Grazing the hills for profit

MORRISTOWN, Ohio – Brown Swiss have been the dairy cow of choice for the Watkins family since the 1930s, and Bill Watkins, owner of Fox Trail Farm in Morristown, Ohio, says with his intensive grazing system, no other breed could do as well.

Watkins is one of two dairy farmers in Belmont County to employ grazing practices, and he is a member of the Belmont County Grazing Council. Watkins believes grazing is the most profitable way to raise his animals. About 120 of his 520 acres are used for grazing.

“Brown Swiss are much better grazers than Holsteins. They have better feet and legs and they need a lot less babying than the Holsteins,” said Watkins. “There are two things free in this world – sunlight and rain. Why not take advantage of them and graze your animals?”

Farm tour.

Because of his commitment to intensive grazing, Watkins was asked to take part in the Ohio State University Extension East District’s Farm Profitability Tours 2000. Many Extension agents and visitors came to the farm and Watkins was able explain his practices to them.

“Extension is really pushing grazing and trying to get farmers into it,” said Watkins. “I think they chose my farm to be a part of that tour so farmers could see that intensive grazing is the way to go.”

Watkins’ grandfather bought his first Brown Swiss in the 1930s and the family has enjoyed the cows’ high butterfat and protein content ever since. In 1996, the family owned 50 head, but Watkins now operates an 81-head herd, milking 76 with an average milk production of 17,300 pounds.

Fox Trail Farm.

Watkins graduated from The Ohio State University in 1974 with a degree in dairy science. He is a member of the Ohio Brown Swiss Association, Belmont County Farm Bureau, Dairy Farmers of America and the Dairy Service Unit. He, his wife, Ruth, and their two children, Katy and David, rent the farm from his mother, Faye. Besides family, Fox Trail Farm also employs two others.

Besides their butterfat and protein content, Watkins says he likes the Brown Swiss because of their ease of care and temperament. He says they need hardly any shelter and have good feet and legs to get around on the rolling hills of the county.

“They are just good cows. We have very little trouble with them. I talk to Holstein people and they’ve got many more complaints about their animals than I’ve ever had about mine,” said Watkins.

Disease free.

His herd is a Level 5 test negative monitored status for Johne’s disease, which means the herd has tested negative for Johne’s for more than six years. His cull rate is at 19 percent, and his herd is 98 percent registered Brown Swiss.

Watkins uses artificial insemination, and says he works with Genex and COBA/Select Sires.

He is sending one cow to the national sale in Vermont and says, although she is not a show-quality animal, she is a good milker and will probably bring about $3,000.

Watkins currently milks in a flat parlor, but would like to upgrade to a swing operation with a pit parlor. He has a 1,000-gallon holding tank, and most of his production goes to Kroger in Newark, Ohio, and Farmers Cheese.

“We spend two hours milking twice a day, so I look forward to the day when we can spend less time in the parlor,” said Watkins.

Longwall mining.

While many farmers are fighting urban encroachment, Watkins, along with many farmers in Belmont County, have to contend with the possibility of longwall mining.

The Ohio Valley Coal Company has looked at several sites on Watkins’ farm for possible drilling and mining opportunities. Watkins is looking to upgrade many things on the farm, such as the manure pit, but he is waiting to see what the mining company is going to do.

“They have drilled nine holes on my property looking for a fault line and they haven’t found it yet,” said Watkins. “It is hard to make improvements to your farm when you don’t know where the mine is going to tear it up.”

Beating the sprawl.

Watkins said he is not worried about the urban sprawl that many other farmers in Ohio are seeing, despite the fact that neighboring St. Clairsville is continually growing.

“Our farm is situated between a state park and a major highway, so right now we don’t have a lot to worry about,” said Watkins. “We’re pretty isolated out here.”

Watkins grows about 65 acres of corn using no-till practices. Other conservation practices employed by Watkins are strip cropping, dry dams and grass waterways.

All in all, the Watkins and Brown Swiss seem to be a pretty good match. Throughout more than 70 years, they have grown and become more productive.

Watkins’ goal for the farm is to get bigger. In three years, he wants to milk more cows in three years and wants to have better, more efficient equipment.

“To keep up with everyone else in the area, you’ve got to get bigger,” said Watkins. “And, once we get all of this mining stuff figured out, I’ll be able to go ahead with my plans to improve the farm.”

(Reporter Annie Santoro can be reached at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or asantoro@farmanddairy.com.)

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