MOUNT VERNON, Ohio – Thirteen years ago, Dave Forgey couldn’t imagine speaking at an agricultural conference about success.
At that time, the Indiana farmer was broke, disheartened about farming and set in his ways as a confinement dairyman.
On the way to a forage meeting in 1991, Forgey and his wife, Helen, agonized over the $600,000 they owed the bank and begrudgingly concluded there was no other choice. They agreed to sell the family farm.
But after hearing animal scientist David Zartman speak at the meeting, the Forgeys realized they did have another choice: intensive rotational grazing and seasonal dairying.
The concepts overturned everything they’d ever learned and believed. But it was their last, and only, chance to save the farm.
‘Afraid of change.’ “Dairymen are afraid of change,” Forgey told more than 20 people at a workshop at the Innovative Farmers of Ohio annual conference in Mount Vernon.
“They are so ingrained in conventional ways,” he said, noting the same had been true for him.
Farmers pay for exorbitant equipment costs, nutritionists’ advice, feed, chemicals, fertilizer, employees’ salaries and vet bills for overstressed animals.
Forgey’s system skips all of this.
And the bottom line is he netted more than $1,000 per cow last year – five times more than he made with his traditional operation.
In 1990, when he was still keeping his cows in the barn and farming row crops, he made $12,000. In 2001, after turning his cows out to pasture, his income jumped to $191,073.
In addition, his debt ratio dropped from 59 percent to 12 percent.
Overhaul. “Nothing is the same except you attach the milker to the udder,” Forgey says of the practices that changed his farm and his life.
It took time and adjustments, but now Forgey’s 120 milking cows eat exclusively from 400 acres.
Early on, he converted his corn land to pasture and now does not grow row crops.
Once the pastures were established, he improved them with no-till seeding. High levels of legumes eliminated the need for supplemental nitrogen.
Cows are kept on pasture all year, even in the winter. Windbreaks help shield the animals, but for the most part winter isn’t a problem, Forgey said.
With seasonal dairying, the cows are dry by Christmas and don’t freshen until March so they aren’t producing milk during the coldest months.
Seasonal production. Seasonal dairying was another switch Forgey couldn’t imagine. But it was another step he embraced to keep his farm going.
By altering breeding schedules, using New Zealand Friesian genetics and selling cattle that couldn’t be bred seasonally, he narrowed the calving time frame. Now, all calves are born between March 1 and April 15.
The calves are kept together in 15-heifer groups. Keeping the animals in groups takes the work out of individual feeding, Forgey said.
Instead of bucket feeding calves, they all drink out of a 55-gallon bucket with 20 nipples. Hoses, attached to the nipples, lead to the milk in the bucket.
The calves are weaned at five weeks by putting water in the bucket instead of milk.
As soon as they are weaned, they go to pasture, he said.
They don’t receive any grain from 3 months old until they freshen, and even then it’s minimal and only in the parlor.
Many days the cows don’t even eat it, he said, because they’ve already eaten high-quality feed from the pasture.
No time for trouble. “You have to be observant and keep it simple. We’re going to have 120 calves in six weeks’ time. We don’t have time for trouble,” he said.
Trouble is something Forgey doesn’t have to worry about – particularly when it comes to calving.
Out of 160 calves born last year, just three had to pulled. And he lost just one calf last year, when it was three days old.
He credits this to less-stressed and highly exercised animals.
The farthest the cows walk from the pasture to the parlor is three-quarters of a mile, which Forgey said is reasonable.
Calving isn’t the only area where Forgey has seen the benefits of having healthy animals.
Mastitis is almost unheard of at his farm, cows no longer get twisted stomachs and he hasn’t trimmed hooves in years.
HeatWatch. Forgey uses HeatWatch for timing when breeding his cattle.
A monitor placed on a cow’s back sends a signal to Forgey’s computer, letting him know the time of first mount. Cows are bred within eight hours of first mount, he said.
He credits the quick timing to his 55 percent heifer birthing rate, which he said is about 13 percent higher than the national average.
His conception rate for the entire herd is 60 percent at first service and more than 80 percent at second service.
Saving money. By grazing and seasonal dairying, Forgey eliminated the need for labor.
Rather than pay several employees full-time wages, Forgey has just one employee and he isn’t technically even an “employee.” Instead, Scott Foerg is Forgey’s partner in a sharemilking agreement, where they split labor and financial responsibilities and ownership of the herd.
Forgey also saves money by not buying heifers. His herd has been closed for decades.
Rolling herd average. Conventional farmers always want to know about production, Forgey said.
Before switching to grazing, his rolling herd average was more than 20,000 pounds of milk. Now, it’s 14,000 pounds and his butterfat is 5.6 percent and protein is 3.4 percent.
“Rolling herd average has nothing to do whatsoever with profit,” Forgey stressed. Instead, it’s net income per cow.
And, to that, Forgey goes back to the more than $1,000 per cow he netted last year.
Keeping costs down is what it’s all about. Forgey’s farm sustains itself. He isn’t buying protein feeds, he uses limited amounts of chemicals and commercial fertilizers, he’s not buying replacement heifers, and he isn’t hiring the advice of a nutritionist.
“I’m not buying anything and that’s what makes it so profitable,” he said.
From 30 to four. When Forgey and Helen came home from that original forage conference with grazing in mind, neighborhood farmers just shook their heads.
“Everyone knew old Dave was in the hole and thought turning his cows out was just a way for him to stay above water one more year,” Forgey said.
But back then, in 1991, there were 30 dairies in the county. Now, only four are left. One of them is “old Dave” Forgey’s farm.
Get the details
* Dave and Helen Forgey
River-View Farm Inc.
6032 W. Georgetown Road
Logansport, IN 46947
* Innovative Farmers of Ohio
3083 Liberty Road
Delaware, OH 43015
(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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