Puskas operation has learned to adjust with evolving industry
FRANKLIN TOWNSHIP — For Bob Puskas and his nephew, Matt, who operate the last dairy farm in Somerset County, staying in business has meant changing the operation and expanding into other crops.
“You’ve got to be on top of your game,” said Bob Puskas, a third-generation dairyman, “but you learn to vet your own cows and you work with them every single day. You need to be proactive. If you figure out something is wrong with them, hopefully you don’t have to call the vet too much. I think we’re down to 50 dairy farms left in the state now.”
“You’ve got to know your business, and we’re no longer just a dairy farm, we grow enough to feed our own cows. We’re really a grain/dairy farm,” Bob said.
Puskas Dairy Farm has an unusual history. It was originally 42 acres but the state of New Jersey condemned half of that in the early 1970s for a water reservoir that was never built.
“The state owns 3,500 acres out here and we lease our own farmland back from the state,” Bob said.
Though he recalls a time in his youth when South Middlebush Road once had five other dairy farms on it, “one thing about Franklin Township, is they’re very pro-agriculture and progressive,” Bob said.
Bob was born and raised in the Middlebush section of Franklin Township and graduated in 1976 from Delaware Valley University in Doylestown, Pa.
He serves as chair of the Franklin Township Agricultural Committee, vice-chairman of the Open Space Committee and chairman of the Wildlife Committee. He is also a past president of the Somerset County Board of Agriculture and served on New Jersey’s Fish and Game Council for many years.
Nephew Matt is on the board of the Belle Meade Farmers’ Co-Op and the Somerset County Board of Agriculture.
“We now farm a total of 1,500 acres in town. Since 2012, we’ve expanded and increased our herd by 25 milkers, and increased our acreage since then,” he said. The farm was expanded when his nephew returned to work full-time on the Puskas farm after graduating from Delaware Valley University in Doylestown.
Along with milking cows, Bob, 64, his brother James, 58, and nephew Matt, 30, grow soybeans, feed corn and grain. Bob said he’s delighted his nephew has committed to full-time work on the farm as he tries to ease his way into semi-retirement.
Since deciding to expand with nephew Matt’s availability to work full-time at the farm, they added a composting bedding barn with cost-share funding from the NRCS.
“My nephew took an interest in the business, worked here all through high school, and so after he graduated in 2010, we expanded in 2012.
“We’re a dairy operation and a grain farm, it’s two distinct operations,” Bob said, noting the soybeans and grain are a seven month operation while the dairy is 24-7, 365 days a year. Matt is both farm general manager and herd manager.
Along with family members working on the farm, there are two full time employees.
Bob and Matt are milking between 60 and 65 cows and estimates they have 125 head total, from day-old calves to adults. Cows are fed alfalfa, corn silage and brewers’ grains from the Budweiser brewery in Newark.
The herd average is about 22,000 pounds of milk per cow, which Bob said “is not over the top, it’s just about average. There’s an old adage: you can make milk or you can make money; it’s hard to make both.
“Our milk check from a year ago, which was down from the year before that, was over $3,500 a month less than from a year ago,” he said.
Bob said having an established floor price for milk would help dairy farmers stay in business but moreso would be inspiring more young people to want to farm.
“They come out of school and can make way more money than they can make on a farm,” he said.
Another way to help small dairies in New Jersey, Bob said, would be to permit raw milk sales.
Every week, people pull in the long driveway off South Middlebush Road to inquire about raw milk. Raw milk sales are banned in New Jersey, but legal in Pennsylvania with a permit.
“For years I was a big advocate for raw milk,” Bob said, walking out of his dairy barns. “I fought for years and we still get people coming in here every day, even just last week, people were coming in here looking for raw milk.”
“The Assembly passed a bill to allow raw milk sales in New Jersey but the Senate won’t post the bill, this has all happened in the last three years.
There’s no question there is a big demand for it here in New Jersey, and there’s a farmer over in Pennsylvania who came over and testified before the Assembly committee about raw milk. He said, ‘Why aren’t you folks allowing raw milk in New Jersey? Forty percent of my business comes from people in New Jersey,’ and there’s plenty of business for everybody.’ ”
With raw milk sales, Bob said smaller dairies would be better sustained and that includes selling goat’s milk.
“There’s no question we have a demand for it here, every weekend we have three and four people stopping here asking for raw milk,” he added.
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