Fairfield County dairyman goes back to farm with new approach

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AMANDA, Ohio — In many ways, it’s not surprising that Fairfield County dairyman Kyle Sharp would one day take over the family dairy.

He grew up on the farm, along with his brothers, and helped his father, Don Jr., and grandfather, Don Sr., with milking and chores.

But after he earned a degree in ag communications from Ohio State University in 1995, Sharp would spend the next 15 years working mostly off the farm, in the media industry and as a farm reporter.

He enjoyed visiting other farmers and writing about their experiences — taking mental notes of things that inspired him, things that his own family might one day try.

The biggest was going organic.

Kyle had written about organic dairy farming, and thought it might work on his dad’s farm. After all, the Sharp farm was already grass- and pasture-based, and the transition didn’t seem so difficult.

Making the change

The hard part was getting his dad to go along with the idea.

“He was pretty old school, set in his ways, and it took a lot of kicking and screaming and dragging to get him to do this,” Kyle said.

Don Jr. had practical concerns about the paperwork of going organic, the need for a lower somatic cell count in the milk, and the reality of lower milk production.

Kyle Sharp
Kyle Sharp, standing by the farm sign.

But Kyle convinced his dad they could do it, and the farm became certified organic in 2006. Soon after, the farm started receiving a much higher and more consistent price for its milk — which led to more profit and the ability to afford some needed facility improvements.

“Before (organic), it was just survival,” Kyle said. “It’s not like we’re thriving now and going on trips around the world, but there’s money to be able to do some improvements.”

In transition

Most of the improvements have been within the last eight years, a time of transition not only for the farm, but for Kyle too.

In 2012, about the same time that he left his job as a farm reporter, his dad began having some health issues that would later be diagnosed as Lou Gehrig’s disease. And in March 2013, Kyle lost his mother, Gay Sharp, to cancer.

As Don’s health worsened, Kyle knew the dairy was at a critical point if it was to survive.

“My dad (worked hard) for his whole life to keep this thing going,” Kyle said. “I didn’t want to see him, in his last couple of years, watch the whole thing go down the tubes.”

One of Kyle’s priorities was upgrading the old milking parlor — which was built by his grandfather, and milked only three cows at a time. A complete milking took 6-7 hours, and that was just for the first milking.

Kyle joked with his dad that the three-cow unit “belonged more in a dairy museum,” than on a modern dairy farm.

More efficient

The new milking parlor, a double-seven herringbone, was completed in the fall of 2013, about a year before Don Jr.’s death, in June 2014.

Kyle Sharp parlor
Kyle Sharp, with newer milking parlor.

The new parlor holds 14 cows, and has shortened the milking time for the 70-cow herd to between two and three hours, and even less, when a second person helps. And it gives Kyle more time to spend with his family — something he was missing when he spent most of the day in the barn, using the old system.

Other improvements include a new open-loft cow barn, and improvements in the grazing system, like cow lanes, and an improved watering system.

The farm also installed a wastewater separation system, which separates manure and other solids from water used on the farm.

The cow barn has an open interior (no stalls) and allows the cows to walk and lie down pretty much wherever they want. The new cow lanes in the pasture are reinforced with layers of gravel and crushed cinders. They hold up to the daily traffic of the cattle, and help keep the cows cleaner and healthier.

Today, Kyle and his wife, Becky, along with their children, milk about 73 head of Holstein-Jersey cross cows, and sell their milk to Organic Valley. The dairy is mostly Kyle’s operation — but his brothers, Adam, Scott and Nathan, each own a section of the family farm and occasionally help on the dairy, with things like haymaking and pasture mowing.

Away from the farm, Adam Sharp is vice president of public policy for Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, Scott Sharp is an agricultural education teacher for the Amanda-Clearcreek Local School District, and Nathan is a recent graduate of Asbury University, in Kentucky.

Conservation projects

Many of the projects were completed in part with funds from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program — a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that helps farmers with conservation projects.

“Those are things that really needed to happen,” said Adam Sharp. “If we wanted to keep running that dairy, we needed to make sure conservation-wise, it was in the best shape it could be.”

In 2013, the Ohio Livestock Coalition recognized the farm’s conservation efforts by awarding the Sharp family the Environmental Stewardship Award, an award that recognizes farms for efforts to protect land, air, water quality and natural resources.

Family tradition

Adam said the dairy has been “a great continuation of our family tradition in farming.”

And, the dairy fits well with the crop acres, he said, because there’s ample ground to apply manure, and to use as pasture. In addition to the pastures, two fields are certified organic, where the Sharps grow corn and oats.

Along with farming, Kyle also teaches English composition for Ohio Christian University and is vice president for the Fairfield County Farm Bureau.

While the dairy is organic, the land that belongs to his brothers is mostly conventional. Kyle respects both kinds of farming, and tries not to promote one over the other. For him, going organic was a market decision.

Kyle Sharp
Kyle Sharp, at his family’s organic dairy farm, in Fairfield County.

“I do (organic) because it makes economic sense and it allows me to be a small dairy farm, and still be economically viable,” he said.

He doesn’t get as much milk production as a conventional herd, but “you also don’t have near the costs involved with it, either,” he said.

Looking ahead

Kyle has more plans for improving and growing the family dairy, in ways that will make it more efficient and productive. He said he’s “intrigued” by the potential to improve.

And, he enjoys the responsibility of being his own boss.

“It’s nice — after working for other people for 15-16 years in a professional career — it’s nice to be able to spend your whole day working for yourself,” he said. “At the end of the day, if it does well or not, you only have yourself to blame.”

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