The perfect balance

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GUSTAVUS TOWNSHIP, Ohio – The component that often needs the most work on dairy farms isn’t butterfat or protein. It’s balance. That elusive concept of working the job you love, but also having a life beyond just cows.
If there was a Harmonious Farm/Life award, three Trumbull County farmers would have it in their collection, hanging next to the plaques for their herd’s high protein.
These three golf and get the recommended amount of sleep. They take days off and show their cattle around the state. Smack in the middle of agriculture’s busiest time of year, they haul their tractors to county fairs.
Sometimes they break for a few hours … in the afternoon … all three of them at once. They’re inside before the summer sun sets, and sometimes the winter sun, too.
Sure, these farmers brood over milk prices and how those first-time heifers are going to calve.
But more often than not, they’re putting in their time at the farm so they can get back to the rest of their lives – their hobbies, their families, their fun.
The funny thing about balance is, all this time off the farm makes them look forward more than ever to milking their cows.

Struggles at the start

Things didn’t start this way.
When David Rice left his family’s operation 32 years ago and bought another farm down the road, it was a struggle.
David and his wife, Shirley, were in their early 20s, just married, and milking 33 Holsteins alone in a crumbling tiestall.
There wasn’t the money, time or energy for a new barn or a parlor or more cows.
When the two boys, first Jayme and then Gary, came along, it meant four more hands to help. Straight from the playpen, they began by feeding cats and were promoted to bedding box stalls as soon as their little muscles were strong enough to shake out straw.
By the time Jayme was 12, he could rattle off bull names along with each of their Excellent daughters. And four years before he could even get his driver’s license, he was making all the farm’s breeding decisions.
Just getting rollin’

For 15 years, the Rices made do.
They saved their money, built equity and had a streak of good luck.
At the time, David wasn’t interested in significantly building the herd’s numbers, but his cows kept spitting out heifers. All these high-quality females, thanks to Jayme’s artificial insemination decisions, and the family didn’t want them.
David took them to sales, sometimes selling 60 at a time.
The sales paid for a freestall barn in 1992 and then a parlor in 1994, and David started enjoying himself more than ever.

Making it official

About this same time, Jayme graduated from high school.
From the time the two boys were born, their dad promised them, “Don’t worry. All this will be yours someday.”
But with Jayme graduating, David realized it was time to make sure that was the case.
From experience with his own family’s operation, he knew it wasn’t enough just to make promises; it needed to be in black and white.
So, David and Shirley hired an attorney and an accountant and spent the next year creating four separate partnerships within the farm.
They did it for their own peace of mind as much as for Jayme and Gary; David, 56, didn’t want his boys forced to sell the farm after he dies, just so they could survive.

Feeling the rush

Once there was a parlor and Jayme and Gary both committed to staying on the farm, the Rices increased their herd size to 120 cows.
Today, that heifer streak is over but they continue to sell breeding stock.
Rather than using the calves to continuously replenish their own herd, they sell them and use the money to fund projects like rebuilding the calf and heifer barns.
They can keep a cow for two years and get 60,000 pounds of milk out of her, or they can keep her for nine years and get 200,000 pounds of milk plus all those calves to sell, David said.
Thanks to Jayme’s breeding decisions, the farm gets that longevity and production. The cows’ rolling herd average is about 25,000, their somatic cell count average from 15 tests in March was 79,000, and they have repeatedly qualified for the Progressive Breeders Registry through the National Holstein Association.
On top of it all, the cows look good.
The biggest rush, David and Gary agree, is when an elite breeder comes all the way out to rural Gustavus Township to check out one of their cows.
That feeling can only be beat by the time Gary, 28, saw a premier Canadian producer selling a cow for $45,000 … and then realized it had the Riceton prefix. It was one of the heifers Gary sold four years earlier.

‘Some who love them’

All three of them are cow men.
They have 110 acres in hay but that’s where the fieldwork ends. After buying all their corn silage and shelled corn for 15 years, they say there’s no other way they’d rather do it.
Otherwise they’d be investing in expensive equipment and expensive acreage, and that “life” they have now would be squandered on a tractor in a field.
“There’re some dairy farmers who hate cows and some who love them. We’re the ones who love them,” David said. “That’s all we need to do. There isn’t a morning I get up and am not excited to do this.”
Or excited to finish the work and head to a tractor pull instead.
(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 23 or by e-mail at khebert@farmanddairy.com.)

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