Bigger doesn’t always mean better

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LOUISVILLE, Ohio – Think having a small dairy farm – and a profitable one, at that – is impossible? Or that a husband and wife farming full-time together is a thing of bygone days?
Phil and Julie Myers point to themselves as living proof it can be done.
The Myerses aren’t just trudging through everyday operation at Circle Hawk Farm near Louisville, either.
Their herd ranks among the best in Stark County, and has ranked in Ohio’s top 10 Jersey herds five of the past six years.
In 2005, their 70-cow herd ranked third in the state for production.
“That’s not an ego thing for us, it just confirms what we’re doing is working,” Phil Myers said. “Our goal isn’t to be No. 1, it’s just to do a good job.”
A great breed. Both Phil and Julie say the Jersey breed is a great one and give their cows all the credit.
“If you give [the breed] great management, it can give you record production,” Phil said.
Their herd’s June DHI report showed a rolling herd average of 19,612 pounds of milk with 927 pounds of fat and 651 pounds of protein.
The family, which includes son Michael, 19, and daughter Kellie, 17, peeks at those reports to see where they compare to other farms in the area, but relies on them mainly to compare where they are month to month and year to year.
For them, dairying is a contest staged entirely on their own farm twice a day every day. Only their production matters when the barn lights go out every night.
Philosophy. Phil Myers says owning great cows isn’t really all that important to him. His philosophy is only to do his best with what he’s got. And luckily, he says, God has blessed him with a really great group of cows.
“We found that if we take care of them, they take care of us,” Phil said.
Part of that ‘taking care’ is having both Phil and Julie work full-time on the farm.
Julie, who used to work in a bank, relies on skills learned in the corporate world to keep superb records for the herd, and relies on daily milking and careful calf raising to keep the cows at their best. She’s also the chief corn chopper.
Phil, who specializes in the farm’s 180 acres of row crops, is mostly responsible for scraping the barns, feeding, and the herd’s artificial insemination.
Kellie, a high school senior, helps with daily calf care, and Michael, a college student, is also involved in the operation.
In all these years, the couple has never employed anyone else. And that, they say, is a key to their success.
“That was a merry-go-round we never wanted to get on,” Phil said, explaining their decision to stay small.
“You get employees, and you have to get more cows to pay for them, then you need more employees again, and more land and more cows and more employees … It’s a never-ending cycle,” he said.
“And it’s us here, all the time, seeing the cows. That lets us head off problems and fix them our way,” Julie said.
“I guess you could say our only employee is our skid loader, because I use it for everything,” Phil said with a grin.
History. Phil Myers grew up on this farm, helping his family with a mixed herd of dairy cows, and decided to join his father in 1980. Together, the two decided to sell their 53 cows through the whole-herd dairy buyout in 1986.
Phil went to work as a stone mason, but found he couldn’t shake the dairy farmer in him. In 1989, he and Julie bought the farm from his parents, and by 1991, he’d bought a combination of 16 Holstein and Jersey cows and heifers and was back in business.
His first milk check, dated Dec. 15, 1991, netted $226.96. Phil put a copy of that check under glass and has never looked back.
Choosing breed. When he and Julie put the cows on test just over 10 years ago, they were shocked at their findings: The Holsteins were only milking 10 pounds more than the Jerseys, which both of them preferred anyhow.
Plus, their facilities had been built for a smaller framed animal; the Holsteins were out of place and just didn’t fit their barns or their mindsets.
The Holsteins were slowly phased out, and today the Myerses have a herd of 70 registered Jerseys.
Everyday life. Phil and Julie Myers really like their cows, even the ones who are a little finicky at times. But there aren’t many of those, since in addition to production and type, they select for disposition, too.
It’s nearly innate for Phil, who recalls being beat up as a young man by Hilda, one of his father’s Ayrshires. “I learned real young that a good personality counts … a lot,” he said.
A cow’s pleasant personality is also vital when it comes to being pushed into Phil’s flat-six parlor twice a day.
“We have a couple really good milkers that are built real well, but we just don’t jibe well,” he said.
“I’d rather pick the cow that comes up to you and wants petted than the one who runs the other way any day.”
No matter how friendly they are, low producers aren’t safe from the cull list. There’s sometimes salvation for good breeders or cows with great legs or strong udder attachments.
“I won’t cull a decent cow just to push my averages up,” Myers said. “Those averages come with management, not heavy culling.”
Managers. And the Myerses are managers at heart.
A few years back, they switched from calf hutches to an all-inclusive Cover-All barn with individual calf pens and larger group pens. They caught flak from other farmers and veterinarians who said they’d have sickness run rampant with calves side by side and rubbing noses.
They proved them wrong. The Myerses shuffle calves from pen to pen and watch them become strong young heifers and eventually enter the milking string.
But the work doesn’t stop once the cow is milking. The Myerses always keep an eye on the herd, and tweak and adjust their routine to get that state-ranking production.
One such move was dropping back to feeding just once a day, in the evening. They’ve been able to keep milk yield high and cut back on time wasted pushing feed up. And, the cows seem more content because they can eat in the evenings when it’s cooler, the owners claim.
The family also uses sand bedding to keep the cows healthy, and give them access to pasture, which seems to have nearly eliminated all foot problems and gotten rid of the need for a hoof trimmer.
But the move that’s paying the biggest dividends, Phil says, is using timed lights over the feed bunk.
An idea gleaned from Ohio State research, simply giving the cows more light – and giving them complete darkness from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. – added an extra 5 pounds per cow to the bulk tank immediately.
“You just have to pay attention to the little things that give you a little more,” bang for your buck, Myers said.
On a mission. Hanging above the wall calendar in the kitchen is Circle Hawk’s mission statement, something Phil and Julie developed years ago during participation in Dairy Excel sessions:
“Our mission is to produce profitable, quality milk in an efficient, positive atmosphere, creating the time and resources to promote family enrichment. This will be done working hand in hand with each other under the divine guidance of God.”
It’s their daily reminder of the real satisfaction their small and profitable herd brings them, and it pulls their family together and keeps them positive.
“We’re proof a small dairy can survive and thrive. We’re not adding cows, but if we’re always moving forward, we’re bettering our cause,” Phil said.
“As long as we’re making steps, that’s what’s important.”
(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 800-837-3419 or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)

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