Forward-thinking has always played a prominent role for Crave Brothers Farm.
Since the founding of the multigenerational dairy farm in Waterloo, Wis., in 1980, they’ve adopted sustainable farming practices, added a cheese factory to increase the value of their milk, and operate a manure digester that generates enough electricity to power their operation and 300 neighboring homes, making them a carbon-negative company.
Now the next move for the Crave family is a smooth transition of ownership and management to the second generation, while also furthering their regenerative ag practices.
Rely on Experts to Facilitate a Smooth Transition
With four senior owners and three junior owners, the farm is in the thick of the transition process and aim to transition ownership of a large portion of their business in the next 10 years.
“All of the senior members have a lot of experience, we still lean on them a lot,” says Jordan Crave, age 35 who is one of the junior partners. “But ultimately, the direction we go is going to be up to the younger generation members and managers. So we are making those decisions and setting the foundation for that move.”
To achieve that goal, the farm has been working with a business that focuses exclusively on transitioning farm management and ownership. They’ve been with their current consultant for the last couple of years, but it took a while to find the right company to work with.
“There’s so much expertise that needs to be brought in from a management standpoint, a family management standpoint, and maintaining relationships with family professionally and personally,” Jordan says. “Then there’s tax and estate planning. It can be very overwhelming without someone to help coordinate it.”
While it is an additional expense, the Craves feel strongly that working with a consulting firm is in their best interest.
“We all feel there’s too much at stake to just wing it,” Jordan says.
Fighting Growing Costs with Value-Added Products
While the owners are the ones directing the course of the future of the farm, Jordan says they wouldn’t be in business without their labor force, which consists of more than 70 employees between the farm and cheese factory.
The Craves strive to be an employer that people want to work for, which includes paying them a living wage as well as providing health insurance. But with the cost of living going up, they expect labor costs to continue rising.
“We have to control our labor costs, but we also know that without good employees we could not get all of the work done,” he says. “The tricky part is going to be the labor costs go up, farm equipment costs go up, but what we get paid at the end of the day doesn’t change a whole lot. That’s the real balancing act.”
To help reduce that expense, the Craves try to maximize the value they get out of their current team, by providing them better equipment or a better work environment, so they’re fully utilizing their talents and skills.
“It’s our duty as their employer to set them up for success and help them to succeed,” Jordan says.
The Craves are also being proactive in how they plan to stay profitable. One approach is finding ways to add more value to their products. They’ve already achieved this with their cheese factory, a decision that was made after the three senior partners evaluated several different ideas to add value to their milk, which they felt was necessary to be a sustainable business. Since 2001, they’ve been making mozzarella, mascarpone, fresh cheddar cheese curds and more.
But now the Craves are keeping an eye on consumer demands to see if there are other ways to increase the value of their products.
“If our consumers are willing to pay more for something, I think we’re foolish not to at least consider why,” Jordan says. “I think it’s good to be aware of what trends there are. Maybe I can produce something worth more and produce less of it, and ultimately make more money and have a little bit less stress in my life.”
One consumer demand they’re paying attention to is the desire to know where food comes from and how it’s produced, in addition to it being nutritious.
“I believe that as we improve the health of our soils, we can increase the nutrient density of the foods we produce,” he says. “We can also produce them in a more environmentally and economically sustainable way. This is a system and message we can be proud to show our consumer, and they will be willing to support with their opinions and their purchases.”
Identifying Benefits Beyond Monetary Values
Not all decisions are made purely for profit or financial gain. The manure digester they’ve been using since the fall of 2006 is one such example.
“We don’t look to our manure digester to generate a lot of profit,” Jordan explains. “The system requires a lot of management, and more importantly, a lot of capital to keep things running properly.”
What the digester does provide is electricity, heat, bedding and fertilizer. Jordan explains that after they digest the manure, they separate the solids and dry them. This results in dry, comfortable bedding for use in the barns, while the liquid product is a great fertilizer source that is more suitable for application to growing crops than traditional dairy manure.
“This is becoming increasingly valuable to us from a nutrient management standpoint and helping us to be more flexible with manure application timing,” Jordan says.
But the digesters also provide a secondary benefit: reduced odor. While they can’t put a financial figure on it, it’s a great benefit to the people who work on the farm and their neighbors, and Jordan says public perception definitely plays a part in their decision to own and operate a digester. While they originally ran it in partnership with others, they have since bought them out and now exclusively own and operate the entity as Clean Fuel Crave.
Being a good neighbor and community member also plays a role in other investments they evaluate. For example, last year they invested in a water truck and a power broom, which they use to sweep and wash off roads if they get them muddy during harvest or a manure application.
“This has no real ROI in terms of dollars and cents, but it goes a long way towards doing what we can to maintain positive relationships with our neighbors,” Jordan says.
Improving Soil Health to Reduce Inputs
In order to produce high-quality cheese, they need high-quality milk, and that comes from providing their 2,100 cow dairy herd with high-quality feed.
As the agronomy manager, Jordan knows that to produce high-quality forage and feed, it starts with choosing the right seed hybrids and varieties.
While he doesn’t have a lot of control over the cost of certain inputs like seed, he tries to have control over what he can get out of those inputs. For instance, the Craves rely heavily on manure as their primary fertilizer source, so they are looking for better ways to manage their manure, with application methods and timing.
Jordan’s current goal is to apply manure to a living crop whenever he can, because he knows the nutrients will be rapidly taken up and utilized.
“The better we’re able to utilize manure, the less commercial fertilizer we have to purchase,” he says.
He also knows that it’s better for the environment and his soil’s health, something he is actively trying to build for the future of the farm, which will impact other decision making.
For example, the Craves “plant green,” a practice where they no-till corn or soybeans straight into a living cover crop of cereal rye. They’ve seen great success with it, which Jordan defines as being able to produce an equal — if not better — crop compared to conventional planting, while also seeing time, fuel and money savings from reduced herbicide costs, skipped tillage passes, and rock picking.
Because of how well it’s worked on some of their older equipment, they’re now ready to adopt it on a greater scale and invest in a new no-till planter that will be on 15-inch rows instead of the 30-inch rows they’ve been planting corn on.
They came to this decision after testing 15- and 22-inch rows for 3 years, where they consistently saw better yields, starch levels and plant digestibility, without higher plant populations or fertilizer use. They were also able to reduce their herbicide use thanks to the quicker canopy.
“We have little control over the commodity markets, over what we’re getting paid for our products, so we have to be conscious of what we’re investing in growing those crops,” Jordan says. “Combining manure, cover crops, and forages to help build soil health, I think we can ultimately reduce inputs and become more profitable per acre.”
Using Data, Sustainability to Measure Success
As they make changes and try new practices, they’ll use data and measurements to determine whether a practice is successful.
Jordan says everything they harvest is weighed on a platform scale so they know exactly what they have for yield. They also test for feed quality.
“The most important thing is collecting data, so that we can measure it,” he says. “If we can’t measure it, we can’t really make a good decision.”
After they’ve measured it they’ll build out their spreadsheets and examine the benefits of the practice. He says they don’t typically go “full steam” on something in year one, instead starting on a small scale. If it goes well, they’ll try it on more acres, and if it continues to succeed, then it’s fully adopted on the operation.
Jordan sees this kind of utilization of data collection and analyzation only increasing across agriculture, with more farmers wanting to know their inputs vs. outputs and what it’s costing them.
“I think agriculture is going to have to reduce ways where we’re wasting money, time and effort, trying to go after the last 5 bushels,” he says. “I think that can put a lot of people out of business.”
He also sees data helping farmers’ perception with the public, by allowing them to communicate how they’re eliminating overapplication of chemicals, fertilizers, and protecting groundwater.
Which is why the Craves don’t just look at numbers like yield to determine the success of a practice — they also evaluate its sustainability.
“Just because something might get us more yield doesn’t mean that it was a good decision or it was ultimately beneficial,” he says, giving the example of moldboard plowing or heavy tillage. “It might get you more yield for a couple of years, but 50 years from now you’re not going to be in business because you’re not going to have any soil left. We have to make decisions that are sustainable both economically and environmentally. Is it something we can repeat year after year and leave in our soil and our farm in better condition than we got it?”
One practice they’ve recently adopted is no-tilling winter cereals for forage after corn silage harvest, which also allows them to make multiple smaller surface applications of manure to get those nutrients into a growing crop as soon as possible. Not only does this build soil health, but allows them to produce good quality forages.
ROI Drives Equipment Decisions
Data will also continue to play an important role in how the Craves evaluate equipment investments.
Getting an ROI on equipment is a big deal for dairy operations, where equipment can run weekly if not daily. Jordan says it’s not uncommon for their tractors to get 600-1,000 hours a year on them, and some of their skid loaders and wheel loaders have over 10,000 hours on them.
"We focus heavily on servicing our equipment,” he says. “We’re not just flipping machines over or getting things new. We don’t feel that we can justify those types of expenditures.”
So when it’s time to make an investment, they run through a lot of calculations to make sure it’s a smart financial decision.
The first thing they evaluate is what it’s going to benefit, with feeding the dairy herd being the top priority. Their cows are fed for 8-10 hours a day with two trucks, two loaders and 2-3 employees. “Most important for us is delivering quality feed in a timely way every day to our cows,” he says.
Then they run through partial budgeting and ROI calculations to determine whether the equipment will help them gain yield or timeliness or efficiencies, versus its costs, and whether they’ll see a breakeven or financial gain over the course of the machine’s life.
They also have to decide whether it’s better for them to invest in equipment themselves or if they should hire it out, taking into account the labor involved. Harvesting haylage or corn silage could be a 7-10 person endeavor to support one chopper, Jordan says, so they work with a custom harvesting business because they don’t have the labor force to man the machinery for that job.
Again, Jordan sees a focus on soil health playing a benefit. As they pursue more no-till they’ll be able to shift away from needing a ton of horsepower to pull tillage machines.
“If people aren’t thinking about the health of their soil, whether they’re a cash crop farmer or a dairy farmer, they’re going to miss out,” Jordan says. “It’s going to be a challenge for them down the road.”