Dairy is a family business for Wards

Friday, June 19, 2009
Three generations of the Ward family: from left, Dwight II, Dwayne, Dwight Sr. and grandson Ethan.

Dairy farming has been Dwight Ward's life since he was a boy and his father milked cows in Giles County.

"A dairy farm is a wonderful place to raise kids," he says, "But it needs to be more profitable. I'd like people to know there'll be no dairies left in Marshall County if they don't do something about the price we get for our milk."

Driven down by the global recession, Ward says the price of milk in February 2009 was $12.82 for 100 pounds. One hundred pounds of milk equals 11.63 gallons, so the farmer is getting about $1.10 for the gallon of milk that sells in the grocery store for three times as much.

He points out that the price of milk was the same in 1970, while everything else has "gone up incredibly." In case you don't remember what prices were like in the '70s, he cites the three-quarter ton, four-wheel-drive pickup he bought new in 1974 for $4,500.

"I don't know if anybody's gaining," says Ward. "The only way we've been able to stay in is by the cows increasing in production, but they can't keep increasing forever. Up to this year we broke even, but this year I've borrowed just to keep operating."

"I know more about dairy cows than I know about any other," Ward remarks. "I would have to plumb change my farming operation (if I were to get out of milking). The younger generation is losing interest because there's so little profit in it."

The special problem of milk as a commodity, of course, is the fact that it is so perishable. Unlike grain, it can't be stored until the price starts to rise again.

"That's a farmer's trouble," Ward says philosophically. "You have to give them what they ask for, and take what they offer."

Ethan Ward, 11, represents the fourth generation of Wards in the dairy business. Even at that age he counts as a worker: he's already driving a tractor, and helping every way he can. His father, Dwight II, was away from the farm for eight years, but he came back, saying, "The grass ain't no greener on the other side of the fence!"

The calves are taken away from their mothers at three days old, and bottle-fed in individual pens until they are seven weeks old. This is the special job of Ethan's mother, Dwight II's wife, Carol. The men take great pride in good job she does. They say she wasn't too pleased to see her son driving a big tractor, but they out-numbered her and eventually she gave up her opposition.

The Wards have three employees for the milking, leaving Dwight and his two sons, "Big Un" and "Little Un," to do the rest of the farming. They own nearly 500 acres, and rent another 1,200. That much land is necessary to produce all the corn silage and hay the cows need, and also to have enough pasture for the calves. The heifers are raised on the farm and put back in the dairy, and the steers are sold to go to a feedlot when they weigh about 800 pounds.

"A lot of people don't understand what takes place on a farm," Dwight II said. It takes four hours, twice a day, to milk the whole herd of 225 to 250 cows. The milking day starts at 6:30 a.m. and doesn't end until 9:30 or 10 p.m.

Dwayne keeps up with the cows' production records - the old-fashioned way, with paper and pencil.

"I do more paperwork now that I did in school," he complains.

The Wards don't do any artificial insemination, but count on a battery of about 30 bulls to keep the cows bred. Six or eight bulls at a time are put in with the milking herd, and swapped out for another group after three weeks.

Dwight says they try to buy bulls from good herds, paying particular attention to feet, conformation, and milk production on the female side of the pedigree. Just lately, they have been using Jersey bulls on their first calf heifers and this has reduced the number of calves they have to pull (assist with the birth) from 50 percent down to a handful. They've also been using some red Scandinavian bulls.

"We're just fixing to start some cross-breds in the milk barn," Dwight said. "We don't know how they'll milk."

The Wards are hard workers and good neighbors, and people driving past their fields along Charlie Thomas Road in southern Marshall County can almost tell the time of day and the season of the year by what is going on in their well-kept fields.