N.C. Dairy Farmers Milk It for All It’s Worth
Dairy farmer Karen Jordan readily admits: Her cows eat better than she does.
“On our farm, our big concentration is on animal well-being,” she says. “To have great animal well-being you have to focus on nutrition. From the economic side of things it is the biggest daily expense a dairy farmer has.”
And as feed costs have doubled in the last several years, every bite becomes more significant. Jordan, who also is a veterinarian, relies on research to understand feed content requirements, whether that be protein, starch and sugar or calcium, magnesium and potassium. Jordan sends farm-grown forages to laboratories for testing to determine nutrient content. She knows the requirements of the 80 Brown Swiss cows on the third-generation dairy farm she operates with husband Norman near Siler City. As a result, the Jordans make the feed ration economical without sacrificing production.
Because at the end of the day, milk flow is equivalent to cash flow, she says.
Throughout North Carolina, dairy farmers like the Jordans use research, technology and niche markets to thrive. North Carolina’s dairy industry has experienced a decline, but in recent years, the number of dairy farms has stabilized and is slowly increasing in numbers.
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Among the newer farmers is Ashley Bridges McMurry, a 28-year-old fueled by her family’s legacy and a passion for dairy. She proves determined to succeed in the dairy business, a tradition her grandfather established in the 1950s. Yet for a short time, her family was forced out of dairy farming.
“Losing my grandfather was a tragic event for my family, so seeing most of our cows being sold was almost equivalent to the same feeling,” she says.
McMurry received a grant to start a creamery from the Rural Advancement Foundation International’s Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund. This provided enough money to transition an old calf-raising barn into a small stanchion parlor and cheese-making room in 2011. Today, she milks just five cows, yet sells enough cheese and sweet cream butter to make a living.
She sells her Guernsey Girl Creamery products mostly at farmers markets in Charlotte and Shelby, her hometown.
“I knew what I wanted to do by the age of 8,” she says. “I had a passion for the dairy farming lifestyle. It didn’t matter to me that we worked seven days a week or couldn’t take long vacations.”
Likewise, dairy will provide a future for the Moye family’s next generation in Eastern North Carolina.
Neil Moye started farming near Ayden in 1988 as a traditional tobacco and row-crop farmer. He and his brother David diversified into hogs and turkeys. But with three kids each, the brothers knew they needed something different to create an opportunity for the next generation to live on the land, too.
The family decided to expand its small herd of jersey cows to 200 head. By the end of 2014, they plan to open a creamery and market dairy products directly to the consumer.
“I had always had a passion to have a product I raised here and took straight to the consumer,” he says.
The family plans to start with fluid milk and heavy cream under the name Simply Natural Creamery, before potentially growing into ice cream, butter and yogurt. They will sell to consumers from their on-farm retail store and also market products to grocery stores and high-end restaurants.
Expansion into the dairy processing side adds revenue to the farm, as the family adds value to the milk they produce. Meanwhile, technology improves their milk production. A computer software program tracks pounds of milk, reproductive cycles, medications and health events by cow. The Moyes also use ultrasound to perform pregnancy checks and to identify afflictions before conception.
Technology improves herd health and production on the Jordan dairy farm, as well.
“Some of this is so commonplace for us that sometimes I forget that it’s technology,” Jordan says.
Artificial breeding, access to sexed semen and enhanced genetic data improves reproduction decisions and strengthens herd genetics. Sampling allows them to monitor milk content, such as somatic cell counts, protein and fat. The Jordans look for trends in herd performance, identify problems before they become severe and closely track cow health.
And while nutrition is a key focus on the Jordan farm, they gain the best results when nutrition is teamed with cow comfort. The Jordans use sand-bedded, flexible free stalls for their cows. A new calf barn enhances sunlight and provides other amenities important to calf care.
Still, Jordan continues to look for small adjustments that can make a big difference.
“We are always looking for a better wheel,” she says.
– Joanie Stiers