This series will highlight women who are actively owning and operating dairy farms around our great state of Washington. These women play pivitol roles in day to day farming operations; shattering the old stigma of dairy farming.
In the green rolling hills of Chehalis, WA, about 90 miles south of Seattle, you’ll find Schilter Dairy.
From the road you will see a gravel lane, a few barns, cows, a milking parlor, and a tractor delivering feed. But, step onto the farm and you may be surprised to see who is driving the tractor. Wipe the mainstream image of a man in overalls from your head and meet Michelle Schilter.
Michelle is a 3rd generation organic dairy farmer and is a strong leader for the dairy community to say the least.
Raised in Napa Valley, Michelle was surrounded by agriculture. Although she wasn’t raised on a vineyard, Michelle was captivated by the endless opportunities of agriculture all around her. This led her to double major in Agricultural Business and Crop Science in the hopes of returning home to start her career in wine country. It didn’t quite end up that way.
She met her husband, Lonny a Washington dairy farmer, in college and it was happily ever after to God’s Country. “It was an adjustment to live on the farm, but I fell in love with it,” stated Michelle as she proudly looked onto her picturesque dairy.
Together, Michelle, Lonny, and their three kids Zach, Cassie, and Joey own and operate their red & white Holstein dairy.
Organic farming has allowed the Schilters to become innovative when it comes to caring for their cows. For example, cows on organic farms need 30% of their daily intake from grass. They use ‘tumblewheels’ to rotationally graze their cows on fields. All Michelle has to do is twist the wire at one end of the fence and these electric fence posts graciously move cattle from one grassy field to the next.
One of Michelle’s many responsibilities on the farm is raising the calves.
Her face lights up as she steps into her pristine calf barn and says, “This is my zone.” As she makes her way down the stalls of calves, she stops at each pen to give them a scratch on the head.
“Good morning, Lipstick!” “This one’s Potato, her mom’s name is Pizza,” stated Michelle with a laugh.
“It’s all about the name!” Each and every one of Michelle’s cows have a name, usually a very creative one. One calf is even named ‘Go Hawks’ to honor the beloved Seattle Seahawks.
Michelle raises each calf from birth to 9 months old before they are transitioned onto her in-law’s neighboring farm. She enjoys seeing the cycle of life on her farm. “I love getting to watch the calf be born and then be able to nurture and raise it myself,” Michelle said.
“My main priority for these calves is comfort and cleanliness,” stated Schilter. “Thanks to advancements in equipment we can ensure these safe conditions for our cows in a cost-effective and sustainable way.”
The walls of the barn are lined with electric curtains and garage doors to allow for good ventilation and climate control. ”Organic farming is all about prevention,” said Schilter. “These curtains have allowed us to keep birds or other pests out which could infect the calves.”
The calf barn also has a manure flush system that keeps the calves and their fine-grained sawdust bedding clean. The waste drops through slats in the floor and is flushed into their waste management system. “This system is less labor intensive and is kept cleaner than if I had to do it by hand,” Michelle said as she pointed to a shovel. “All with the flip of a couple switches I’m able to control the conditions in the barn to keep the calves healthy.”
Michelle logs a lot of time on the farm, but these days she is logging a lot of miles across Washington State and around the country. Schilter serves as a board member on a national dairy organization, Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), and as Chair of the Board of Directors of the Dairy Farmers of Washington-one of the state’s largest agricultural organizations. Both jobs keep her on the road weekly as she works to increase demand for Washington milk through research, innovation, and education.
“It’s exciting to be at the table of a national organization to see new technology and innovation firsthand, and then be able to bring that knowledge back home to a local level,” said Michelle. “Staying up-to-date on new research like consumer trends or upcoming partnerships, helps prepare my farm and fellow dairies to prepare for the future to meet demands.”
These leadership roles allow Michelle to advocate for the dairy community through special events and conferences. This year she has even been invited to South by Southwest (SxSW) in Austin, Texas to bust food myths and discuss the benefits of technology in today’s food system.
“When most people think of technology in Washington they’re thinking Microsoft or Amazon, but I want them to start thinking about dairy,” stated Michelle. “So many people think we wear overalls and a straw hat, but I’m eager to show SxSW attendees the technology on modern-day dairies. From climate-controlled barns and robotic milkers to improve the cows’ quality of life to anaerobic digesters that can turn waste into electricity, we are changing the way we farm to benefit consumers and the planet.”
How does Michelle juggle her busy lifestyle and still have time to be a mom? The dairy, of course!
“I get to work side-by-side with my family every day,” she said. “I usually hear about my kid’s day in the barn while we’re doing chores. There’s a lot to be thankful for out here.”