This summer marks the 40th anniversary of milk being named Delaware’s state beverage. In 2021 alone, our cows produced around 52 million pounds—or 6.23 million gallons—according to the state Department of Agriculture’s most recent statistics.
One member of the Delaware dairy industry who works to bring the beverage from farms to store shelves is Alan Bailey of Greenwood in Sussex County.
Bailey has lived on the farm all his life. The 61-year-old fits the bill for how people commonly envision a farmer: a hardworking man of few words, tending to his herd and his crops well before the sun has risen.
Farming is in Bailey’s blood; he does what his father did and what he brought his children up to do.
“I always wanted to be a farmer,” he says. He started yanking udders as a small child, and took over the operation of the farm in the 1990s from his father, who had started it more than 40 years prior. In addition to the dairy component, Bailey’s farm produces corn, soybeans, wheat and barley.
He has 270 cows, all machine-milked, though he put in his time hand-milking into a pail.
“I don’t miss that,” he says.
Bailey’s day starts at 3 a.m. He makes the rounds with the cows—who he says he sometimes talks to and are often nice enough to let you pet them—and knocks off at 10 a.m. He works seven days a week. He rarely takes a day off.
The cows produce around 2,100 gallons of milk a day, which goes to a plant in Laurel, Maryland, for powdering. Bailey said he’s affiliated with Land O’Lakes, which markets his dairy.
And while Sussex County is known for its poultry farms, Bailey said there’s no rivalry between the dairy and poultry farmers there.
“We get along fine with the poultry farmers,” he says. “But we stick out because we have cows.”
He is concerned, however, that there is a misconception by some that farmers don’t take care of their livestock.
“We take care of our animals and the lands,” he maintains.
Bailey says he’s proud to be a farmer and thinks most people have a favorable opinion of his profession, and there’s no other job that he’d want to do.
“I guess I have long hours, but I enjoy it,” he says. “I’m my own boss—that part of it is nice.”
Jake Bender is also a lifelong famer in Sussex County. Like Bailey, he took over a farm from his father and works there with his children. Bender recently installed a robotic milking system, which does everything from physically milking the cows to providing data on productivity down to the individual udder.
Milking starts at 4 a.m. at his farm, but the routine is slightly different than at Bailey’s because it begins with switching on the robots.
Bender, 62, also doesn’t miss the old days of milking.
“Before we had the robots, I would get up at midnight and milk all night, and we would be milking roughly 14 to 18 hours a day,” he remembers. “We’d do it at noon and start again at midnight. It would take seven or eight hours of milking at a time. I was getting no more than three or four hours of sleep a night and I was getting rather burned out.”
They system works with cows being funneled into individual booths, where robotic arms clean the udders and laser-guided milkers extract the milk. Each cow has a transponder so that individual data can be gathered by the milking system’s program, displayed on a farmer’s computer screen.
Through the program, Bender is able to measure how much milk each cow produces in total, how much milk comes out of each udder and whether the cow is being overmilked. It also averages the farm’s dairy output, which recently hovered around 94 pounds of milk per head of cattle daily.
“It gives you a running average all the time which is tremendous for us—it’s pretty doggone good,” Bender says.
But it’s not all advanced technology down on the farm. Some things are the same as they were in his dad’s day, like shoveling out manure in the stalls, he adds.
Bender expresses a great deal of admiration for his father—the man who taught him his trade and instilled in him his work ethic.
“The one thing I learned from him is he never complained,” Bender says. “He would work all hours and gave it his all. He was Mr. Dependable.”
He was also a forgiving man, Bender recalls, who never yelled at him when he broke farm equipment during the course of the job so long as he learned from his mistakes. He was happy to have his son learn on his dime rather than to go out and make costly mistakes on his own.
Bender’s love of the farm is something he has passed down to his own children. It’s a great place to raise kids, he says.
“There is so much opportunity for kids. …When my oldest was 4 years old, he was in the barn building stools and stuff with hammer and nails and it was his idea. This little boy is in there creating something instead of sitting in the house watching TV. …
“The most precious times of my life are with my kids riding in the tractor with me.”
Dairy farmers are just the first step in milk’s journey to the consumers, and it doesn’t go anywhere without the truck drivers who transport it.
They are the unsung heroes of the industry, says Daniel Meany of Hy-Point Farms, nestled just outside of Wilmington.
Meany, 36, oversees the transport fleet for the family-owned business, which includes a tanker and 50 delivery trucks used to supply local businesses with dairy. Hy-Point employs around 40 drivers, including Meany himself.
“Their job is the most thankless job, and they work crazy hours,” Meany says.
Hy-Point is in the business of milk processing and beverage making, the last leg of the milk journey before distribution. They also bottle juices, ice cream mixes and other products.
The process begins when milk is delivered from a farm via tanker truck. At Hy-Point, it’s stored in a silo before it goes into a receiving bay and separator, which removes the cream and fat from the milk.
After that, the raw whole and skim milk is pasteurized at 167 F for 22 seconds. (It’s state law to pasteurize milk; for raw milk, you’ll have to travel to Pennsylvania.) It then goes to a homogenizer that applies pressure to the milk through valves that make it homogenous—meaning a blend of milk and cream that looks like a single liquid.
The money in dairy is made from cream, Meany says. For that reason, skim milk is added to whole milk to bring the fat content down to 3.25%. Any more than that, he says, and they’d be giving away 0.25% cream.
“Cream is lower in supply and high in demand,” Meany explains. “For every 100 gallons of milk, you get 10 of cream at 40% fat.”
Meany says the most rewarding part of working at Hy-Point is keeping his family’s legacy alive. They’ve been bottling milk in Delaware for over a century.
“We all work together and we all get along,” he says. “I was always here; I grew up here. There’s always something to do or something going on.”