No prize for biggest farm

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ASHLAND, Ohio – It’s a stretch to put Harold and Julia Swain in the same category as other young farmers.
They don’t break their backs working 25-hour days to mortgage a bazillion-acre farm that they may never own outright.
They aren’t gloom and doom about agriculture, not upset about urban sprawl. They refuse to be daunted by all the challenges young people who want to farm are up against.
They’re certainly not going to bellyache about not being able to afford a bigger farm, a fancier house, better cars.
There was no farm to inherit, no wealthy relative to bankroll them. And when things were looking up, their barn went up in flames – twice.
Despite the setbacks they’ve encountered, they still farm with a smile.
For them, there’s something bigger in farming than the farm itself.

Where’s the prize?
Harold Swain says dairying isn’t rocket science.
“Get the best feed, breed to the best bull, manage well and you’ll get the most milk output. It’s really simple – how hard is it to milk a cow?”
But along that path is where many dairymen lose track of their goals, he believes.
If 30 well-managed and healthy cows can produce as much milk as 60 can, why take on the extra overhead to have the bigger herd, Swain reasons.
There’s no reward for having the most cows, the most tractors, the biggest combine, the most acreage, the biggest debt load, the worst headache.
“I still haven’t seen the prize for the farmer who’s the biggest,” he says matter-of-factly.
And so he doesn’t strive to be that person.

Two dairies
This 14-acre farm in Ashland County was deeded to the Swains after a public auction Sept. 4, 2000.
The young couple moved their 200-head dairy goat operation here from Shreve, Ohio. It was a low-capital niche that paid them well and afforded time to start a family.
Almost two years to the day after the couple purchased their farm, a fire consumed the original bank barn and several of the dry goats and young stock housed inside.
Their market had been slipping, so this was the time to re-evaluate their operation. They converted the parlor and on Nov. 22, 2002, their farm became a Jersey dairy.

Growing slowly
Harold and Julia planned to stairstep slowly from their 35-head base.
He would pay close attention to the herd around the clock; Julia would help milk and work days as a mommy to Emma, now 4, and Carlie, who’s almost 3.
She’d bring home household dollars nursing patients at the Samaritan hospital in Ashland.
The following spring, they added 10 more cows. That summer, another 10.
They culled some along the way, and bought a handful of heifers, too.
It seems, they say, they were jumping steps 15 at a time.
They figured they could dairy by feeding just hay and grain, but found their cows were missing something.
Their nutritionist helped pencil it out; they invested in a TMR mixer and added corn silage to the ration.
It wasn’t just about getting bigger. It was about getting better.
Prices were climbing, and they were filling the bulk tank when prices peaked at $22.

Heartache
But farming has never been easy, and Mother Nature wasn’t about to be kind to the Swains.
May 30, 2004 – these dates are forever burned into their minds – lightning struck the outbuilding that housed the herd.
As the parlor burned to the ground, Harold and Julia made frantic middle-of-the-night phone calls to their friends and neighbors asking for help.
They came with full fuel tanks and livestock trailers and words of encouragement and managed to move the herd to a vacant Wayne County dairy barn before sunrise.
Just 37 days later –

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