Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Looking back at the past decade, looking forward to the next

Hello folks, and Happy New Year's Eve!

I've noticed as I've scrolled through Twitter today that many people are going beyond their usual December 31 "year in review" posts to recap the whole last decade. I guess I might as well play along, too, so in a few broad strokes I'll try to paint you a picture of what life has been like on the farm over the past ten years.

Me at the start of the decade versus me at the end of the decade.
I'm ten years older and wiser...and about twenty pounds heavier.
We entered 2010 coming off what was considered to be the worst stretch for milk prices in a generation. We obviously survived, but we've been hamstrung by it ever since. Prices briefly recovered, then fell again. Then we actually went through a couple of years of really good milk prices, but they would soon be offset by another sharp decline and stagnant recovery. Plans to build new and update existing facilities were tabled indefinitely then scrapped all together once we decided that the capital investment wasn't worth the risk based upon the long-term outlook for a 200 cow dairy in Alabama. We began the decade with plans to keep our dairy operational well into the future, but we're closing it out as we work through a plan that will see our farm fully transition from dairy to beef production.

But it's not all been doom and gloom on the dairy these past ten years. Yes, some years the milk price was good and more years it wasn't. Same goes for our forage crops...some years the weather was kind, others it wasn't. And while we make plans for the weeks and months and years ahead, we can only live one day at a time. Thankfully, there have been a whole lot more good days than bad. For all the challenges we've faced, I've been able to lay my head down each night knowing that what we do is all worth it.

my father & my kids in our milking barn, Spring 2015

Switching the focus from the farm to farm life, it's been quite the eventful decade. My wife and I began it with a toddler and an infant and are ending it with a teenager and a preteen. It's been such a blessing watching our kids grow and develop! Both are excellent, gifted students and involved in all kinds of activities. There's no telling how many hours we've spent at ball fields and in gyms over the past ten years, and now we're adding music to the mix. Our son may have found his niche playing trombone in the high school's band, and our daughter has recently taken to playing the piano like a duck to water. What we're most proud of though is that they both have placed their faith in Christ and are growing spiritually just as they are in every other aspect of their lives.

And since I mentioned faith, one of the positive turning points for our family this past decade was the decision to step away from the church I grew up in and be open to God leading us somewhere new. It only took a couple of months to find that place. I've said before that there's a difference between going to church and having a church family, and that's exactly what we've found at Fellowship Baptist over the past five years.

Looking ahead to 2020, better milk prices should lead to a good year on the farm as long as the weather cooperates and we do good with our forage crops. I have no idea where we'll stand by the time 2030 rolls around, though. Our oldest kid will be an adult and our youngest should be halfway through college. The last dairy cow will have long since left our farm by that time as we will have already completely transitioned over to beef production. The biggest question (worry) I have is whether or not our beef herd will generate enough income for both my parents and my family. If so, great! If not, I reckon I'll be in my 40s looking for an off-the-farm job for the first time in my life. Come whatever may, there's not much I can do but take things as they come day by day, trust in the Lord, and do the best I can to serve my family, church, and community.

My parents, wife, children, and I on the farm in 2010 and at my deacon ordination service in 2019.
I hope both the coming year and decade bring blessings to you and your family, and thanks so much for following along with me over the past years both here and on social media.  I hope I've given you an accurate glimpse of what life's like on a small dairy farm in rural Alabama...and maybe a little something to smile about along the way, too.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

An update on cows, calves, crops, etc.

Hello, readers, it's been a while. Much has changed since I last blogged in late June, so let me catch you up to speed on what you've missed if you haven't been keeping up with my social media accounts lately.

We currently have 130 cows in our active milking herd, a right smart fewer than we are normally milking this time of year. I expect us to be milking around 140 going into December, and from that point forward we should start climbing more rapidly. Off the top of my head, I think we have around 50 cows due to calve between now and mid-January and roughly that many heifers that will freshen between now and March.

young heifers standing around a hay ring
Speaking of calving, we've weaned 25 calves so far this season and have another 28 currently on bottle. Nearly half of those are crossbred bull calves, and the remainder are split nearly evenly between crossbred and Holstein heifers (we've sold a handful of Holstein bull calves). One of the projects we will be working on over the next couple of weeks is building additional calf pens to accommodate the numbers we are expecting in the near future.

In between the cows and the baby calves, we have older Holstein and crossbred calves spread out in five different pastures across the farm. There is still a little grass that can be picked through, but most of the groups are now eating hay along with the heifer feed we give them each morning. We have quite a few that are nearly old enough and large enough to breed, and I expect we will be doing a lot of that come first of the year.

Our summer crops were disappointing, but nowhere near the disaster that so many farmers have faced this year. Our corn silage crop yield beat its five-year average but didn't come close to touching the 2018 crop. And our bermudagrass hay crop was below par as well, roughly 200 bales less than we normally roll up. We were able to cut and ball a fair amount of crabgrass, though, which will definitely help keep the cattle fed through the winter. We also planted 40 acres of pearl millet which we harvested as baleage, and we've been able to use it in place of some of the corn silage in our milking herd's ration. We have 110 acres of wheat planted now (with a few more acres to go) and anticipate either rolling and wrapping most of it as baleage or chopping it for silage come springtime. 

And now for couple of items to file under the "miscellaneous" category...

For the first time in years, some of our heifers found their way into a show ring. Extension agents that work with Colbert County's 4H program contacted me earlier in the year about the possibility of leasing a few heifers. They came and got ten in August and prepared them to show at the Fayette County Fair and the Alabama National Fair in Montgomery. Both the heifers and the kids did a great job, with one being awarded the Junior Reserve Champion - Commercial at the ANF. 
Colbert County 4H student Erin Grimes showed one of our heifers at the Alabama National Fair.
photo cred: Alabama Farmers Federation

Last week I had the honor of  representing my fellow Alabama dairy farm families during a Milk2MyPlate grant presentation the Dairy Alliance made to the Community Food Bank of Central Alabama. The funds will allow the food bank to expand its capacity to offer milk and dairy products both at its main location and through its mobile pantry.
Lanier Dabruzzi (center) of the Dairy Alliance and I presented a $35,000 Milk2MyPlate
grant to Elizabeth Wix of the Community Food Bank of Central Alabama

And finally, a bit of personal news. I made a decision back in January to run for a regional leadership position in a statewide agricultural organization I'm a member of. I guess I attended somewhere around 30 county meetings and made who knows how many personal visits and phone calls over the course of six months, but I pulled the plug on my campaign in mid-September. I like to think I had a pretty decent shot of getting elected in December, but I decided the demands of the position would take too much time away from my three biggest priorities: my family, my farm, and my faith/church. And speaking of church, a few weeks after making the decision to withdraw from that race my church family elected me to serve as one of our seven deacons.  I'll be ordained this coming Sunday afternoon at 3pm, and I'd be honored for any of you folks to make the drive over to Vernon, Alabama to attend the service.

Looking ahead to the first part of 2020, we should be milking lots of cows, raising lots of calves, breeding lots of heifers, and hoping we have enough hay to get us through until the pastures start greening up in the Spring. And instead of driving back and forth all over the state several times a month like I had hoped to do, I'll be enjoying more time at home with my family and serving my church family. Honestly, I don't think I would have it any other way...potential hay shortage excluded, of course!

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Photos of the Week

Here are a few photos I snapped over the past few days that can help tell the story of what's been happening on the farm.


Monday morning we "worked" a group of 65 Holstein heifers and Angus-crossed calves. We ear tagged those that didn't yet have one and gave them their vaccination booster shots before moving them to a new pasture.



I didn't go looking for a beautiful sunset on Monday evening, but I found one while my son and I were trying to get a couple of loose steers back into their pasture. The milking herd gathered along the east side of their pasture to check out all the commotion and provided us with this photo opportunity.