STRASBURG, Ohio — In the summer of 1995, Karen Rowe packed work clothes and a new pair of boots and left her classmates in the Ohio State ATI dairy science program for a 10-week stint on a Wisconsin dairy farm.
Until then, she’d never worked on any dairy except the one owned by her parents, Jim and Rita.
Just outside of Green Bay, Karen saw the trials and tribulations of a 350-cow dairy, one that was just beginning an expansion that would nearly triple its herd. She saw the effects of rbST, of milking three times a day, of dealing with disease issues.
At the end of those 10 weeks, she left behind a pair of well-worn work boots, but brought back a head full of knowledge that reaffirmed her own family’s success and direction in the dairy industry.
Nearly 60 years ago, Howard and Laura Rowe bought the 220-acre home farm just northwest of Strasburg in Tuscarawas County. They worked the land with family until the early ’60s, when the young couple could afford to split and make a go of milking cows on their own.
Son Jim graduated from Ohio State with a degree in dairy science in 1973 and just five short years later, after Howard suffered a stroke, he and wife Rita took over full day-to-day operation.
“We were very invested at that point, doing all the milking and crops,” Jim Rowe explained.
Over the years, as the Rowes grew the milking herd, they also grew their base acreage.
“We’ve added on here and there over the years,” Rowe said, noting the farm today is roughly 430 acres.
“We’ve been real aggressive in buying land, because we don’t want to have to buy corn. We bought corn for years because we didn’t have enough land,” he explained.
In fact, the Rowes purchased concentrates and high-moisture corn until about three years ago, when prices skyrocketed and cut too deeply into the budget.
“All of a sudden, that came to a screeching halt,” Jim said. “Now we try to grow as much of our feeds and forages as possible.”
This year, the Rowes put out 160 acres of corn and are doing as much as they can to control costs across the board. One way is by contracting feed up to a year in advance, a move Jim Rowe says he thinks more dairymen should consider.
“In the last year, because we contracted, we’ve saved $3,000-$4,000 a month in feed costs alone by locking prices in early,” he explained. “Guys not [contracting] should really look at it.”
Another part of the dairy’s successful nutrition plan includes feeding raw soybeans.
Several years ago, with soybeans still in storage, the Rowes stumbled on them as a feed source. Several bushels that wouldn’t fit on a truckload Jim had sold were just sitting there, and a specialist suggested they add them to the ration to use them up.
Today, with the addition of about 2 pounds of raw, cracked soybeans to the ration, the Rowes see a 3- to 4-pound production kick per cow each day. Those pounds, times nearly 170 cows moving through the parlor each day, add up.
“The vet says its because of the extra energy, but whatever it is, when these cows are really cranking, they’re always on raw beans,” Rowe said.
Rowe is particularly proud that relationships built with neighbors over his lifetime have allowed him to purchase land nearby as it comes available, and that all but 18 of the 430 acres are contiguous.
Having the land so close and connected also allows the Rowes, who go by Jimita Holsteins, to use a soft-hose injection system to manage nearly all of their manure. Only semisolids from the lagoon and pen pack are spread above ground, they said.
“It’s our goal to use as much of the manure as we can, and to use it effectively,” Jim Rowe said.
Injecting it cuts back on nitrogen losses typically seen in straight surface application, he said. Last year, the Rowes’ corn fertility program included only manure and 20 gallons of 28-0-0, which yielded them a hearty 170 bushel per acre crop.
“As long as we keep injecting, I think we can feel really competitive in growing corn,” Jim Rowe said.
“And it keeps the neighbors happier, too,” Rita said.
Happy neighbors are important to the Rowes, especially since a married couple who lives nearby are also trusted milkers who handle the bulk of the farm’s parlor work.
There is also one full-time and one part-time employee who work alongside Jim, Rita and Karen to make the farm run, and hold the fort down when the Rowes want to visit their other children, Brian and Elizabeth, or spend time with Karen’s son, Cole.
“We have really good employees,” Rita said. “They’re conscientious and careful and just really great people. We’d be in big trouble without them.”
Jim Rowe takes a special satisfaction in watching his eldest daughter’s still-growing interest in the dairy operation.
He admits that her being there — her willingness to work hard and to return to the farm day after day — keeps the farm going in the right direction.
After all, they used lessons Karen picked up on that Wisconsin dairy farm to make decisions about building a new lagoon and freestall barn and updating the parlor from a double-four to a double-six. The family pulls knowledge from her to help better manage ventilation and flies, stall setup, cow comfort.
Their hard work has pushed somatic cell counts significantly under the 200,000 threshold over the past few months, and about one-third of their cows are testing considerably below that mark.
“The experts say that’s pretty darned hard to do, but we’ve got several like that. I think we do as good a job as any,” Jim Rowe said.
Further expansion would be difficult, they all agree. Things are good just how they are today.
“Physically and economically, we’ll stay right here, because it’s where things work,” Jim Rowe said.
“We just hope some day we can transfer the farm to Karen like we did from my parents. We’re more than willing to step back and let her make all the decisions.”