For Jim Beardsley, it’s always been about the cows. Particularly registered Holsteins.
“I always loved cows,” he said. “That was my big thing. I enjoyed the farm work too, but I enjoyed working with the animals the most.”
That’s what made it so hard when his body told him it was time to call it quits. He’d had five surgeries in five years that all started with a slip on the ice.
But it wasn’t just his health. As with any huge, life-altering decision, it was a combination of things that built up over time. He hadn’t planned on selling out in 2019. But then he took inventory of his feed after the lousy year for planting. They’d chopped all the corn, so they had none for grain. They were short on hay.
“So, we didn’t have any corn for grain,” Jim recalled. “We’d have to buy hay for six months and corn for 10-11 months. And even though the price of milk has come up some, there’d be no profit again this year.”
They could have kept going. It wasn’t dire yet. With milk prices up, they could’ve hoped that prices would stay up and things would get better. But that’s risky business when you’re 61.
“We didn’t have to. We chose to,” Jim said. “You never want to sell your farm or cattle or equipment when you’re forced out. Neither the bank nor my body made me sell those cows. That was a decision my wife and I made.”
Jim and his wife, Donna, each poured a cup of coffee after coming in from work on a recent winter night — Jim from the farm, where he’s now custom raising steers, and Donna from her job with a county assistance agency. Their three dogs lounged around the kitchen. One pulled burrs out of her tail on the entryway rug. Another slept near Jim’s feet. Together, the Beardsleys recounted the sale day.
The herd dispersal and equipment sale for Beardsley’s Registered Holsteins was Nov. 22. They didn’t know what to expect. Jim had been second guessing himself since he signed the contract with Kiko Auctioneers to manage the sale. But the Kikos took care of them, Jim said. They made it easy to do the hardest thing a dairy farmer has to do.
Jim woke up at 5 a.m. that Friday, like always. The cows had been milked the night before. He spent the morning getting the farm ready, moving cows around, putting fresh sawdust in the barns and trying to keep the dogs in the house. He went in to get a cup of coffee as people started to pull in around 8 a.m.
“When I looked out from the house, people were lined up down the road,” he said.
It was overwhelming at times, as people began to file in, Donna said. The field in front of their house filled up with cars, trucks and trailers. There were 400 bidders signed in to the sale, according to auctioneer Randall Kiko. And there were plenty more that came to watch and support the Beardsleys.
The sale began at 10 a.m. Jim and Donna watched from the front porch as the first couple pieces of equipment sold. Donna took some pictures on her phone of the throngs of people surrounding their machinery. Then, Jim went back to work to get the cows ready for the next part of the sale.
Before the cows were sold, the herd veterinarian read a letter Jim had written to the crowd as the couple stood quietly beside the auctioneer’s booth.
“For those of you who purchase cattle, I would like to thank you in advance and hope they work as hard for you as they did for me,” the vet read. “Please be good to them. They are my friends.”
It wasn’t an emotional day, Jim said. The hardest day was when he made the decision to sell. After that, what was done was done.
“I didn’t shed any tears that day,” he said. “It was sad. But the fact that so many people came to buy cattle and they were selling well, that’s a tribute to your whole life’s work.”
The 237 registered Holsteins sold at an average of $1,160 from calves to cows. The top cow sold for $4,150. The top fall calf sold for $1,300. The sale brought in enough for the Beardsleys to pay off their debts and have some left over to keep the farm.
The worst part was not knowing where his cows were going. That was harder than letting the girls go. “It was more important to me that they had a good home than I got a lot of money for them,” he said.
Cows went to farms in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and even Mississippi. Some buyers sent messages days later to update the Beardsleys on how well the cows were adjusting and how much they loved them.
The sale wrapped up around 4 p.m. The rest of the night was spent loading cattle into trailers and sending them off to their new homes. The whole process went smoothly, thanks to the small army of friends who had come to help, the Beardsleys said.
“We loaded cattle ’til 9 p.m.,” Jim said. “She bought pizza. I had some friends here that came to help. We had fun.”
“They all sat out there and BSed,” Donna said.
Sitting and talking with friends after a long day — it was not a bad way to close one chapter of life and welcome another.
Jim didn’t grow up with dairy. His grandfather had a dairy farm in Ellsworth, Ohio, but sold the cows around the time Jim was born. His father was killed in a car accident when Jim was 10, and with no one to take over the farm, his grandfather had to sell.
But Jim was always interested in cattle. He got an associate’s degree in animal science from Ohio State University ATI in Wooster, in 1979, and began working on farms after that. He never minded the round-the-clock nature of dairying. It was all about the cows.
“If a cow is sick, you can’t just walk away from her. You have to stay with them and try to make them feel better. Or if a cow is calving at 5 p.m., you can’t just go home,” he said.
He rented a farm in Medina County in 1988 and began building his own dairy herd. He bought his farm in Columbiana County in 1992 and moved there in 1993. He wanted to move back toward home. Jim started milking in tie stalls in the main barn. He had about 50 cows when he bought his farm. Over time, he put up two free-stall barns, a milking parlor, a heifer barn, a shop and machinery shed.
Like many farmers, he had debt. He also got some financial help from family. He hired part-time help, then hired a full-time person as he milked more cows. By the time he stopped, he was milking nearly 150.
“Those cows were treated well,” he said. “They are the lifeblood of a dairy farm. You treat them like that. They’re paying the bills. They’re paying their way.”
The issues began in March 2015. Jim slipped and fell on some ice while walking to the barn and tore his quadriceps tendon. The doctor told him he’d need surgery to repair it. He’d be down for at least 12 weeks.
“That hit me hard,” he said. “We don’t take vacations.”
Two weeks after the surgery, Jim got a staph infection that put him back in the hospital for a week. He had to have a second surgery on his leg in December of that year. Neighbors pulled together to help him get crops planted and hay made while he was laid up. It was more work than his employees could do alone.
He was doing better in 2016 when he began having trouble walking. His hands were going numb.
“I noticed I couldn’t lift anything,” he said. “I couldn’t lift a cup of coffee above my head in the parlor. It got to the point where I could hardly walk to the barn.”
He got carpal tunnel surgery, but that didn’t fix the problem. Doctors eventually figured out he had pinched a vertebrae in his neck. He had surgery again. Jim is still dealing with pain and numbness. He takes a handful of medications each day to help ease the symptoms.
It seemed like everything hit at once. Jim said they were doing well, paying off equipment until he got hurt. Then, milk prices plummeted.
“In December 2014, we got $23 a hundredweight,” he said. “By March 2015, we were down to $17.50 a hundredweight. Our income dropped — 2014 was the best year we ever had. Everyone knew it wouldn’t last forever.”
When Jim got hurt, he had to hire another full-time person to take care of the farm as he recovered. Paying for labor gets expensive. They milked more cows to make more money.
Usually after a couple years of low milk prices, the numbers work their way back up. Four years had gone by and nothing changed, Jim said. Finally, milk prices started to recover this year. But he didn’t have a next generation to pass things down to. His three stepchildren are not interested in running a dairy farm. Jim said if he had a son who wanted to farm, he’d farm until there was nothing left.
It was just him and the cows. And his body couldn’t take the back-breaking work anymore.
“Your gut tells you it’s time, then it’s time,” he said. “You go full speed ahead, until you don’t.”
They didn’t want to burn through their equity any more than they already had. They’d tapped into the savings at times to pay bills while prices were low.
“You can’t ignore the numbers,” he said. “You see people that do that, they’re going through their equity. And you get on the side where there’s no way you can get out. It’s ugly. It’s a hard decision.”
Donna thinks he probably should have retired years ago, when his health issues first began. But it wasn’t her decision to make. She wasn’t going to force him into anything.
“She never suggested it ever,” Jim said.
“That was his decision he had to make. Those were his cows. I told him, ‘you’ll know when you’re ready,’” Donna said.
And when he was ready, she was there to support him.
A couple days before the dispersal sale, Jim got a call from a neighbor. The neighbor wanted to see if Jim would consider feeding out some steers for him.
“He wanted to let me know that there was life after dairy cows, I guess,” Jim said.
That life is about spending more time with his granddaughter, Sawyer.
“She’s 2. She’s got me wrapped around her finger,” he said.
Even when she’s not in their home, her presence is felt and seen. Photos of Sawyer and her “Papa” lean on the wainscoting in the kitchen. Her toys sit idle in the living room, just waiting for her next visit to the farmhouse on the hill.
Jim took four days off after the sale, Donna said. She was surprised he took that much time. They went out to breakfast a couple mornings and enjoyed the new, more leisurely pace of life.
Then, Jim started converting his free-stall barns to house beef cattle. The steers — 110 of them — moved in Dec. 7. He’s still learning how to take care of these cattle. Feeding beef steers is a totally different ball game than feeding a dairy cow.
“I think it was a good thing because the barns are full again,” he said. “I always have loved Holsteins. But a cow’s a cow. I’ll make them my own somehow.”
Instead of 100-hour weeks, Jim is slowing down. For him, that’s about 50 hours of work a week. He plans to help a neighbor put in some crops this year.
He kept a handful of his Holsteins. He kept his favorite cow — Atwood Gwynne — and a couple heifers. He’s also housing some 4-H calves for some neighbor kids. Once Gwynne calves, she’ll go live on a farm in Belmont County and be shown.
Showing cows isn’t Jim’s thing, but he loves working with up-and-coming dairy men and women. He wrote about it in a letter at the front of the herd dispersal sale book.
“The most rewarding experiences have been working with young people who are interested in cattle. They are the future, and I hope I can still support their efforts,” he wrote in the letter.
He took a vacation to Florida, albeit to recover from a hernia surgery. It was the first vacation he and Donna had ever taken in their nine-year marriage.
“The most we ever did was one night away,” Donna said. “I grew up in a farming family. I was used to that.”
He has no excuse to be late for anything anymore. He attends choir practice. Before he’d just show up on Sunday morning and run through the songs before church service. He’s home a lot earlier now, too. Donna said he’s in the house around 6 p.m., instead of 8 or 10 p.m. They eat dinner at a normal time.
“He’s more relaxed,” she said.
“I’m still tired,” Jim said.
“I think you’re just catching up, after all those years,” she replied.
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or email@example.com.)