Expanding comfort

Written by Kara Petrovic
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After years of struggling with roller-coaster somatic cell count numbers and over-crowded pastures, Shelly and Jarrett Smith, father and son and Southeast Area members, decided it was finally time to take their dairy’s cow comfort to a new level.

“Our cows were crunched,” Jarrett says. “At times, we’d have anywhere between 175 to 200 cows on a 16-acre square.”

Last January, the Smiths began construction on a compost-bedded pack barn, an alternative type of dairy housing that many producers like the Smiths consider building when upgrading their milking herd facilities due to the costs compared to building freestall barns.

Instead of concrete, which is found in freestall barns, pack barns are built on clay, and beds are packed with a mixture of soft-wood shavings and sawdust. In addition, these barns are known to come with less capital investment in terms of manure storage, which the Smiths liked. 

In early July, the Smiths moved their 175 milking herd (75 percent Holstein and 25 percent Holstein-Jersey cross) into the new barn and saw improved cow comfort within a few weeks. Inside the barn, Jarrett says the cows enjoy resting on the dry bedding and making their way to the feed alley, which is filled three times a day with a mixture of corn silage and small grain haylage.

“Since the transition, we’ve not been culling as aggressively,” Jarrett says. “We’ve also seen improved somatic cell numbers, and those numbers have been much easier to maintain. It used to be that when we’d round the cows up from the pasture, they would be almost knee deep in mud. But now, this new barn keeps them much cleaner before we take them to the parlor for milking.”
Like Jarrett, Shelly says the new barn has been a great addition to their operation.

“It’s made a world of difference,” Shelly says. “The cows look forward to going to the barn every day after milking.” Since the barn’s completion, the herd’s milk quality has improved, as well as the herd’s overall appearance.

Cow comfort has always been a priority at Smith Dairy, a third-generation farm in Norwood, N.C., which Shelly’s father founded in 1945 upon his return from World War II. After a tragic tractor accident took Shelly’s father’s life in 1977, Shelly, along with his brother and mother, formed a three-way partnership to carry out his father’s legacy. Then, in the early 1980s, Shelly became full owner after buying out his mother’s and brother’s shares.

Today,  Shelly and Jarrett oversee the dairy and the farm’s owned and rented 800 acres, which are used to grow row crops such as corn, wheat, soybeans and cotton. And as spring approaches, Shelly says he and Jarrett are eager to capture the manure from the barn to spread on the fields.

“We  had some upfront cost when it came to building this new facility, but I think we are going to come out ahead in the long run by saving the manure as a fertilizer,” Shelly says.

In addition to Shelly and Jarrett, the Smiths also employ three full-time employees, but Shelly is quick to note that Jarrett is the main one in charge.

“I recently turned all the business side of the dairy over to him,” Shelly says. “I’m still here to help when needed, but he’s overseeing everything.”

Although Jarrett says he always knew he wanted to return to the family farm after college, he followed his father’s advice: “If you’re going to try anything different, now is the time to do it.”

After graduating from North Carolina State University in 1996 with a degree in animal science, Jarrett accepted a job as an assistant manager with Southern States Cooperative, one of the nation’s largest farm supply and service cooperatives, in Marshall, N.C.

Everything was going well until Jarrett received the alarming news that his father needed a heart transplant in 2000.

“Those four years after college working for Southern States were amazing,” Jarrett says. “I learned so much in those short four years, but when I got that news about my dad, I dropped everything and came home to work full time on the family farm. Now, 14 years later, there’s not a doubt in my mind that I made the right decision.”

Today, at 65 and with a successful transplant behind him, Shelly says that working with his son on a daily basis means everything.

“I feel very honored that he came back to the farm and wanted to stay,” Shelly says. “I never wanted him to feel like he was forced into it. But thankfully, he enjoys the dairy and has really taken an interest in the crops.”

Jarrett says he’s extremely thankful that his father’s transplant was successful and says he doesn’t see his father slowing down any time soon.

“My dad works just as many hours as I do, if not more,” he laughs. “He may say I’m in charge of this place, but I wouldn’t be where I am without him. He’s been a great mentor. He taught me that if you want something bad enough, you have to work hard for it. He also taught me that there are times you have to put your family on the back burner because you sometimes have to make sacrifices. However, this job definitely has its benefits.”

To give their employees a break from milking during the week, Jarrett and Shelly oversee the twice-daily milkings on Saturday and Sunday. In addition to Jarrett’s help on the farm, Shelly’s younger son, Jody, who works as a lender for Farm Credit, returns to the farm on weekends to help with the milking in the dairy’s double-six herringbone parlor. Shelly’s daughter, Courtney, also returns to the farm on occasion to help.

“I look forward to getting up early every morning and working beside Jarrett,” Shelly says. “ And it’s even more enjoyable when my other two children come home to help us out.” 

Since joining the farm full time, Jarrett says that one of the worst things they’ve faced was the loss of one of their hardest working employees to a farm accident in 2008. Today, family members are vigilant about teaching all new employees proper safety procedures and following the tips themselves.

“Whatever your job is on the farm, your first goal is always to be safe,” Jarrett says. “That loss is still something that gets to us now and again, but it’s always something that’s made us stronger when looking ahead.”

As for the future of Smith Dairy, Jarrett says he hopes to increase cow numbers over the next few years. The new barn was built to hold up to 260 cows, which is close to Jarrett’s ideal herd of 250.  However, until he sees a steady cash flow, Jarrett says he plans to keep the herd where it’s at, but remains optimistic about the future.

The past years has kinder to the Smiths, but Jarrett says they also recognize the volatile market in which they make their living, which is why he and his father appreciate being members of Dairy Farmers of America.

“DFA gives us peace of mind,” Jarrett says. “ We enjoy being part of a successful company. Our farming operation depends on a milk check, because without it, we can’t sustain an operation. So, when we lay our heads down at night, we have peace of mind because we know that someone is going to be here tomorrow to pick up our milk and will always be there if we have questions or concerns on our farm or the industry.”

As a young producer, Jarrett is also active in DFA’s Young Cooperator (YC) program, which allows young dairy farmers between the ages of 18-40 to network and gain exposure about the workings of the Cooperative and industry. For the past three years, Jarrett also has served on the Southeast Area YC Steering Committee.

“Getting involved with the YC program was one of the best things I’ve ever done,” Jarrett says. “I enjoy traveling to meetings and talking with other young producers my age, and it’s been nice to share problems and successes, and it’s always interesting to hear new ideas from other producers. I would highly recommend this program to any young producer who is interested in learning more about DFA and the state of our industry.”

Jarrett says his exposure into DFA has opened his eyes and made him a more optimistic producer.

“I’m feeling pretty good these days,” Jarrett says. “Milk prices are the best they’ve been in years, and while inputs are still high, I feel like those are getting better too. I really hope it’s a new era were heading into. My dad did very well in the ‘80s, and I think we’re heading in that same direction, were milk is the ultimate bread winner.”