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Northeast Area Members of Distinction - R.A. Bell & Sons Dairy
The Bell family bought a dairy farm at a bad time — not that there was any way they could know that.
In 2008, Ruth Bell’s brother, Carl Seiler, decided to retire from the dairy business. Ruth’s husband, Ryan, was working at the farm at the time, and Carl offered him the chance to buy the dairy that had been in Ruth’s family since 1948. Ryan and Ruth jumped at the opportunity.
In November 2008, they purchased Carl’s interest in the land and the dairy and started their own LLC. It was then that R.A. Bell & Sons Dairy was born. Two months later, they wondered what they had gotten themselves into.
“We bought when the price of property was very high,” Ruth says. “Cows were at their peak, pricewise. That was November 2008. In January 2009, everything bottomed out.”
Ruth and Ryan, along with their two sons, Ross and Robbie, spent 2009 working without paychecks, refinancing and doing anything else they could to pay bills and stay afloat. Ryan’s part-time job working at a local butcher shop helped some, but didn’t come close to covering the costs of running a dairy. It was challenging, but owning a dairy farm was all the Bells ever wanted to do.
“We had talked about buying a farm years earlier,” Ruth says. “We’d even gone to upstate New York and Pennsylvania to look at farms, but nothing caught our attention. I had told Ryan that by the age of 45, if we hadn’t purchased one, we were not ever going to. He snuck one in at 44.”
Having both grown up on farms, Ruth and Ryan wanted to ensure that a love for farming was passed down to future generations.
“It was important to my wife that the farm stay in the family,” Ryan says. “So before we decided to purchase the dairy, the boys and I talked and made sure they were pretty positive that they were going to keep farming.”
Since taking over the dairy, the Bells have increased their herd’s production and lowered their somatic cell count. The herd now averages 100,000 cells per milliliter. The family credits an increased focus on cow comfort and nutrition for the improvements.
“A lot of what we do to keep the cows healthy and keep production up centers around cleanliness,” Ross says. “We are constantly cleaning up after them, changing out their bedding. Their feed is also a big part, just altering their feed for the time of year and to make them comfortable. When the cows are comfortable, it makes our job a little easier to do.”
Ryan is primarily responsible for taking care of the cows. He has almost a second sense with the animals, Ruth says.
“Ryan is very in tune with the cows,” she says. “I think the boys take after him with that.”
Ryan’s quiet nature and gentle leadership has influenced his sons and their philosophy for running the dairy.
“A lot of what I’ve learned from my dad is patience,” says Ross, the Bells’ oldest son. “He’s a very, very patient person. He sits back and kind of lets things play out, and I’ve tried to do that as well.”
While Ross works on the dairy full time, he didn’t always know he wanted to stay on the farm. After he graduated high school, he started his own landscaping business.
“I started working in landscaping in high school with a friend whose dad owned a landscaping business,” he says. “It started as a summertime job, then I continued to work for him after I graduated. Eventually, I went out on my own. I enjoyed it, but the pressure of dealing with everybody gets to you after a while, because it’s not like here where it’s the farm, it’s the cows, it’s the crops. I enjoy the landscaping, but it’s nothing compared to what I have on the farm.”
Ross’ younger brother Robbie knew he wanted to remain on the family dairy from a very young age.
“Robbie’s been a farmer since he was able to crawl,” Ruth says. “He would plant the living room carpet with his tractor and planter.”
With a keen interest in technology and equipment, Robbie has become the farm’s resident researcher. Whenever there’s a new piece of equipment to purchase or a new technique that needs investigating, Robbie does the legwork. Currently, he’s looking into replacing the dairy’s rubber mattresses that line the freestall barn with water beds, and would eventually like to see robotic milkers installed.
“I like to look at any new equipment that will improve efficiency and milk production,” Robbie says.
Ruth takes care of the calves and played an active role in designing the farm’s recently built calf barn, which they financed through DFA Financing, provided through Agri-Max Financial.
“We’ve traditionally used hutches for the calves,” Ruth says. “Although they served the purpose, we didn’t feel they offered what calves need in their first few months to give them a sound start. Also, we frequently had to utilize group pens for the calves in the maternity barn when we didn’t have enough hutches available. The group pens made feeding a challenge, and calf health was compromised. The new calf barn allows us to give the calves a more comfortable and healthy start.”
The family works together to keep the dairy profitable and is united in their desire to keep the farm strong for future generations.
“One of the bigger things that keeps me motivated to keep the farm going is that it’s been passed down,” Ross says. “It’s always been successful, but we want to go a step above to keep it going. You don’t really think about how long this farm has been here until somebody says something. Then to think about it, there’s a lot of pride there.”
With every member of the family taking on active roles, the transition from Ryan to Ross and Robbie should be smooth, even if it’s a long way off.
“Ryan’s never going to retire,” Ruth says. “The boys are going to have to pay him to do that.”
While he has no plans to step down, Ryan says he has full confidence that his boys will carry on the family legacy of quality milk and comfortable cows.
“I think I could stop tomorrow and the boys could handle everything here,” he says. “When they take over, they’ll be ready to make whatever decisions they need to because they help in all the decisions now.”