SEBRING, Ohio – Bill Grammer never thought he’d be milking 500 cows.
The owner of one of Ohio’s top Jersey herds never even took a dairy science class during his time at Ohio State. In fact, the only animal science course on Grammer’s transcript is the required introduction to everything class.
But he always wanted to farm, and so after working 12 years as a grain merchandiser and assistant manager at Consolidated Grain & Barge operations in Ohio and Illinois, in 1989 he returned to his Mahoning County roots and his father’s herd of 13 Guernseys.
A struggle. By the time Bill and his wife, Debbie, bought the family farm in 1992, the herd had grown to 35 head of Jerseys and Guernseys.
“That’s when it was really a struggle,” Grammer recalls. “We operated on a shoestring.”
He started raising his heifer calves as replacements for his milking string and gradually the herd grew.
The old bank barn had a few freestalls and the double-three parlor his dad had built. Everything else, Grammer said, were makeshift arrangements.
“We just stored them wherever we could store them.”
In 1993, they built a small heifer barn to bring “everything home,” but then a storm blew the roof off the big barn and demolished a machine shed. One step forward and two steps back.
“If it wasn’t for Debbie and her job, we wouldn’t have made it,” Grammer confesses.
In addition to her off-farm income, Debbie Grammer, a loan officer with Farm Credit Services, brings her number-crunching skills to the farm’s books and bottom line.
Milk more or sell out. In the next few years, they remodeled the barn to create 70 stalls and were up to 120 head, but that was another pivotal stage: too many cows for one person to handle and too few to justify more labor.
With the help of OSU Extension, the Grammers ran through the FINPACK financial analysis program to weigh their options.
“We could sell out, cut back and raise heifers, or build a barn,” Grammer recalled.
“We decided to go forward,” Grammer said. “We had a plan that we wanted to expand, and where we needed to be.
“I call it planned aggressive growth.”
That’s when the Grammers put the pedal to the metal.
New barn. Phase One started by doubling the parlor to a double-six in 1998. then, the following year, the Grammers built a 180-by-107 freestall barn with 243 stalls.
They also expanded the manure lagoon and saved that dirt adjacent to the new barn, the foundation pad for Phase Two, whenever that might be, they thought.
“I had only 120 cows in that new barn that first day,” Grammer said. “We just grew into it, which was tough.”
But because of biosecurity concerns, he didn’t want to buy cows. In fact, his herd expansion has been almost completely from his own replacements.
Over a 15-year span, Grammer estimated he’s purchased fewer than two dozen cows, and most of those from state or national breed sales.
Pushed to the max. In 2002, the farm built a 192-by-44 foot heifer barn, added a farm office, lunch room and new bulk tank room.
“We pushed everything to the max” before adding anything, Grammer added. The milk hauler had been picking up milk twice a day before Grammer added a larger tank, and when heifers moved into that new barn, it was full.
Likewise, the freestall barn was starting to overflow, crowded with 350 head.
And so in 2004, that Phase Two barn, a twin to the first freestall barn, went up, extending the barn another 180 feet. It contains 80 stalls for dry cows and another 180 stalls for milking cows.
The farm is currently milking 450 head and raising another 350 heifers. The herd’s average production of 19,053 pounds of milk, 865 pounds of fat and 672 pounds of protein earned Grammer Jersey Farm recognition as one of Ohio’s top two Jersey operations. He started milking three times daily in December.
Focus on cows. To keep his herd finely tuned, Grammer buys most of his feed and concentrates on the cows. He’s farming only a total of 300 owned and rented acres.
“It’s allowed us to invest in cows, which are more income producing,” he explained.
He estimates he buys 50 percent of his corn silage, working deals with neighbors who grow corn and also use the farm’s manure for nutrients.
He also buys his grain, contracting all his feed mix.
Nutrition consultant Ben Mercer has been with Grammer since the beginning, helping tweak the ration to keep those Jerseys milking.
By the numbers. To stay on top of that production, Grammer relies on numbers. Lots of them.
“When you’re milking 35, it’s more hands-on; everything was handwritten.”
“Now, I spend a lot of my time here,” he said, gesturing to his farm office and the computer.
Grammer uses the PC Dart program to download DHIA production records and he and herd manager Rachel Tucker, who’s been with the farm for nearly five years, use a handheld computer while in the barn to input data on individual cows. Days open. Vaccinations. Breeding records. Sires. Group summaries. Milk weights.
100% registered. Grammer maintains pedigrees and Jersey registration on every cow and calf in his herd. He crunches numbers through the American Jersey Cattle Association’s REAP performance program, using its computerized mating service as well as COBA’s computer matches.
“For us, breeding is very important,” Grammer said. “That’s how we’ve been able to grow.”
He’s also built a solid reputation as a breeder. He’s placed eight bulls into sire proving programs and Grammer Jersey Farm consignments have drawn attention at national Jersey sales in Louisville, Harrisburg and Madison.
Grammer Berretta Mariah EX-92 is one of the queens of the Grammer herd, producing six bulls in stud and lots of interest with 305-day production of 26,000 pounds of milk. She’s ranked in the top 1 1/2 percent of the Jersey Performance Index.
All about the cows. Solid breeding and solid cows fire Grammer’s passion.
He never tires of seeing a heifer calf for the first time, witnessing a culmination of many years’ breeding efforts.
“I take special pride in the cows,” he admits. “When people tell you how nice your cows look, that’s reward enough.”
Or fuel to keep moving forward.
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