Thursday, May 16, 2019

Farm & Life Update (5/16/19)

originally posted Thursday morning at 6am

Good morning from the parlor where Dad and I have now milked 170 of our 193 cows and the sky’s changing hues herald the sun’s impending arrival. Fans have been circulating cooler fresh air through the barn to keep both us and the cows comfortable, a task that will be increasing difficult as we approach and soon enter the summer.

Despite two flat tires slowing progress yesterday and one of our farmhands needing off at least part of today, I think we are still on track to get our “hill ground” corn planted by the end of the week. If so and we stay relatively dry heading into next week, we could be looking at a run of days that are extremely busy even by dairy farm standards. There are hay fields to clip, bottomland fields to plant, corn to sidedress and spray, calves to vaccinate, and of course the cows still have to be milked twice daily.

On top of the farm work, I have a family to spend time with, Wednesday night Bible study lessons to prepare for June, cross-state meetings to attend, phone calls to make, and I’m sure a number of other responsibilities that aren’t immediately coming to mind. It can be overwhelming if I try to look too far beyond the horizon, so I just try to make the best of today and put myself in a good starting position for tomorrow. There is such a thing as being too busy, but Luke 12:48b says, "From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, even more will be expected." The Lord’s given me opportunities to be useful in different ways to different people and He’ll sustain me as long as I'm faithful to stick to the path He’s laid out for me.

So let’s all work diligently today but remember that our worth isn’t solely defined by our work. Take time to smell the roses, extend kindness to your neighbor, and have a dairy good day.


Tuesday, May 7, 2019

There's something about this place

Sometimes I catch myself staring at a particular spot in a field or pasture for no apparent reason. Occasionally I'll park a tractor in the middle of doing field work, climb up onto the hood, and spend a minute surveying the farm around me. I enjoy soaking up the beauty of my surroundings in the the quiet moments I often spend on my front porch after the morning milking or at the end of the day.

There's something about this place.

the view from my front porch this morning
I was told growing up that I was smart enough to go anywhere and do anything I wanted. But there's something about this place that made it impossible for me to believe I could ever be happy being anywhere else or doing anything else.

I've spent the last fifteen-plus years heavily involved in several different farming organizations, and that involvement has often required me to spend significant time off the farm. Perhaps the effort has not always yielded the intended results, but there's something about this place that drives me to use my abilities in a way that helps enable myself and others to farm more freely and successfully.

I've spent countless hours sharing the story of my farm and industry with classrooms, reporters, civic groups, and thousands upon thousands of people I'll never actually meet on the internet. It can be a grind at times, but there's something about this place that's worth telling people about...especially those who have no personal connection to such a place.

I wonder if my ancestors ever reflected on the past and pondered on the future of this little spot of ground like I do. I think about all the decisions that must have been made by my family members over the last century-and-a-half that have led to my opportunity to call this place home, as well as how many times a different decision along the way could have completely re-written my story before it ever started.

Our farm isn't blessed with especially fertile soil, and we fight more than our fair share of kudzu and privet and pigweed. But it's ours, and it's home. It's both where I live and make my living, and I pray that holds true until I draw my final breath. Perhaps our kids will choose to make their lives and rear their families on the farm, perhaps their dreams will carry them elsewhere. Only God knows what the future holds for this place, but we are thankful He's entrusted its stewardship to our family for multiple generations.

There's something about this place that makes it worth conserving.

There's something about this place that makes it worth fighting for.

There's something about this place that makes it the only place I'll ever be able to call "home."




Saturday, March 23, 2019

Springtime brings more milk and more work

Springtime is upon us and life on the farm is about to get much busier than it already is. It's been a few weeks since I've given y'all an update, so I figured I'd try to catch you up to speed before I start tackling some of the projects on this Saturday's "to do" list.

Fewer cows, more milk
Good ol' Ms. Nosey
Our milking herd topped out at 213 a couple of weeks ago, but we've since culled fifteen and are now sitting at 198. And while we have three more in the maternity pen that should calve within the next two weeks, we also have a half-dozen that are nearly ready to be "dried off." So, if we do cross the 200 cow threshold again it won't be for long.

Removing those lower producing cows automatically raised our herd's average daily production on a per cow basis by a couple of pounds right off the bat. Per cow production has continued to climb over the last couple of weeks thanks in part to better weather, and now our total production is exceeding what it was before we sold those fifteen cows. We'll "weigh" milk on Monday or Tuesday morning, and by the end of next week we should have updated production profiles for all of our milkers. That information will help us make decisions about whether or not we have any more cows ready to cull and which pregnant cows might need to be dried off earlier than two months before their due date.

Getting ready for field work
The days are getting a little longer, warmer, and drier, and I'm itching to be in the field. We still have a little ways to go before we'll be ready to break any of our corn silage ground, but with good luck and favorable forecast we may be able to have some bulk fertilizer spread within the next 10-12 days. We've been able to spread enough manure on the fields adjacent to the dairy to get by without needing any commercial P & K, this year, but we'll still need a blend spread over about 2/3 of our "hill ground" acreage. I haven't even pulled soil samples in our bottom land yet, and I figure it will be at least mid-May before it is dry enough to plant. If all goes as planned, though, we'll be looking at planting around 170 acres of silage before all is said and done.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

A Super time in Atlanta


It's hard making a cow-print shirt look good, but I manage.

This past weekend's Super Bowl may have been a dud, but I had a blast with a few fellow dairy farmers at the SB Fan Experience event a couple of days prior to the big game. We were helping hand out free grilled cheese sandwiches and chocolate milk to folks who passed by, giving away "Undeniably Dairy" medallions, and answering questions people had about dairy farming.


I'm not sure how many people stopped by our food truck during the two-day event, but there was steady traffic while I was there Friday afternoon. We were able to convince the majority of people walking by our setup to stop and enjoy a sample, and most seemed genuinely glad that they did. A few even asked me about the brand names of the cheese (Cabot) and milk (Mtn. Fresh Creamery) and if they were available where they lived. And these folks lived all over, too! About half of the people who stopped by were Falcons fans, but there was also a large contingent of Patriots fans that had come to support their team. The Eagles, Steelers, and Cowboys were well represented, but the Rams...not so much.


While most folks only stopped long enough for the free samples and UD swag, our group did have a few good conversations with people who were excited to meet "real life" farmers and learn about life on a dairy farm. On the whole, I believe we built up some goodwill and perhaps even spurred some folks to start including a little more dairy in their diets.


One final note. As you can see, we were dressed to mimic referees...only trading the traditional "zebra stripes" for a Holstein pattern. We each had a whistle and a cow-print penalty flag we could through, too. I was told these outfits were specially made for the event and not available for general purchase. That makes them a rare collector's item, and I'm willing to autograph and auction mine off. Bidding starts at $5k, let me know if you're interested.

I joined five dairy farmers from Georgia along with promotion staff to help give NFL fans an Undeniably Dairy experience.

Atlanta Falcons cornerback Robert Alford stopped by to sample our grilled cheese and milk and take photos with fans.
I had a great conversation with Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier about what it's like living on a dairy farm.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

What will happen to our dairy cows as we transition to beef?

"What will happen to your dairy cows?"

It's a question I've been asked several times over the last few months as I've mentioned our farm's gradual transition from dairy to beef, and there are really three different directions for our dairy herd to go.

Our dairy herd will naturally shrink by
breeding for more beef crossbreeds and
fewer Holstein replacement heifers.
The first direction (and most critical to our transition) is that we will shrink it by having fewer replacement heifers.  Until recently, our breeding program has been designed to yield roughly 80 Holstein heifers each year which would in turn join the milking herd once they have their first calf around two years of age. We changed strategies last year, which should result in roughly 60 Holstein heifers when our current calving season ends in a few weeks. We are currently breeding to only get roughly 30 Holstein heifers in the next calving season as we are focused more on the cross-bred calves we need to get our commercial beef herd established.

The second direction for our dairy cows is the beef market. Culling is a normal practice among dairies as we move out lower producing cows to make room for the replacement heifers. In our case, we send our cull cows to one of the local stockyards where they are bought and sent to slaughter. We have enough replacement heifers to keep our milking herd at its current level for another 2.5 years if we maintain our normal culling rate, so over half the cows we are currently milking will leave the farm through this process.

The third direction for our dairy cows is to be sold to other dairies. Once we get ready to close the book on dairy farming, we will look to sell the majority of our producing cows to dairies with expansion plans. Whether that's done by auction or private arrangement is yet to be seen and will largely be determined by cattle prices. Any that don't sell for milk production will be sold for beef.

Some people have asked about the fate of specific cows that I highlight on social media, such as Ms. Nosey and Trouble. Those two are both likely to fall in that second category based on their age, but both are currently pregnant, physically sound, and should be around for a good while longer. I wrote a blog a few years ago that deals with the issue of parting with favorite cows, and I invite you to read it if you're interested in the intersection of sentimentality and business. ("Saying Goodbye to Ol' Number 07")

Monday, January 28, 2019

Milk production is up

We're finally back over the 200-cow threshold in our milking herd (202 this afternoon), and so the increasing number of cows we are milking has obviously led to an increase in total milk produced. We still have 30ish more expected to freshen over the next 6 weeks, but I expect we'll send a few lower-producing cows off to the stockyard and give an extended dry period to several others to keep from going much over the 220-mark.

Part of our milk increase has also come from a switch to higher quality corn silage in the cows' feed ration. Last year's big silage crop exceeded our storage capacity, so we had to "ground pile" everything that we couldn't pack into one of our three silage pit bunkers. It was the first of last year's crop we fed because we knew it simply wouldn't age as well as the other. We fed the last of it a few days ago and started feeding better preserved, higher quality silage out of one of the bunkers. The cows immediately responded with increased production. Not substantial, but noticeable. And both the silage quality and milk production should continue to improve as we get a little deeper into it.

The weather has been a big limiting factor on production this winter, but has improved somewhat of late. We don't have a free-stall or pack barn, so our cows are out in the open most of the day. Keeping them out of the mud and finding halfway dry places for them to rest has been a real challenge with all the rain we've had, but fewer rainy days over the last couple of weeks has made pasture management and cattle flow a little easier. That translates into improved cow comfort, which in turn results in more milk.

Dad and I ran our monthly production "test" this morning, recording milk weights and collecting samples from each cow that came through the parlor. The samples and records were sent off this afternoon, and by the end of the week we should get a breakdown of each cow's milk production (quantity and quality). We will use that information to help us make the culling and early dry-off decisions I mentioned earlier, as well as to identify which cows we want to breed for replacement dairy heifers and which ones will be bred with Angus semen.


Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Sorting out breeding-aged heifers

We spent most of this morning sorting through a large group of 59 heifers that had been running together in the big pasture across the road from our dairy barn. We pulled the oldest 25 (ages 15-17 months) and hauled them to another pasture along with a newly purchased Angus bull. We had originally planned on using sexed semen on this bunch of heifers, but it's looking less likely that we'll need as many replacements three years from now. Depending on how our milking herd's pregnancy-check goes later this month, we may AI the next group of heifers that will be ready to breed in February.

It was a nice, clear morning to sort heifers.
I'm expecting a fairly standard afternoon ahead: milk the cows (181 of 'em), feed the cows & calves, and put a few bales of hay out in pastures. Here's hoping for a drama-fee ending to Hump Day.


FLASHBACK: 9 years ago...

January 9, 2010 was a big day for me as I was elected chairman of the American Farm Bureau Federation's Young Farmers and Ranchers Committee at AFBF's Annual Meeting in Seattle. I wuld learn a lot in the coming year about agricultural and organizational policy, leadership, service, and managing people (and their egos). It gave me opportunities to visit parts of the country I had never seen before and allowed me to meet many interesting people. It also helped prepare me to take on more leadership responsibilities within my county and perhaps one day my state.


Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Farm Update: January 8, 2019

We are enjoying a sunny, dry, and unseasonably mild start to our week here on the farm, a welcome change from the seemingly constant rain that had fallen over the previous several days. Our cows' milk production has been lagging behind where we think it ought to be, but there are signs that maybe they are finally turning the corner. We are currently milking 180 cows after sending 25 to the sale barn over the past month. We have roughly another 55 set to freshen within the next two months, so we'll cull a few more of our lower-producers and will likely give some pregnant cows an extended dry period so as not to exceed our management capacity.

Outside the milking barn, yesterday's activities focused mostly on calf management. We moved 20 weaned calves (Holsteins and Angus-crosses) to a new pasture to make room for 16 more that we weaned and vaccinated that morning. This morning we'll move 20 calves (2-4 weeks old) from single to group pens and repair some fencing around another pasture to prepare it for a group of breeding-aged heifers.

Y'all enjoy this nice weather while it lasts...we're sure gonna try to!

Our cows aren't filling up the bulk tank quite yet, but production is starting to climb.