How Congress Lake Farms Manages a Successful 700-Head Milking Operation

When you meet the Rufener family of Congress Lake Farm—a 700-head Portage County dairy farm—you are immediately impressed by the commitment they all bring to the enterprise, the ‘I’ve got your back’ sense of cooperation that has contributed to making it such a success. Ken Rufener, Sr. and his wife Linda, having put their time into running the farm, have turned over the day-to-day heavy lifting of managing the farm into the capable hands of their sons Ken Jr. and Mike. Ken, Jr. oversees the considerable crop production, while Mike manages the herd a milking operation. All four are equal Principals in the business.

And the teamwork has its benefits. As mom Linda states, “Since we’re a multi-generational family involved in the farm, our kids can take vacations, coach softball, be involved in 4-H, while someone else gets the job done.”

Overcoming obstacles like the killer interest rates of the 1970’s and 80’s has definitely put this farm to the test. In the late 90’s, Portage County was proud home to 20 dairy farms. Five remain. Seeing how they’ve diversified their endeavors while training and managing a top-flight staff teaches the lesson of how to survive—and even prosper—in a challenging line of work.

The Rufeners have a long history in farming. In 1854, Ken Sr.’s great-great grandparents settled in Suffield Township and took up farming. He learned the ropes working on his grandfather’s farm, and in 1966 he bought an initial 100 acres to farm for himself. Today they own over 2,000 acres and rent an additional 4,000.

They started milk production in 1979 with fewer than 200 head. Today, the herd has grown to 700, which Mike says will be about their limit. The staff milks each cow three times daily. Each round of milking takes over seven hours to complete, requiring three distinct shifts of experienced workers to get the job done. “Our employees are our biggest asset,” says Mike. “There was a time, maybe 25 years ago, when we did all the work ourselves. But today, with the growth we’ve experienced, the backbone of our operation is our employees. We are grateful to them for their dedication to us and the farm.”

They have recently upgraded to a double 16 parlor, increasing their productivity. “We can now milk 170 cows an hour in our new parlor compared to milking 80 cows in our old parlor,” Mike says, “with the same amount of labor. The double 16 is the right size for the amount we want to milk in our area.”

Dairy farming in Ohio is not for the faint of heart. The Rufeners of Congress Lake Farms have found a workable solution to remain one of the five remaining Portage County dairy farms–they diversify. “My mother gave me some excellent advice years ago,” Ken Sr. says. “I can remember her telling me, ‘Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.’” They have certainly taken that nugget of wisdom to heart. ”We’ve had to diversify, we couldn’t just grain farm. Diversifying allows a stronger aspect of the farm operation to make up for a weaker one,” Linda says. “We have grain to sell as well as cull cows. And milk of course. And beef to sell.”

They grow corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa for their herd but also for sale. “Thirty-five percent of it for our own cattle, sixty percent for sale, and five percent for disaster,” Linda says. “You never know what may happen on the farm, so it’s smart to play it safe.”

Two or three calves are born on the farm every day, and they offer 300 finished steers to market every year. Of the nearly 700 heifers born, they retain around 550 to replenish their own herd, and sell the remaining 150.

The decreasing number of dairy farms in the region stand as testimony to the many obstacles that farmers face. “We’ve always been told, ‘Don’t worry about the things you can’t control” but for a farmer that is the hardest thing to do,” Linda says. “Any number of things—too wet, too dry, too hot, too cold—can be right around the corner. You just have to take it as it comes to you.”

One of the greatest hurdles they had to get past was not from nature, but was man-made–struggling through the high interest rates of the 1970’s and 1980’s. “We had a tough time paying the bills back then,” Linda relates. “We had to be turned down by a number of lenders before we could qualify for a Link loan offered by the state of Ohio.” Link loans, created to help Ohio farms, were interest-free operating loans. The lenders could borrow up to $100,000–interest-free– providing they were able to repay the entire amount of the loan in nine months. Through their own hard work and perseverance, the loans were paid back in time, and the farm made it through a perilous financial period.

Deerfield Ag Services has worked closely with Congress Lake Farms for many years. “From the beginning of our relationship with Deerfield, we’ve been friends,” Linda says. “Boyd Wallbrown was a farmer same as us, so from early on there was an ‘all in this together’ sense. Deerfield grew as we grew, and Boyd had two sons in farming same as us. All of that helped form a trust factor that continues to this day.”

Agronomy is a crucial aspect of farming. “Initially we started working together with seed and herbicide recommendations and today we concentrate primarily on their operations fertility programs,” says Deerfield Senior Agronomist Matt Lesko. Deerfield Ag Services has developed a soil sampling schedule with the Rufener’s to track the fertility of each field. They take the soil samples for them, and send them to a lab in Washington Court House, Ohio. Once they receive the soil sample results from the lab they are able to determine each individual product needed.

“We look at soil pH to determine lime requirements. We strive to maintain a soil pH of 6.8,” Lekso states. “We pay close attention to the fields’ phosphorous levels where manure has been applied, to ensure the levels stay in the proper range. With both the soil sample results and the detailed crop plan the Rufener’s lay out we can put together a fertility plan with respect to Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium, Sulfur and Boron ”

Deerfield also sold them most of their large array of bins, including their largest, holding 122,000 bushels. The entire configuration holds over 300,000 bushels.

The future looks bright for the well-managed Congress Lake Farms. They are thankful for the good work of family and staff alike. And for Deerfield. “They’ve been a wonderful partner.” Linda says. “We have great respect for and benefited from their expertise in agronomy, equipment, and marketing. The relationship has worked and we are grateful for it.”