative called Dairy Farmers of America. Almost all of our milk goes to make soft cheese products, including cottage cheese and mozzarella, which are made at a few different processing plants within 40 miles of our farm.
16. Do you have a nickname for your cows?
I sometimes affectionately refer to them as “critters.”
17. What is your favorite dairy product?
I LOVE extremely sharp cheddar, Gruyere, and other powerful cheeses, cottage cheese with strawberry jam on it, and black cherry Greek yogurt…and you’d better not mess with my glass of whole milk on the dinner table. But seriously, how can you go wrong with any dairy product?
18. What is the last thing you do on the farm before calling it a day?
I try to at least check with all of our middle managers to make sure everything is okay around the farm, and provide suggestions for a game plan for the following day.
19. When was the last time you took a true vacation that didn’t involve a farm meeting – and where did you go or what did you do?
We took our family to California this past April. We started at Disneyland, and then drove up the San Joaquin Valley to view some of the agriculture of California. From there we spent a night in Yosemite, then traveled on to Squaw Valley to meet up with my sister and her family to go skiing for a few days.
20. Do you like the smell of manure?
Manure smells like money to me! Yes, I do have an appreciation for freshly applied manure to a summer hay field.
21. What is the next innovative thing you plan to implement on your farm?
Short term: LED long day lighting, and revamping our ventilation and cooling systems for the cows, GPS variable rate technology for precisely applying manure and seed populations to maximize our soil’s potential on every acre. Long term: we are starting to research the possibility of converting our dairy facility to install robotic milkers.
23. Do you volunteer locally – and where?
Our businesses support many local organizations in time and resources, including FFA, soccer clubs, Business Education Council, YMCA, Pike Fire Department, Community Action, the local hockey club, and others.
24. Do you accept visitors to your farm?
We love visitors! We host tours on an almost weekly basis. We have had visitors from all 50 states, and 40 other countries. I personally enjoy visits from people that are far removed from agriculture. It gives me an opportunity to influence their perception of modern agriculture. I hope they leave with a feeling of connection to where their dairy products come from.