Member of Distinction: Mideast Area — Ayers Farm

Written by Kara Petrovic
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According to an old African proverb, it takes a village to raise a child. But for the Ayers family, owners of Ayers Farms in Perrysville, Ohio, it takes a team of dedicated and skilled employees to ensure the success of their dairy operation year after year.

Today, a total of 22 full-time and part-time employees work on the operation that Edwin and Ina Ayers first purchased in 1947. The farm, which started with 30 milking cows, has since expanded to its current herd of 620 lactating cows.

In an effort to make the process of passing the farm down to future generations easier, Edwin and Ina incorporated the business in 1964.Today, Ed’s sons, and now partners on the dairy, Carl and Steve Ayers; their wives, Janet and Deb; Carl and Janet’s daughter, Kathy Davis; and Steve and Deb’s son, Jesse, own and operate Ayers Farms, a seventh-generation, 2,400-acre farm that sits on the edge of State Route 39, a busy thoroughfare in Ashland County.

Carl and Steve say it didn’t take long to discover that dairying was in their blood. While Carl spent two years in the Army and served in a helicopter ambulance unit in Vietnam, he says he returned home after his discharge to work alongside his father and their cows. Steve, who is five years younger than Carl, spent two years at the Ohio State University Agricultural Technical Institute to obtain a dairy management degree.

As equal partners, Carl and Steve share the farm’s overall management responsibilities. In addition to their roles on the farm, both brothers are active in their churches, serve on their local zoning board and are Farm Bureau members. Carl is a trustee of the area electric cooperative and also serves as chairman of the Mohican Basin Landowners Association, which was formed two years ago to help inform landowners and to deal with oil and gas leasing issues throughout the area. Steve is currently serving on the board of directors for the Loudonville Equity.

Janet works with the baby calves, while Deb oversees the operation’s finances. Kathy works with the young stock, and Jesse serves as herdsmen, overseeing herd health and management.

In addition to their roles, the family relies on their employees, several of whom who have worked with the family for more than 20 years.

“Making sure that our employees have a good opportunity to apply their knowledge and ability to contribute to our productivity is a huge part of our farming philosophy,” says Carl. “We have several employees who play key roles in our operation. For us, being considerate of all of our employees and providing them the climate to earn for their families is just as important as being good stewards of the land and being responsible and caring producers for our animals.”

According to Carl, the family couldn’t manage the farm’s day-to-day operations without their team of employees. To retain their employees, the Ayers have regular employee meetings and offer training on a periodic basis. Carl, Kathy, and Jesse also learned Spanish to enhance employee communication. The herd has been in the top 5 percent for milk production in Ohio the last several years, a result of each employee’s dedication and skill.

“We’ve gotten to the point where it’s necessary to have key people who are very responsible in different areas,” Carl says. “Without them, it would be impossible to dairy on the scope that we are dairying today.”

The Ayers milk three times a day in a double-18 herringbone parlor and grow 875 acres of corn, 60 percent of which is used for feed. They also grow 500 acres of beans for cash crop, 800 acres of double-cropped rye for heifer feed, 100 acres of wheat for straw, and 130 acres of rye for seed and straw. Ninety-eight percent of the family’s crops are no-till, which the family began utilizing in 1969. The farm is located in Ohio’s terminal moraine, which is rolling and requires intense soil erosion control practices to ensure future productivity.

Over the years, the family has worked hard to expand and enhance their operation. To advance their health and breeding records, the Ayers began using Dairy Comp 305, an on-farm dairy management software program that tracks a cow’s reproduction, production and health in 1995. They also record milk weights three times a day with Dairy Plan to track herd performance and productivity.

In 1998, the family began building a flush system for their freestall barns, which was completed in the spring of 1999. Now, instead of scraping their existing cow and heifer barns, recycled water is used to flush the barns eight times a day.

During the spring of 2005, they worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to install a gravity-operated liquid and organic solids separation area. Collected, separated solids are loaded on the farm’s conventional manure spreaders and distributed on the cropland, Kathy says. That same year, they also built a sand lane to capture sand bedding, which is now recycled back into the freestall beds. The liquid portion from the lagoons is surface applied to the cropland after cover crops are established in the fall. A drag hose system, along with an underground pipeline, conveys the liquids to the field sites. 

In 2003, the family constructed the dairy’s pre-fresh and maternity barn and built their newest freestall barn in 2005, which can hold up to 320 head. 

“Looking ahead and expanding has always come natural for us,” Carl says. “Dad was always a progressive farmer. While other producers were milking 10 to 20 cows, we were milking 40. He also built one of the first parlors in our area. He always told us that growth didn’t happen overnight, but step by step. I think he’d be pleased to see what we’ve done.”

While Carl and Steve grew up on the farm, it took their spouses, Janet and Deb, a bit longer to become accustomed to dairying lifestyle. But after raising their children on the farm, the women say they couldn’t imagine another way life.

Each August, Janet and Deb work together on the family’s community square dance event, which drew more than 250 friends, neighbors and business associates last August for food and fellowship.  Kathy and Janet also work together on scheduling farm tours for local elementary schools. 

Along with overseeing the baby calves, Janet spent 25 years as a part-time industrial nurse in a neighboring town. 

“I really enjoy working with the babies and seeing them grow,” Janet says. “I suppose handling all their immunizations and boosters appeals to the nurse in me. It’s also rewarding to know that I play a critical role in future of our operation. It gives me the opportunity to ensure Kathy has healthy heifers to raise, and Jesse has healthy and productive springers and cows.”

While Jesse says he always knew he’d work on the dairy, Kathy had dreams of life off the farm after graduating from high school. In an effort to find her place in the world, Kathy tried all sorts of things — post high school she was an exchange student in France, and in college she attained her emergency medical technician certificate, received her pilot’s license, and earned a degree in English literature and history — but right before entering graduate school, Kathy had a change of heart.

After waking in a panic one morning, Kathy says couldn’t imagine a job that kept her indoors.

“It was a true revelation,” she says. “I definitely prefer to work outside and with the animals. When I told my parents about my discovery, they were a bit shocked but very supportive. I believe they had always hoped I would come home, but they wanted to make sure it was my decision.”

Before allowing Kathy to join the farm as a full-time employee, however, Carl and Janet asked Kathy to interview with Steve.

“At this point, Steve wasn’t just her uncle, he was also my business partner,” Carl says. “He had a right to turn her down, but thankfully, he saw the passion she had for the family farm.”

Since returning to the farm, Kathy has spent most of her time working with the farm’s young stock. She says her job allows her to see her work come to fruition. She’s also grateful to work with her family on a daily basis. Kathy says while everyone has their own niche, if anyone ever needs help, there’s always someone willing to offer support.

As the next generation to take over the farm, Kathy says she and Jesse rely on their DFA field representative, Will Moore, who began working with the family in 1989.

“Will is always available to come out and answer questions, help us facilitate things and talk with us about things that are working and aren’t working,” she says. “He’s another huge asset to our farm. Our DFA field man, our milk inspector, vet and nutritionist are key parts of our team effort to produce the highest quality milk”.

Moore says the Ayers not only run a top-quality farm, but are a top-quality family who is passionate about what they do every day.

“They are just one of those families that put everything they can into every day,” Moore says. “Carl once told me, ‘To be successful, we put in 100 percent in everything we do.’ Their attitude is what makes it enjoyable and so rewarding to work with them.”

In addition to her work on the farm, Kathy also serves as a delegate for Dairy Farmers of America’s Mideast Area and is active in DFA’s Young Cooperator (YC) program. She also served as a YC Council Liaison in 2008 and is a member of the Emerging Leaders Program.

For Kathy, having active roles in the Cooperative allows her to stay informed on about DFA and keeps her abreast of industry happenings.

“Getting involved has also provided me with the opportunity to network with other dairy farmers,” she says. “It’s always nice to talk with others in your line of work.”

But it’s not just the chance to get involved with the Cooperative that has allowed the Ayers to continue to succeed, but the benefits that they derive from being members of a farmer-owned organization.

To help mitigate their risk in the marketplace during the last eight years, the Ayers have used services through DFA Risk Management.

“We’ve used some of their tools in order to eliminate some of the volatility we encounter and to make our income steadier,” Carl says. “The services also have allowed us to minimize the effect of the lows that occur in the pricing cycle.”

The family also has utilized savings through DFA Farm Supplies on products and services for the farm.

Now, after more than 30 years in the industry, Carl and Steve are excited to know that their children are following in their footsteps, but are quick to note that they will face their own set of challenges as the industry continues to change.

“They have to continue to focus on efficiency in every aspect from crop production to dairy production,” Steve says. “I also think they’ll eventually have to talk about expansion in order to maintain an income for the operation.”

With the future of Ayers Farms in place, Jesse and Kathy haven’t kept it a secret that they have plans for the farm once their parents retire. While Jesse says he and Kathy aren’t opposed to expanding the herd, they are planning to do it gradually.

“Once we officially take over, Kathy and I will have to make a decision on whether or not to expand,” Jesse says. “Currently, we’re maxed out, so there are a lot of things we have to consider before we take the plunge and grow the herd. We never want to get to the point where our size affects our profitability.”

And while Kathy agrees that discussing what’s to come is important, she’s also content with where things are currently.

“It’s a given that things are probably going to change when our parents retire,” she says. “In our line of work, you are always expanding, specializing or refining. If we are going to keep up with technology to produce the best product, we also have to remain committed to taking care of our employees. With this mindset, I’m not worried about the future. I know we’ll be in good hands."