Laura Daniels
Laura Daniels

In September, Vance Publishing Corporation’s Agribusiness Group (Dairy Herd Management is a member) revealed the honorees for its second annual “40 Under 40” Award program, recognizing people making a significant contribution to America’s food system. Short profiles of the honorees were included in our November issue, and can be found on our website, www.dairyherd.com and at 40Under40ag.com.

As editor of Dairy Herd Management, I confess I undertook my small part in this project reluctantly – tracking down, interviewing and writing profiles for the “dairy” honorees.

By the time I finished, it was one of the more rewarding projects I’d been a part of for quite some time. The trouble was, from my perspective, the 300-word profiles didn’t fully capture the essence of these amazing people. So this month, I begin an expanded conversation, starting with the one I’m most familiar with: Laura Daniels.

If you were allowed only one word to describe Laura Daniels, it would be “passion.” She grew up on a family dairy farm – still run by her parents and brothers – near Brighton, Wis. She attended the University of Wisconsin- Madison, where she studied Dairy Science and Life Science Communications. After working as a dairy nutritionist, she and her husband Jarred Searls purchased a dairy near Cobb, Wis., in 2009.

The two own Heartwood Farm in partnership, but Laura is in charge of day-to-day management of 300 Jersey cows and 650 owned and rented acres. She also continues to consult with other dairy farm families in the areas of employee development and team building for Star Blends, and is active with many organizations including the advisory council for the Young Dairy Leaders Institute (YDLI). She is the founder of the newly formed Dairy Girl Network. And, Laura is also Mom to Julia and Nathan.

Q: Was there anything/anyone who provided the direction or helped fuel the passion for your career path?

A: I always know when that little voice in my head says, “Well, someone has to do something about this” I better set aside time in my schedule. I’m not exactly sure where this drive comes from. It’s probably a blend of my family: my mother’s energy; my father’s willingness to vocalize his opinion; and my stepdad’s immense kindness.

I fell in love with dairy cows when I showed my first calf, Frisky. I knew at 11 years old I would find a way to spend my life with cows. After that there are dozens of people who have given me opportunity, and extended amazing patience as my maturity caught up with my passion.

Q: Describe your current interests and responsibilities related to agriculture and food production.

A: My major responsibility is to run a successful dairy operation. Our dairy is unique, in that we have freestall barns, feed a mixed ration, milk 3X, use many modern practices with cows and crops, and we also utilize managed intensive grazing for lactating cows.

This hybrid system keeps us open to good ideas from everywhere, and allows me to explain to the public that every farmer can chose his/her own way to farm, because we all have such different skills and ideas.

I am very interested in finding new ways to connect with the people we feed. Finding these opportunities drives me. Helping other farmers have the confidence to enter a tough conversation is one of the most rewarding things I do.

I am also very interested in helping women continue to grow in their agricultural roles. I am very proud to be at the helm of my own farming operation. It is a source of pride that I inspire other women to dream and believe that they can do the same.

Another area I’m working on is helping dairy farmers grow their “people” skills. People truly are our most valuable assets. The positive approach I use is, “What is good here and how do we get more of it?”

Q: With global population/food challenges ahead, what excites you most about your career/job and the future?

A: I continue to be concerned that the “food thinkers” – the journalists and thought leaders who are not actively engaged in agriculture – will shape not only attitudes about modern agriculture, but also policy. This is a threat to the future of food production. Farmers must be part of these conversations at every level. We can best describe how rule changes will affect our farms, communities and families. I am excited to see so many farmers stepping up to be part of the important discussion.