From the Farmer's Tractor
May 28, 2014
Elizabeth Quesnell Kohtz, 35, owns and operates QK Farms, Inc. with the help of her husband and father. Quesnell Kohtz is also a dairy veterinarian and owns and operates Quesnell Kohtz Veterinary Services, P.A. She is currently the managing veterinarian for a 10,000-cow dairy.
How did you get into farming?
Rising before the sun to farm and care for animals is in my blood. My family has records from the 1600's of my 8th great-grandfather purchasing cattle in Canada. From an early age I too had an inborn fondness and a love of farming and cows. I grew up on a dairy and row crop farm in Southern Idaho and my mother was never able to keep me inside. As a child I could always be found working on the farm with my father doing various tasks like milking cows, feeding calves, driving the silage truck and irrigating crops. For as long as I can remember I wanted to be a veterinarian and be involved with agriculture. After graduating from veterinary school I took a job as an associate veterinarian in Southern California. My husband and I saved money so that we could return to Southern Idaho and buy our farm.
We’ve been actively farming our own farm since 2008, when we purchased a 65 acre “fixer-upper” farm and have since upgraded the irrigation system from flood irrigation to pivot and hand lines. My husband is a family physician and he enjoys being able to run the pivot. We move hand lines as a family with our 5 and 3-year-old daughters, Arabella and Josephine. We have plans to expand our farm by purchasing more land and equipment so we won’t be as reliant on custom farmers.
I am also the managing veterinarian at a 10,000-cow dairy. There, I provide consulting services, develop treatment and general healthcare protocols for the animals, train workers, and perform records analysis and traditional veterinary tasks. In addition, I have a milk quality laboratory where I test milk samples for organisms causing mastitis in cattle, report the results to the dairymen and work with the producers to treat affected animals and decrease the number of pathogens present in the herd.
How have your farming practices changed over the last 10 years?
I’ve been a veterinarian for 10 years now and have seen many changes in the dairy industry during that time. When I began practicing, milk prices were high and dairymen were willing to try new practices, new medications, more testing and new techniques. In 2008 the dairy market crashed and many dairies went out of business. Since then, even though the market has strengthened, producers are a lot more reluctant to try new things. When I present a new idea to a dairyman I now have a lot harder job of convincing them to try something out. I’m fortunate that I work with 10,000 cows right now because we can try a new procedure or medication on a subset of cattle to see how it works before implementing it in the entire herd.
On the farming side, I’ve seen a huge switch in my area from flood irrigation to sprinkler irrigation. Water is such a precious commodity and we have to conserve as much water as possible yet still have productive crops. Sprinkler irrigation is also less labor intensive allowing for more acres to be farmed with fewer employees. Labor is expensive and often hard to find.
How will farming evolve in the next five years?
I see economies of scale becoming even more significant because of declining margins and the need for farmers to be extremely efficient. I believe we will see increased vertical integration in all commodities in an effort to produce ample, high quality and affordable food, fiber and energy products. The trend of fewer producers farming more acres and having large numbers of livestock will continue. Out of necessity for higher profits, I see families and operations owning or having partnership in processing plants and participating in direct to consumer sales and marketing such as niche and farmers markets.
What is your greatest challenge as a farmer?
As a farmer, risk is my biggest challenge. Our farm is currently in alfalfa, and there is the risk we won’t have enough water to irrigate in late summer to have a quality crop. There is always the risk of the market crashing and not even recovering your input cots. Mother Nature is another inherent risk that provides a huge challenge. Every alfalfa cutting we pray the weather cooperates and doesn’t hurt our crop. As a person who is not comfortable with much risk in my life, farming is a challenge!
As a veterinarian, one of my biggest challenges is convincing producers that a new procedure, product or test is best for the cattle and their bottom line. Sometimes I have to get creative and even have industry “experts” come in to talk to the owners before they are willing to implement my recommendations. I’ve learned to be persistent and to grow a thick skin.
How does a farmer know what a retailer will want a year from now?
I’m not sure anyone can predict what specifically consumers or retailers will want in the future. I think it's important to strive to produce healthy, quality food and to treat animals in a humane manner. If these goals can be reached, our product should be marketable.
What steps are you taking toward conservation on the farm?
When my husband and I purchased our farm only two-thirds of the land was in production due to negligence by previous absentee owners. An outdated and poorly managed irrigation system, which included a pond filled with silt, was beginning to turn the middle of the farm into an artificial wetland. We spent two years developing plans, saving money, and implementing our vision for the farm. We removed countless trees, tore down a dilapidated livestock structure, moved thousands of yards of soil to fill in shallow areas, hired the field ripped, picked truckloads of rock and returned the entire farm to production. In 2011 we applied for and received a USDA Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) grant to upgrade the farm to pivot and hand lines. We developed a five-year program to improve the farm with significant weed abatement, nutrient management and soil rehabilitation plans. Two years into our five-year commitment with EQIP, the Farm Service Agency released us from our contract because our irrigation, nutrient management and additional requirements had already been met.
This year we are focusing on erosion of our pivot tracks and plan on trying a new product to assist in this goal.
Do you sell any of your products locally, and if so, what is the process?
I don’t direct sell any products, but my brother and sister-in-law do. They sell farm fresh, free-range eggs. Up until recently, they have sold primarily to friends and family and via facebook. They are now part of Idaho’s Bounty, a regional group that has over 85 farms that work together to support the growth and health of the local foodshed and rural economy. To become a member of this group my brother and sister-in-law had to undergo a lengthy application process.
What kinds of reactions do you get from consumers when they meet you in person?
People are always shocked when they find out I’m a dairy veterinarian. One of their first comments is usually, “You’re too little to work with cows.” As one of my first dairy clients used to say, I’m tougher than I look. After the initial shock, people usually have a ton of questions for me. They want to know about animal abuse, hormones used in cows and organic vs. traditionally raised milk.
People are also surprised when they find out my husband and I have a farm. They can’t seem to understand why a doctor and a veterinarian would want to run their own farm. For us, it’s a lifestyle choice and it is important for us to raise our children in a rural, agricultural area and expose them to all the hard work and benefits of living on a farm.