By Joel Penhorwood, Ohio Ag Net
A trip to the rolling hills of north Champaign County will put visitors among some of most beautiful pastures, highest quality cows, and hardest working people in the world.
In a time when small dairies are becoming harder to find, Nathan and Jenny Thomas of Triple-T Holsteins near North Lewisburg have found a niche in the dairy industry. What the husband and wife’s 35-cow herd lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality with a world-renowned focus on show genetics and prize cattle, all while selling into a specialized milk market.
“We started milking cows in 2006. That was the same year Jenny and I got married. We farm here with my dad, John, and my brother, Andy,” said Nathan Thomas.
“We only milk 35 registered dairy cattle, but our main focus has been our genetics and our cow families,” said Jenny Thomas. “We’re very much into presenting our cattle in the show rings across the country.”
Cattle with the farm’s name are known worldwide. Triple-T has had a hand in breeding, owning, developing, selling and boarding over 200 All-American and All-Canadian nominations, among many more accolades.
Even without the added pressures and difficulty a show-cow operation presents, dairy farming is never an easy task. It takes a passion day in and day out. The Thomas’ path to where they are today has its roots in working at what they love.
“I grew up on my family farm, about two hours from here,” Jenny said. “But Nathan didn’t grow up on a family farm. We kind of joke around that this is a 4-H project that went awry because he started with a grade calf in 4-H and asked a lot of questions and was very persistent in trying to be better.”
“You just have to work hard,” Nathan said. “If you really want something, you’ll figure out a way to get it. I’m a firm believer in that.”
One of those objectives? To milk quality cows.
“I always said if I was going to milk cows, I want to milk good cows,” he said.
And milk good cows they have. One in particular has left quite the mark in the history books of Triple-T as well as the Holstein breed.
“We had a cow named Dundee Paige,” Nathan said. “She was 96 points and she did a lot for us. I don’t know how many All-American nominations she’s had, but multiple. We’ve sold a lot of dollars worth of cattle and a lot of the barns here were built because of her. We’ve also been successful with other cows and other champions at World Dairy Expo and so forth — some that we’ve sold or owned or still own over the years.”
“That’s been a cow family where she presented herself well but then there’s been several 95-point daughters out of her and the offspring continue to do well,” Jenny said. “They’ve done well worldwide, we’ve marketed a lot of embryos overseas, and it’s fun to see those animals do well for other people in other countries.”
Though their cows are fit for show, that doesn’t mean there’s any less work of a regular dairy farm.
“I guess you could call our cows pampered a little bit. They get washed, don’t lay in much manure, and the pens are pretty clean and that sort of thing, but we still like them to be productive,” Nathan said. “They’ve got to live together and be tough. We want them to produce just like any other any other dairy would.”
The unique position of Triple-T has given them a unique market for their milk.
“We’re actually on a grass load through Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) and it actually goes to Daisy by Wooster and then it gets made into sour cream and goes to Chipotle,” he said.
“We happen to qualify with our management style and what we do here qualified for that particular load of milk to go to that plant,” Jenny said. “It’s all about cow care for us, and so we haven’t had to make any alterations in the way we do things in order to qualify for that.”
Just like any type of farming, the Triple-T way of dairying is not without its own challenges and concerns.
“For us being a small farm, one of the main things would be getting somebody to pick our milk up,” Nathan said. “That honestly is probably our biggest issue. We pay a fortune to get our milk sold because we’re a smaller farm, and I think that in the end could be the thing that puts us out of business if there is something that does.”
“We’ve tried to think of other ways of what we could do long term if that would ever come about so that our kids could take it over if they if they choose to,” Jenny said.
Through it all, family is the motivation for Nathan and Jenny, with keeping options open down the road for their three children, Colton, Kendall, and Camryn.
“We just want to keep working hard and give our kids the opportunity if they want it,” Jenny said.
The duo’s love for cattle has no doubt been passed onto the next generation, with the oldest, 14-year-old Colton, taking home Intermediate and Grand Champion titles at the 2022 World Dairy Expo International Junior Holstein Show with his cow Ms. Triple-T Grateful-ET. Nathan has also made a name for himself as a dairy show judge on the international stage and Jenny has made her mark in the cattle photography world.
“One of the highlights of my judging career was judging at World Dairy Expo. It was a lot of fun and I look forward to hopefully doing some more down the road,” Nathan said.
In addition to judging Holsteins, Jerseys, and Red & White shows at the Expo in Madison, his resumé also includes judging Jerseys at the Royal Winter Fair and officiating at national shows in Mexico and Brazil among more.
The skill of judging dairy in the show ring has translated into success in the sale ring.
“Nathan’s got a great eye for cattle,” Jenny said. “That’s how we kind of started with our sales. You know, he’d like to get out and go look at cattle and with one of our best friends who recently passed, Michael Heath, we started the sale series ‘The Best of Triple-T and Heath’ sale and for many years we’ve had great sales.”
“You then come home and you reevaluate your own, and that’s been a huge asset for our farm,” she said. “He gets out and sees more cattle. That’s been beneficial for the farm and our breeding program.”
Between three-a-day feedings, 4:30 milkings, rinsing cows, walking show pigs, and coaching sports, too, the Thomas family has found, at the end of the day, there is a place for the small family dairy farm way of life.
“Something that always comes to mind for me is, yeah, we’re small, we’ve found our niche,” Jenny said. “There’s some smaller farms that process their own milk. There’s some small farms that have found other ways to make income and stay relevant in an industry that keeps growing in cow numbers. Our niche has been our genetics and how we do in the show ring and our cow care. That’s how we’ve been able to stay in business — by doing that and staying small, very small compared to the average herd size, but it’s been something that’s worked for us. Does it work for everybody? Probably not. But you’ve got to figure out how to make it work for yourself. I think that there’s still a place for small farms.”