Farm, Family and Football: Inside a Successful Dairy
Meet Head Coach Jason Schwab, the man with the plan for a championship dairy.
By Jamie Cole | Photos By Greg M. Cooper
Vince Lombardi: “Football is like life—it requires perseverance, self-denial, hard work, sacrifice, dedication and respect for authority.”
Jason Schwab greets his guests outside the office at Schwab Dairy in Delevan, N.Y. If you’re visiting, by now you’ve noticed the Schwab Dairy sign, which sports racing flags in the farm logo. It’s a nod to the competitive past of Jason’s father, Gary, who raced cars on Saturday nights as part of his living, back when the dairy was only a fraction of the family’s income. You may have driven through Yorkshire to get here, where at Pioneer High School, the athletic facility bears the name of Jason’s brother, Tim.
Sport is not a specter in the Schwab family, not just an echo of past glories. It’s business. Jason quite literally views his role at Schwab Dairy as head coach. And whether by intention or intuition (likely both), Jason follows, pretty much to the letter, the philosophies and processes of some of the most successful coaches in the sport. It’s no secret that some of those philosophies and processes translate well to business, and to life.
You won’t find him arguing, then, with Lombardi’s football/life equation—especially the part about perseverance. There is an empty chair across the conference table from Jason in the farm office. He gestures to that chair, looks at it, says: “If Tim were sitting there across from me, you’d see it … he’s probably 6 inches wider than me.” When Tim played football at the University of New Hampshire, his teammates voted him Most Likely to Bench-Press a Cow.
Jason is a big dude himself, so when he says Tim is that much bigger, that’s saying a lot. Tim would occupy a lot of space.
And his absence leaves a big, empty space behind. “My brother’s story is that he did what he had to do to try and help somebody,” says Jason, telling how, in 2010, Tim went into a manure tank to try and save the life of an employee. Both the employee and Tim passed out in the tank. The employee “was in there the longest, probably 15 minutes before Tim,” Jason says, “and was up walking around the next morning.” But Tim … “My brother was put in the ground.”
That came only three years after Tim’s father fell through the roof of a barn, suffering a concussion, but dying later in the hospital from septicemia. “So it was like, boom, boom, boom … ” he says, trailing off.
But Jason perseveres—and prospers—piling on what his father and brother helped him build by keeping their competitive spirit alive in everything he does at work.
Jason came back to the farm from Missouri Valley College in 1994, one year shy of an environmental science degree but already wearing a NAIA football national championship ring. “I was starting defensive tackle,” he says. “The team was good, but the farm was upside-down.” Jason and his dad—who had the dairy passed on to him from his father in what Jason describes as a “rough transition”—worked to get things turned around, going from negative equity “to triple the upside of where it was,” he says, and doubling the size of the herd from 270 to around 450.
Tim was always planning to return to the farm, and did so in 2006 with a degree in dairy science. “He was game on!” says Jason, and growth exploded. “We built a business very soundly between the three of us, and now I’m just here running what we all installed as the groundwork.”
Nick Saban: “We’re not going to talk about what we’re going to accomplish, we’re going to talk about how we’re going to do it.”
Today, the box score at Schwab Dairy is solid. They’re up to 2,000 cows in the operation. Feed efficiency ratio—or pounds of milk per pounds of dry feed consumed—is optimal, “around 1.4, 1.5,” Jason says. And then there’s the championship result: 100 pounds of milk per day, per cow, which puts Schwab Dairy in an exclusive club, what in football terms would be an elite program.
How did they do it? He’s not going to open the playbook and publish it here—no good coach would do that. But he will say his team is focused on the process, not the result. “Our goals are pertaining to cows: cow production and cow comfort,” he says. “No financial goals are put up. Everything we do on this farm relates back to how comfortable a cow is.”
That’s true even on the crop side, growing 1,000 acres of haylage and 1,200 acres of corn. It’s not about yield, but quality. “If you screw up the haylage, it might not show up for 12 months, but my herdsman is in there saying we have a seedy feed and it’s wet and it’s not good. So do they have goals? They’re derived from cow performance.”
Joe Namath: “Football is a team game. So is life.”
In college football, it’s called National Signing Day. In the NFL, it’s the draft. Either way, it’s recruiting, hiring, building a team. “My best story about hiring here is that probably everybody played a sport,” says Jason of some 20 full-time employees at the dairy. “Typically, if you hire a linebacker or a quarterback or a running back, they know what direction they’re going to go when they get cornered.”
In other words, they’re up to the challenge. Jason scouts, recruits, then—like a good coach lets an athlete do what an athlete does best—empowers his team to get after it.
Take Nate Bennett, Schwab Dairy’s herdsman. Nate went to school with Tim and, says Jason, “he just loves cows, man. And he just kept things moving through some very tough times.” And since he has the right guy, he trusts him to do the right things for the business. “If the cows need it, I’m not going to sit around and do the math on it,” Jason says. “If they need rubber in a return alley because they’re going up a slope on concrete and we’re wearing feet off and my herdsman doesn’t order the rubber … ” He pauses, raises his voice: “Go get the rubber! Get what you need to do your job. They have the ability to make those decisions.”
Pete Carroll: “The first questions I’ll ask a kid are, ‘What other sports does he play? What does he do?’”
Most farms these days are diversified by necessity, and that’s nothing new. But Jason says he tries to live life the same well-rounded way. “A day off for me isn’t going to a farm show looking at equipment,” he says. “I mean, I love it, but a day off for me is going snowmobiling 1,500 miles away from here.” He says that approach gives him good perspective outside the dairy industry and ag in general.
Case in point: Across the road from Schwab Dairy is Schwab Aggregates, a gravel business that certainly qualifies as diversification. He got the idea while—you guessed it—snowmobiling with Tim and family friend Dave Heitzhaus, who now runs the aggregate business for Jason. “We were building a barn on that site and we knew we had good gravel back there. It was mine and Tim’s idea, and Dave took off with it. It’s nothing like the dairy business.”
Three years in, Jason says that he may be the guy taking on the financial risk, but Dave has a sense of ownership, just like how a coach delegates to a coordinator. “It makes it a little more exciting than being told what to do, if you’re that type of person,” Dave says.
Jason Schwab: “I know we’re at a position in the game right now where we’re very highly looked upon for what we do. And I know that at any minute it can be robbed from you.”
Teams go through slumps. There are wins and losses. Sometimes there are tragedies, then rallies. But it’s singular focus on the process that keeps you on top, Jason says—“keeping things [for the animals] consistent in a consistently changing environment, dedicating our lives to the animals and making sure they’re taken care of properly.”
He smiles, leaning across the conference table like a coach at a press conference, and brings it home: “We don’t like fourth-quarter breakdowns.”