When he was 5 years old, a new love had captured the heart of a Maryville native ⎼ cattle. Unknown to him at the time, he would eventually pursue a career at Northwest as the dairy herdman at the RT Wright Farm. Raymond Ashbaugh is celebrating his 40th anniversary at this farm.
Ashbaugh began his dairy journey at a farm in Weston, Missouri, during summer break after his freshman year of college. He connected with the cattle in a way that only a ‘cow whisperer’ could. He found his passion, and his love grew for this animal. When he came back to Northwest, he was hoping to apply for the campus farm as a student employee when a once in a lifetime opportunity opened as the assistant dairy herdsman.
“All I can say is 40 years have gone by fast. It’s a long time for this business just because there’s so much hard work. Most people don’t put that many years in maybe half at the most.” Ashbaugh said.
Ashbaugh continued to take classes while working 10 hours a day, seven days a week starting at 4:30 am. The requirements for this job were intense but for Ashbaugh, he was doing what he loves.
“I can be a farmer and get to make sure I get my check every month,” Ashbaugh said.
Farming is an industry full of gambles and inconsistency. However, for Ashbaugh, working for the university comes with its benefits as he doesn’t have to worry about the typical income stressors that other dairy farmers may experience. This may be the reason why the dairy industry has decreased in the amount of diverse farmers and has turned into a sector.
In Missouri, there are only 402 family-operated dairy farms left. To put this into perspective, there were 895 in 2014 and 1,796 dairy farms in 2000. In fact, when Ashbaugh went to the Dairy Farmers of America’s Central Area Council meeting in Northwest Missouri, he saw four families who were in attendance and the rest of the attendees were employees of DFA.
At this meeting, Northwest was awarded the 2022 Quality Award for hard work, attention to detail and commitment to producing a quality product. This award is a positive reflection of the impact Ashbaugh has had on the RT Wright Farm, as the dairy herdsman.
“I found out through one of the milk board members on the state milk board said there are less than 400 Grade A Dairies in the state of Missouri. How? The only reason I can come up with is it costs so much to start.” Ashbaugh said. The average farmer is 59 years old now and it’s just hard work.
There has been a turnover throughout his tenure with students, faculty and staff but what has stayed consistent is the work that needs to be done. Ashbaugh has witnessed an endless amount of stories that range from racoons in the ceiling, finding a woman lying by the cows randomly one morning and even scaring off college boys who thought cow tipping was ‘cool.’
“I could open the door to let them out (cattle) and pull the rope and there would be baby coons up in the roof, looking down,” Ashbaugh said. “I’d be sitting in my office and could hear scratching.” He remembers this one time when a raccoon’s paw was poking out around the ceiling lights looking for something to eat.
One particular morning, the rain had moved its way into Maryville back in the 1980s which meant that Ashbaugh had to wear a rain jacket while milking the cows due to the consistent leak in the dairy barn. He had to do this every time it rained and when he brought it up to the people above him, they said it cost too much, and they were waiting until they could build a new dairy barn.
“We finally got after them enough that they fixed the roof and then it was like 18 years later, they finally built a new dairy,” Ashbaugh said. He said he learned quickly that the wheel to get things done moved rather slowly.
Years later, the dairy barn has moved from east of McKimmey on campus to across highway 71, off campus and Ashbaugh has since moved out of the provided housing and bought his own small farm in a town near Maryville.
In order to be a dairy farmer, you must know cows. Ashbaugh has learned to read cows so he can better adapt to their present needs.
‘I can go out amongst them and well, I look at ’em and say this one’s sick today, this one wasn’t feeling good and this one’s in the heat this morning.’ It takes a lot of time to learn that,” Ashbaugh said. “You have to love cows to understand what’s going on.”
A while back, there was a set of twins born on the farm that were some of Ashbaugh’s most interesting Holstein calves. Most of the time when a heifer has a set of twins, she only cares for one of them leaving the other to die. In this case, they both flourished.
When they came into the milking parlor, they were never apart, they would always be together. You could tell they were sisters, they looked alike,” Ashbaugh said.
Overall, he has seen 20 generations of dairy cattle. When it comes to retirement, Ashbaugh isn’t ready to make that decision.
“I was just thinking about that, there are days and then there are days. But yeah, I see it coming. Don’t know when but everybody faces it,” Ashbaugh said. “But then, you know, I’m not looking forward to retiring, but it’s just one of the steps everybody has to take.”
One reason Ashbaugh isn’t ready to say goodbye is because of all the advancements that may be a reality on this university farm. There have been talks of creating a micro-dairy at the Agricultural Learning Center as well as foreign visitors from Switzerland, Norway and other European countries who have recently toured the farm.
“They’re also talking about the possibility of working with a company from Israel that makes these robotic milkers,” Ashbaugh said. “That would be very cool.”
Once he does retire, he has tossed around the idea of writing a book to embrace his experiences. When he mentioned being here for 40 years, Ashbaugh put his hands in the air and made a whooshing noise because time goes by so fast.