Nada. Zip. Zilch. Nothing.
That is what the three Shuknecht brothers had when they decided to start a dairy farm. They were going to be equal owners in a venture that started with an idea.
“Find a job you love and you’ll never have to work again,” said Alex, the eldest.
“About 15 years ago our uncle (Elton Shuknecht) asked me and Adam (the youngest brother) to show some cows at the Erie County Fair,” said middle brother Eric.
Before long, Eric and Adam were working for their uncle, prepping the show animals for fairs and auctions; but that just wasn’t enough.
“We started with nothing. We bought our first cow in the Spring of 2009,” Eric said. “We bought her without a place to put her. But it had a domino effect over the past five years.”
So they did what most children would do -- asked their parents for some guidance.
Lynn and Bonnie Shuknecht allowed the boys to pasture the cow in their backyard in Elba; and in the Fall of 2009, they built a calf barn in their parents' yard -- a barn that is still in use.
“The barn is designed for calfs,” Eric said. “We always want to have it full and dad likes working with the younger cows.”
“Dad grew up on a farm but didn’t want it as a career,” Alex said. “He was a mold maker, he’d make the molds that are used as a template to make other things. He started that when he was 18, he's now 55. He wanted nothing to do with farming. But he likes working with the young stock now,”
At least the brothers had a working knowledge of running a farm when they started out. With Adam and Eric continuing to work with their uncle, Alex found himself at the Lamb Farms helping with a herd of approximately 6,000 cows in three locations. With Matthew Lamb at the helm, Alex learned the ropes of managing a herd, as well as the day-to-day operations of the business. And he says Lamb continues to be a great mentor and friend.
The oldest Shuknecht didn’t start out with farming as his choice career, he first went to BOCES for culinary arts and then worked as a salesman. At another time, he worked in an office, but he found the outdoors suited him best.
“I didn’t want to be a chef because of the long hours and holiday shifts,” Alex said. “So instead, I chose a profession with longer days and never having a holiday off. I chose farming because I enjoy it and would like to make money at it. I’ve had offers to work and manage other farms but I would hate myself at 50 if I didn’t try and do this now, at 28. We dove in head first.”
The brothers not only like owning a farm, they enjoy producing something that feeds people. They agree that people who love their job will work harder because they have a vested interest. The business technically formed in 2012 as Genesee Moloko, "moloko" being Slavic for milk.
“Adam came up with the name and we all liked it,” Eric said.
Autumn of 2009 began a busy time for the Wyoming residents -- a calf barn was built, Eric and Adam still worked with their uncle, and what they earned was used to pay for the barn and buy calves as well. They slowly filled the barn with young stock. When the cows reach breeding age, they are bred via artificial insemination. This allows them to select semen from bulls that have the desirable traits they want. They are on a Young Sire program -- the traits they are looking for in the bulls are speculated upon, as opposed to having proven traits. Because the company is strictly a dairy herd; when a male is produced, it is subsequently sold.
Once the cows are pregnant, a new place has to be found for them. Kip Keller allowed them to use his barn in Byron. (In 2010, Keller asked Eric to come work at his farm doing day-to-day tasks, which is how they became acquainted.) The six to eight pregnant cows stayed there for a couple of years. Other Shuknecht cows went elsewhere, and in July of 2012 they purchased their uncle's herd -- ‘the whole shooting match’ -- roughly 60 mature animals creating milk and 45 young stock. The herd grew from eight cows in 2009 to 115 presently.
“All the cows we purchased then went to the Keller farm,” Eric said. “Adam and I worked alongside the other herdsmen. We were essentially leasing our cows to Kip. We wanted to grow our herd and we soon out grew Kip’s (farm). So we moved the herd to a farm in Monroe County, where we began to ship milk under our own account with Upstate Milk.”
Upstate Niagara Cooperative, Inc., is a producer of milks, yogurts, cheese, butter and more. Headquartered in Buffalo, the company is a farmer-owned cooperative consisting of more than 360 family-owned dairy farms throughout Western New York.
Soon after the move to Monroe County, they had to consider purchasing their own farm when they outgrew yet another farm. Consequently, the purchase of their new location on Starr Road in Wyoming was completed Aug. 5.
“Through word of mouth and a lot of phone calls, we found this place,” Alex said. “We work in conjunction with R L Jefferes & Sons, Inc., out of Wyoming. We purchase feed from Jefferes and work with them to apply the cow manure (for fertilizer) to their land.”
Genesee Moloko is continuing to expand its herd with a recent purchase of 71 more cows.
“You’ve got to want the American Dream,” Alex said. “It isn’t dead, you just have to work hard at it.”
And work they did. All three took different college paths to merge into the same course of action -- running a dairy farm. Alex went to Alfred State for Animal Science. Eric went to Genesee Community College (GCC) for Veterinary Technology and Adam studied Agricultural Business and Animal Science at Cornell University.
“Can’t have all three of us (studying) one thing,” Eric said.
Alex is good at managing people and managing the herd. He is constantly checking on the animals to make sure they are healthy, their bedding is clean and there is enough air flow in the barn. He also makes sure the cows are properly vaccinated.
“The health and comfort of the animal it is the biggest thing because it makes them good producers,” Alex said. “It creates longevity. You give to them and they will give back. When a cow shows their ribs for bone structure, that is a sign of a healthy animal. There are extremes, but our job is to keep them healthy and happy.”
According to Alex, cows love "bored consistency." To move a herd is a stressor for them and it affects milk production.
Eric is the "animal nurse" -- a Licensed Veterinary Tech (LVT). He was in the first Vet Tech class offered by GCC and enrolled because of his large-animal background. Large farms, a 700-plus herd, require a LVT on staff to handle the needles, syringes and pharmaceuticals. So Eric's education equips him to manage bovine health. Another plus is that he is task-oriented.
Adam is a "wildly intelligent person," adept at running the "business part of the business." Currently living in Michigan, Adam also handles the legalities of what can and cannot be done as far as medication and the like.
They each have a different skill set to bring to the table.
“We play to each other’s strengths,” Alex said. “We agree as to who has the final say in any particular situation that corresponds to our given strength.”
There are currently three full-time and two part-time employees. Shifts are overlapped so there is more coverage when at least one of them is at the farm.
“I worked on a 3,000-herd farm. I was a herdsman; 90-hour work week with no lunches,” Alex said. “It was hard work but I learned a lot there -- how to treat people and manage things -- by the mistakes they made. We try to cross-train everyone to help them find their niche."
Eric says there are seven breeds of dairy cows, however, Genesee Moloko own just two -- Jerseys, which have double the amount of butter fat and protein in their milk; and Holsteins, which are more of a "fluid milk" cow. The quality in milk is derived from the butter fat and protein found in the milk; fluid milk cows have less butterfat and protein.
The 14-unit milk parlor, which came with the farm, runs down the center of a pit that makes the cows easily accessible when being prepped for -- and during -- milking. The milking is done twice a day, once at 5 a.m. and then again at 5 p.m. with each cow delivering approximately 66 pounds of milk per day (one gallon of milk weighs a little more than eight pounds).
According to Alex, New York State is the third largest milk producing state in the Union, with Wisconsin being the first, and California the second. Furthermore, Wyoming County is the largest county in NYS in milk production.
“There are more cows than people in this county,” Eric said. “A lot of choice cuts of beef come from dairy farms. When a milk cow is no longer profitable, the cow is sent to auction.”
Although the milk parlor was already on the premises, the heavy equipment, tractors, feeders and such, had to be purchased from outside sources. However, when it comes the animals' feed, the Shuknechts like to buy it as close to the farm as possible. During the summer, they silage (compact grass or other green fodder and store it in an airtight condition to use as feed in the winter). This gives them the feed inventory to get through until the next year. The tricky part is when more cows are added to the herd -- more feed is needed, but to have more feed, they have to buy cows -- a catch-22 according to Alex.
The feed mills, where they sometimes get their feed, has a nutritionist on hand to figure out the proper diet for their cows to make them healthy and productive.
The brothers take pride in what they do. At the end of the day, they can say that they did it themselves - from the ground up - from their first calf to their most recent dairy farm purchase.
“I had to go back to dairy farming,” Alex said. “I enjoy it.”