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Benner family finds efficiency, success through expansion

Slideshow: This Master Farmer couple has never shied away from being progressive, and it’s benefited both them and their dairy operation.

The movie “Field of Dreams” has the famous line: “If you build it, they will come.”

Mount Joy, Pa., dairy farmer Arlin Benner lives by a similar mantra.

“You just do the best you can with what you have and the opportunities will come,” he says. “You just can't force them.”

Benner and his wife, Deborah, have taken many chances in growing their operation, Yippee! Farms, always with the goal of making their business more efficient and better than it was before.

The farm comprises 745 owned and 550 rented acres in Mount Joy and Cochranville. They raise 2,300 cows and nearly 1,000 heifers. Average production is 92 pounds per cow, with a rolling herd average of 29,100 pounds. Milk is marketed through Dairy Farmers of America.

Arlin has been farming nearly all his life, working for his parents on their Mount Joy farm as a teenager and young adult. When he was 26, Arlin bought a herd of 150 cows, some equipment and rented land from his parents.

He met Deborah, a former actress, in August of 1995. Deborah came to Lancaster County from New York City after getting an acting job at Sight & Sound Theatres.  She was staying in a cottage she rented from Arlin’s aunt. The two fell in love and they married on Dec. 23, 1995.

Rapid expansion

In 1998, the couple got the chance to buy a neighbor’s farm. They then rented another neighbor’s farm in 2001. Within a span of a few years they went from 150 cows to more than 700 cows in three separate milking parlors.

“This time period taught me that if you do the right thing for the cows and the employees, they will take care of you financially,” Arlin wrote in his Master Farmer application.

This was the same time that the farm name, Yippee!, was born. Every time a heifer had its first calf, Deborah would always say “yippee” to celebrate the occasion. Arlin joked that if they ever had their own farm that he would call it Yippee! Turns out, he was serious.

Three years ago, the couple, looking to expand again, took their biggest risk yet. They purchased a 1,500-cow farm in Cochranville, 50 miles from the home farm.

Buying the farm, Arlin says, gave him the chance to consolidate three milking parlors into one.

The older milking parlors were closed and retrofitted for dry cows.

Calves are born and cared for on the Mount Joy farm. They are freshened and then milked for 7 to 14 days on the home farm and are then sent to Cochranville. In fact, all cows are freshened at the home farm before going to the milking farm.

“Our greatest efficiency was purchasing the large dairy to increase our herd size and consolidate milking facilities, which lent to maximizing efficiencies of both the newer facilities and the existing facilities,” he wrote in his application. “It opened new opportunities and roles to expand and utilize employees in their unique skill and demonstrate their talents.”

The distance between both farms has forced Arlin to become a better manager. Even though he has 30 full-time employees, he still likes to have his hand in all parts of the operation.

“It's hard to manage two operations 50 miles apart, so I have to learn how to manage better,” he says. "We'll have to make adjustments for next year. I'm not sure what all they are yet.”

Efficiency and technology

With expansion has also come improvements to technology and the way the farm operates.

In the past five years the farm has purchased systems to monitor animal activity, new ultrasound technology and a TMR Tracker.

Arlin likes to keep the feed ration simple: corn silage and rye along with some distillers’ grains.

Most of the feed is homegrown — 1,160 acres of corn silage and 1,400 acres of rye. Feed is stored in nine bunks on the home farm as well as in bunks at the Cochranville farm.

All manure on the home farm flows into a 1.4-million-gallon manure digester that also takes in food waste from local stores and restaurants. The digester is a three-phase electric system where power goes directly to the grid. The farm operates on a single-phase system and can’t use it.

The liquid manure flows into an adjacent 6-million-gallon earthen lagoon. Spreading is done twice a year.

An extensive underground piping system enables dragline manure spreading to the surrounding fields, though some traditional spreading is also done.

“The neat thing about this is we were able to take old facilities and be able to use efficient new technology piping this manure around. It’s set here for the future. It's worked out alright," Arlin says. “It’s great because I haul the manure and it doesn’t have the odor. It’s already predigested, so it’s really plant-ready with the nutrients.”

Raising future farmers

For years the couple wanted to have kids, but for various reasons they couldn’t do it.

So, they turned to adoption. When a friend of theirs told them about a program to adopt children from war-torn areas of Ukraine, the couple saw an opportunity and took it.

Eight years ago, they adopted two children from Crimea. They then adopted a trio of siblings ages 2, 4 and 5 years old. Within 13 months they went from having no kids to five kids.

Deborah, who still manages the farm office and coordinates training and other human resources functions, had to step down from day-to-day work on the farm to raise the children. They have three boys and two girls: Oksana, Valera, Diana, Yarik and Nikita.

"When you get home from work, the work just almost begins, but then it's the most rewarding, too," Arlin says.

Planning for the future

It’s a lot of stress managing a large farm, but Arlin keeps his focus on the overall plan.

"You gotta have a business plan that is solid. It has to work on paper really well because reality comes along,” he says. “You got to have some room for margin, you got to have a business plan that has a viable chance. Start with that and then do the basics; good feed, take care of the cows and reinvest in the operation as wisely as you can.

“You just do the best you can with what you have. If you have to force something too hard, it's probably not going to work out too well. It has to fall into place because it's hard enough if it don't.”

What’s Arlin’s next plan? Perfecting what he has now. 

“Being a good size spreads out my cost. It's a good economy of scale,” he says. “We need to sit still and capture some of that efficiency.”  

Arlin and Deborah Benner, at a glance

Operation. Yippee Farms!, Mt. Joy and Cochranville, Pa., 1,295 acres, 2,300 cows and 900 heifers

Family. The Benners have five adopted children: Oksana, Valera, Diana, Yarik and Nikita.

Ag and Community Involvement. Arlin is a board member of Dairy One, delegate to DFA, member of Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, member of Professional Dairy Managers of Pennsylvania, Koinonia Support team member, member of Lawrence Chiles Support Team and DFA Gold Standard Superbowl of Forager.

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