Dairy farming is a way of life for Ohio FFA winner

John Hughes
John Hughes, a member of West Holmes FFA and Open Road Farm in Holmes County.

KILLBUCK, Ohio — For high school junior John Hughes, dairy farming is more than just a project.

Hughes won this year’s Ohio state FFA dairy entrepreneurship proficiency contest for the records he kept on his own milk cows and their production. He currently has 14 milking cows and 16 replacement heifers, which are part of his family’s larger herd of 450 cows.

A project and his job. Hughes is part of the workforce at Open Road Farm, a Holmes County dairy operation that has been in the family for 100 years.

Other partners include his parents, Hank and Julie Hughes; his grandparents, Steve and Carol Watts; and his uncles, Kevin and Kyle Watts.

With the help of a half-dozen other employees, the family milks a herd of Holsteins, Brown Swiss and Jerseys three times a day and sells milk to Brewster Dairy, of Stark County.

History of winning

Hughes, a member of the West Holmes FFA, received his award May 3 at the Ohio FFA State Convention in Columbus. His brother, William, received the same honor in 2017, the same year John finished second.

Even though John came close in the past, he didn’t take winning for granted. He remembers one year when his brother came in second, followed by fourth the following year.

”You never know what to expect because you never know what competition is going to come through,” John Hughes said.

To receive the honor, Hughes had to keep good records, including milk components like fat and protein, and he had to track his expenses, such as veterinarians, hoof trimming and breeding, for the duration of a year.

Family dairy

While the award is an honor — at his farm and across the state — John’s main focus is growing the family dairy and trying to position it for the next 100 years. His family is undertaking a major freestall barn expansion, which will include a flush cleaning system.

In the evenings, and whenever they get a chance, the Hughes and Watts families have been busy installing new freestall panels and headlocks, trying to do as much of the labor themselves as they can. They’ve installed a 5 million gallon lagoon manure, and they’re continuously trying to find ways to improve and grow the herd.

“We’d like to see it keep continuing another 100 years,” said Julie Hughes.

John Hughes
John Hughes (left), with his parents Hank and Julie Hughes.

Julie and Hank both said “it’s a big accomplishment” to have two sons from the same farm win the state FFA’s top dairy award, and that both sons have put in a lot of effort to achieve the honor.

Like his brother, William, John plans to complete a 15-week dairy short course in Madison, Wisconsin, following his senior year of high school. William returned to the farm after completing his own education, and John hopes to do the same.

Marking their place

John’s FFA adviser, Jaime Chenevey, said she is proud of the Hughes for their accomplishments, and her other students who have done well with proficiency awards.

“I think the award exhibits the pride the (Hughes) family has on the dairy industry, as well as how hard they work to be successful,” said Chenevey.

According to Chenevey, the dairy proficiency requires many hours of meetings and record keeping, and finalists are interviewed at state convention. The winners have the opportunity to also compete at the national level.

Proficiency awards are available to FFA members in dozens of areas, intended to help members set goals and learn practical goals in their area of interest or expertise.

Farm chores

In addition to his own cows, John helps feed calves, manage manure and, more recently, he’s been helping with fieldwork. He said fieldwork is probably one of his favorite things at the farm right now, and as the weather improves, he’s hoping to spend more time in the fields.

But he enjoys working with the cows, he said, and showing them at various places, including the World Dairy Expo in Wisconsin, the Ohio Spring Dairy Expo, and the North American International Livestock Exposition in Louisville, Kentucky.

One of the challenges is balancing life as a student with life as a farmer.

”It means more late nights, trying to get all the work done,” he said. “You’ve just got to try to get all of your school work done at school and get farm work done (in the evenings).”

Balancing act

John still finds time to play high school baseball, and he competes in the FFA chapter dairy judging and tractor troubleshooting teams. His dairy judging team placed 10th in this year’s state contest.

John has made multiple friends through FFA, and the dairy judging team meets at his farm and area farms to practice their cattle judging skills.

Although he cannot enter the dairy entrepreneurship contest again, he is considering entering the dairy placement contest, which is focused on hours spent working in the dairy industry. He’s also hoping his sister, Amy, will enjoy a good career in FFA, as she will be a high school freshman this fall.

Chase Stitzlein, also of the West Holmes chapter, placed third in the dairy entrepreneurship contest, and classmate Sarah Sprang placed second in the state dairy placement contest.


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