IRONDALE, Ohio – The first summer twentysomething Harold “Jake” Sutton was on his own as a dairyman, he had the cows, the barn, the tractors. It was nearly the perfect setup.
But it was also 1988, and he had one of the worst droughts in recent memory on his hands.
He managed cows and crops and debt and dry grass. He was short on pasture and long on cows.
Each night he slipped into bed wondering where he’d put the cows the next day.
Knowing he couldn’t keep up, he’d put the cows out to pasture. His was now a grazing dairy.
That first summer he really learned how to stretch a field of grass. It took calculation, memory and luck.
Stockpile here, graze there. Move fence, move cows.
Pray for the grass to grow.
Working it. Today there’s a certain aura around Jake and Susan Sutton, a cloud of confidence and calculation, of farm savvy and favorable luck.
They stand in a hillside pasture, Jake with his arm around Susan’s shoulders, and smile.
It’s a satisfying sight, watching those Holsteins loaf under a springtime blue horizon.
In its early days, their operation could have failed. Instead, they fine-tuned management to turn the harsh realities of death and drought into a continuing and prosperous family legacy.
For starters. Jake Sutton’s grandfather bought this farmstead near Irondale in 1906.
There was a ramshackle log cabin on the west hillside of the valley, but this place was just his style: a fixer-upper.
Family lore says he’d been buying rundown homes, dressing them up, selling them at a profit and moving on to the next project. Here, he built a two-story farmhouse for his wife and children.
Something was different this time, at this farm in northern Jefferson County. Family members claim Grandma Sutton was drawn to something here and refused to budge. This would be her home forever, she demanded.
The 160-acre homestead and handful of dairy cows passed to their son, Walter, and then to Jake to span three generations.
Jake and his family have expanded the operation to today’s 400-plus acres and nearly 200 milkers.
Rough start. It was 1986. Young Jake Sutton and his bride were two years into a life together on the family farm.
Two generations of Suttons before them had rooted the family’s dairy reputation here, and they were destined and determined to be the third, no questions asked.
Sutton and his father, Walter, milked 70 cows in a 33-tie stall barn, and Susan spent days with special education students at a nearby middle school.
Later in the year, the USDA rejected the couple’s bid to the dairy buyout program, and that December, Walter was nearly killed when a round bale toppled from the loader he operated onto the driver’s station.
His father’s accident was a wake-up call, the younger Sutton admits. As a family, they agreed they had to do something to keep this operation above water.
“We really had to get our affairs in order,” Jake Sutton recollects.
Buying the farm. In his late 20s, Sutton owned the Holsteins and fronted the capital to buy new equipment when it was needed.
The two men put their heads together. The milking herd would have to get bigger to afford upkeep. A new barn was in order.
“But Dad said if I was going to pay for a new barn, I’d be buying the land under it, too,” Sutton says.
Their joint venture had been working with the local Extension office to transfer the operation, to get the income-producing unit into Jake’s name and budget book.
Buying the farm was the next natural step.
Bad times. But in November 1987, Walter Sutton succumbed to cancer. Jake was on his own for the first time as a farmer, and the timing couldn’t have been worse.
He remembers, in the hottest days during the drought of July 1988, having enough feed in the barn to get through the winter.
He just needed to get to winter.
“I was one scared pup,” he admits today.
He thought about how his dad would have managed. More ground.
The farm over the hill had just sold for $250 an acre; he kicked himself for not bidding. He talked to an elderly neighbor about leasing or buying or farming his ground, but was turned away.
Another place nearby was offered, just 30 acres. It could make the difference. He bought it.
Sutton opened the gates and let his cows out. He figured if he could keep them moving, the grass could grow behind them enough to sustain them the next time around.
If he could just get to the winter.
Progress. By the end of summer 1989, the new 30-acre farm was fenced, a spring was developed, and 30 heifers grazed there. Permanent and temporary fences went up across the entire farm.
Sutton compared his new technique to baling hay. Four grazed acres could last the cows 10 days, he says. Square bales made from the same parcel only lasted the herd two days.
Grazing the herd was a no-brainer.
Make it better. The Suttons tweak their grazing system every year. Of 330 head on the farm, only about 30 are not intensively grazed today, Sutton says.
He credits the management system and his wife’s recordkeeping (see sidebar) with keeping the farm in business, even in the toughest times.
The hard knocks – bad timing, drought, stresses – made him confident in his work, in his abilities, in the farming knowledge his father gave him.
This year, the family was recognized with an environmental stewardship award from the Ohio Livestock Coalition.
“When we consider what Grandpa and Dad started and how much we’ve been given to work with, we hope we can make as many improvements to pass on,” Sutton said.
This is home. Jake and Susan Sutton, like the generations before them, agree this will be their home until they die.
Neither is sure whether their sons, Scott, 15, and Matthew, 11, will carry on the tradition.
Nutrient application studies say they’re not yet maxed out – they could still grow the herd – but finding more pasture ground is harder each day, even in this rural community.
It’s tough to tell what tomorrow will bring, Jake Sutton says. He never really planned any of the other expansions he’s made over the years.
“We just keep an eye on the numbers. It doesn’t matter how many acres or cows we’ve got. We just make the living we need to survive.”
(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at email@example.com.)
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Farm computer pays for itself, new hay rake
By Andrea Myers
IRONDALE, Ohio – Susan Sutton is a mom and a teacher by timing and trade, but her time spent perfecting the operation’s financials has kept the family dairy profitable.
Her real test at becoming a dairy farmer’s wife came even before Susan Sutton was wed.
Her soon-to-be mother-in-law came to her in 1983, the year before she married. If Susan was going to fit into this family, she challenged, the young woman needed to learn to keep farm records.
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