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.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

One of my favorite speeches

Following up on my post about former Milk Mustache Contest winners, I'm gonna treat y'all to a little more nostalgia.

Delivering a speech at an agricultural
conference in Kansas, 2010.
I've had the opportunity to give quite a few speeches over the years. The first I remember was in my sixth-grade English class, and by the time my high school days were over I would go on to represent my school in the Public Speaking Contest at the Alabama Beta Club Convention and deliver the valedictory address at my class's graduation ceremony. My college speeches ranged from the ridiculous (a tongue-in-cheek defense of professional wrestling) to the sublime (on the importance of self-sacrifice), and I've given more speeches at agricultural meetings and conferences in the past 15+ years than I can even begin to remember.

Thirteen years after speaking at my own graduation, I was invited to deliver the commencement address to Lamar County High School's Class of 2010. Getting up and speaking in front of agricultural acquaintances and total strangers was old hat by then, but the idea of speaking with the eyes of my hometown upon me really made me nervous. That's what also made it special. And for a little over eleven minutes that May evening I tried to impart some useful, practical advice to the forty-some-odd graduates seated before me in a way that would make my former teachers and fellow citizens proud.

The address I gave that evening is certainly not going to show up when you search for "Best Commencement Speeches" on Google. Heck, it's not even the best speech I've ever written or delivered. But the occasion made it one of my favorites, and there are a few truths sprinkled in there that I still need to remind myself of from time to time. Hopefully you will find a few pearls of wisdom you can use, too, if you choose to give it a listen. 




Checking in on former Milk Mustache Contest winners

Once upon a time I would promote a kids' Milk Mustache Contest as a way for our farm to celebrate June Dairy Month. From the best of my recollection, it started around 2006 and ran through 2014. I was curious about what these former winners are up to now, so I reached out to as many of their parents as I had contact information for. Several were gracious enough to share an update I could use for a "Then and Now" promotion, and I have been sharing those across various social media accounts throughout the month.

With Dairy Month now drawing near its end, I've decided to post all of those updates here in one place. My thanks to all the kids (and parents) who participated in this project, as well as everyone who took part in our Milk Mustache Contests over the years.






Monday, June 17, 2019

Mid-June update

Well, folks, we've made it past the mid-point of June. And though we've been very busy on the farm these past few weeks, we still have a whole lot of work ahead of us.

This past week was a productive one...and unseasonably comfortable to boot! I sprayed and sidedressed our last remaining acreage of "hill ground" corn, and now all it needs is a few rains between now and harvest time. I was also able to drill roughly 40 acres of pearl millet seed into the ground which I hope to see pegging up by the end of this week. We also fertilized our hayfields, some with a commercial blend and a couple others with manure slurry. We have several pastures that need to be sprayed over the next couple of weeks, and our bottomland corn will likely need to be sprayed next week as well. We have a pretty good chance of rain every afternoon this week, and that will have a big impact on how much or how little tractor time I get over the next 7-10 days.

Our milking herd is still holding at 188 cows, though I figure we will dry off a few of the pregnant ones toward the end of the week. We opened up our final silage pit on Monday, and I'm not sure we won't run out before the first of this year's silage crop has been harvested and adequately ensiled. Reducing the number of cows in the milking herd along with their reduced summertime appetites will help extend our supply a bit, as will presumably our first cutting of millet. If we can make it through August off last year's crop, great! If not, we may have to buy and feed a "one shot" built-in-roughage ration for a couple of weeks.

Depending on weather, we may start vaccinating our heifers and steers before the week's up. If not, we'll jump on that job early next week. I figure it will take at least three days to work through them, though we'll probably hold off on the oldest heifers until we can get a "preg check" lined up with our veterinarian. There is usually a lot of loose manure (and a few loose words) flying around the catch pen when we work heifers, but I'll try to keep my clothes...and my language...as clean as I can.

I'll leave y'all with last week's MooTube Minute. I hope you all have a dairy good week!





Friday, May 31, 2019

Farm Update - 5/31/19

It's been another hot, dry week on our farm, but we've managed to survive it and get a little bit accomplished along the way.

The most important thing going into this week was to get the last 35 acres of this year's corn silage crop planted down in our bottomland, and to that end we were successful. We spent the first half of the week getting the ground worked up and fertilized, and I spend Wednesday afternoon and most of Thursday running our four-row planter across the dusty fields. I looked back through my records and figured out that our five-year average planting date in those fields is June 2, so we beat it by a couple of days. That wraps up our corn planting for the year, and next we'll move on to a few acres of a pearl millet variety we are trying out. Well, we'll move on to that once it rains again and softens the ground a bit.

2019 corn silage crop...planted.

We really are starting to hurt for rain now. Our earliest planted corn is ready to be side-dressed but I'm hesitant to do it until we get some rain in the forecast. The fields look alright enough in the mornings, but as the sun starts bearing down it's obvious the corn needs a drink. Same goes with our pastures. I did help out one of the hayfields we harvested last week by spreading eight honeywagon loads of manure slurry on it this afternoon, and I imagine that will continue for a couple other fields on Monday and Tuesday.

On the cow side, we currently have 188 in the milking herd. The heat is driving them out of the pasture around mid-morning and into the loafing barn where they can cool down under fans and sprinklers. It's had a negative effect on milk production, but we're pretty much in line with where we expect to be this time of year. Milking times are running around 2.75 hours in the mornings and just over 2 hours in the afternoons.

cow no. 603 serving as a lawnmooer outside the milking barn

If you'd like to get all this information in a condensed, video form, be sure to check out the MooTube Minute I post at the end of each week. I used to post farm videos all the time, but both I and my viewers seemed to get burned out after a few years. I'm really enjoying easing back into it though, and hopefully it will help folks learn more about what happens around here.


And with that I'll bid you farewell. Thanks for your support, and have a "dairy" good weekend!

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.