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Women Play Large Role in Key Weld County Industry

July 20, 2008

By Bill Jackson, Greeley Tribune, Colo.

Jul. 20–The dairy industry, which is the fastest growing segment of northern Colorado agriculture, is probably the most demanding career a farm family can be involved in. Dairy cows are milked at least twice a day — most three times a day — and that means every day, 365 days a year.

Many of the Western Dairy Association’s farm families are 50/50 operations, with the women taking on major roles in the business, said Hilary Parker with the Thornton-based association. And that means a typical, 10- to 12-hour day for women who, for the most part, handle the bookkeeping, animal health issues, milk production record keeping and similar tasks associated with their business operations, which requires a solid educational background.

At the same time, most are also involved in raising a family, which requires getting kids to school, sporting events and agricultural-related events such as livestock judging, said Sherrill Hardesty. She, along with husband Les, own and operate the Painted Prairie Farm dairy near Eaton and the Cozy Cow Farm, an educational dairy they opened near Windsor about five years ago that offers tours and includes a retail side that sells cheese, ice cream and milk, produced on site.

Between the two operations, about 650 cows are milked three times a day at Painted Farm and 40 or so head twice daily at Cozy Cow. The two operations require more than 25 full-time and six part-time employees.

Sherrill grew up on a dairy farm near Berthoud. She and Les met through dairy judging at Colorado State University, where she got a degree in accounting and he in animal science.

They have been operating a dairy together since 1982 and have three children, Marci, 19, Amber, 18, and Chris, 15. Marci is in school at Laramie Community College in Cheyenne, while Amber and Chris attend Eaton High School.

Sherrill focuses her work on all the accounting aspects of running the businesses, including employee payroll, cow production records and the day-to-day operations of the two dairies. Les focuses on the processing and bottling of milk and making cheese and ice cream at Cozy Cow, which includes pasteurizing and homogenization of the milk. He also is involved with the 300 acres of hay the family farms and the buying of feed their animals require.

“I spend probably 25-30 hours a week just on the accounting aspect,” she said. Both she and Les also are involved with the various tours at Cozy Cow, which have averaged 2,500 people per month and haven’t slowed down over the summer months.

“Usually, our busiest is during the school year, but this summer has just been hectic,” Sherrill said.

Meanwhile, Mary Kraft and her husband, Chris, operate two dairies in Morgan County, the Badger Creek Dairy and newly added Quail Ridge Dairy. Between the two operations, about 5,000 head are milked three times a day.

Mary, who has a degree in technical journalism and an MBA from CSU, said she considers herself the chief financial officer of the business.

“I do all the financial stuff, including all the projections and budgeting,” she said in a telephone interview. She is bilingual, which comes in handy because only five of the 70 employees at the two dairies speak English. Her duties also include keeping track of records on cow production for all their animals, which is now downloaded on computers. That includes animal health, much of which is conducted now with wireless, handheld Palm Pilots that are used for all the veterinary checks on the animals.

“Some people tell me I can tell them more about any cow we have than I can our kids,” Kraft said with a laugh. In her spare time, she writes for a couple of dairy publications.

Kraft grew up on a dairy near Brighton that continues to be operated by her brother, while Chris grew up in South Africa, where his parents were missionaries. He got a degree in animal science from CSU, where he and Mary met. He focuses his attention on the machinery needed for the dairy and farming operations — which includes 1,500 acres — and with community relations.

“He spends a lot of time talking to our growers,” Mary said, noting they contract with farmers in their immediate area around Fort Morgan who grow corn, hay and other feedstuffs needed for the two dairies. She and Chris have been married for 23 years and began their dairy operation near Fort Morgan 20 years ago.

Both women said the quality of life offered by working in agriculture is important, though time-consuming at times trying to balance business duties with family duties.

“It’s not as bad as it sounds,” Hardesty said.

Kraft said things have changed a great deal since the time she was a youngster growing up on the family dairy.

“I think we took one family vacation in my whole life back then,” Kraft said, noting she and her family find the time to spend with one another.

“I’m not sure I’d want it any other way,” she said of the family-run operation.

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