Everything I Really Needed to Know about Dairy Farming, I Learned from my Grandfather
By: Jeffrey Bewley Printable Version
I have been blessed to have many great role models to learn from in my career in the dairy industry. Additionally, I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to pursue advanced degrees in dairy science. However, as I travel across the world visiting dairy farms, I realize more now than ever that everything I really needed to know about dairy farming, I learned from my grandfather. I may know more of the technical or scientific reasons why things work the way they do, but the basic principles that he taught me still hold true.
I fell in love with dairy when I was 6 years old when my mom moved back to her hometown next to my grandparents. Early on, my duties were limited to feeding calves and gradually increased to being involved in herd management decisions. At the time, I didn’t know I had the opportunity to learn from a great dairyman. Coming back to Kentucky, many dairy industry professionals have indicated to me that my grandfather was ahead of his time. In the early 1990’s, his herd had a rolling herd average milk production of 23,000 pounds per cow without rBST and without any lactating or dry cow housing. There was nothing fancy about his dairy. It is ironic that my work now focuses largely on dairy cattle facilities and application of technologies, when these were not critical to his success. I often find myself thinking about what it was that he did to achieve this level of success with minimal inputs. Keeping it simple by sticking to the basics was essential to his success. Following is a list of everything I really needed to know about dairy farming:
Lesson 1: It’s all about the cows. Like most dairy producers, my grandfather treated the cows in the herd as if they were members of the family. Attention to detail with regard to cow care was one of his fortes. He knew each cow individually and knew the subtle signs to look for when something was going wrong. He spent that extra time watching cows to catch them in heat. There was no doubt that each cow was the center of attention on the farm. Whether we call it cow comfort, cow signals, or animal husbandry, this skill set is still important on dairy farms today.
Lesson 2: All that time worrying about forage quality pays off. When I was young, I never could figure out why my grandfather was so worried about the weather and planning everything around it. Now, I recognize that was one of the main reasons why he got so much milk out of his cows. He always had the highest quality corn silage, alfalfa hay, and wheat silage possible because he harvested at the correct time.
Lesson 3: Genetic selection using the highest merit artificial insemination sires really does work. In 38 years of dairy farming, my grandfather never owned a bull. He was an early adopter of artificial insemination and never looked back. Every time I see him, he asks me what percent of Kentucky producers use artificial insemination. Although we didn’t have any registered cattle, he had the highest quality grade cattle possible because of the caliber sires he used. He selected from the top end of the bull list and the quality of animals we worked with showed that.
Lesson 4: The dairy farm is a business. Again, I did not appreciate it at the time, but my grandfather was not only a good dairy producer but also a good small business owner. He was focused on the operation making money to support his lifestyle and the needs of his family. He was not afraid to spend money on things that would increase revenues, but he watched expenses closely. He knew what the breakeven even milk production was for a cow on the farm and wasn’t afraid to cull a favorite cow who wasn’t paying her way.
Lesson 5: Record keeping pays. Once he joined DHIA, the performance of the herd improved dramatically. I remember getting off the bus excitedly waiting to read the latest DHIA reports with him. The information that these records provided us regarding individual cow milk production, reproductive performance, and somatic cell count allowed us to improve management of each of these areas.
Lesson 6: Attention to detail in the parlor pays. My grandfather was extremely picky about what happened in the milking parlor and who worked there. I milked for quite a few years before he would ever allow me to milk by myself. He was very particular about milking procedures. Harvesting large quantities of high quality milk paid dividends.
Lesson 7: It’s not really about the cows at all. It’s about the people. My grandfather believed in people and valued his family and hired employees. He wanted to see us all thrive in whatever he did. He was a kind leader by example. To me, he embodies what I see across the world in the dairy industry---the quality of people in this industry is what makes it so great.