by Karl H. Kazaks
ROCKWELL, NC — The Plesses have been farming in what is today north central Cabarrus County for a long, long time — since 1760. That’s when their ancestor Christopher Pless received a land grant from King George IV. The land his descendents farm today — part of the original grant as well as adjoining land Christopher subsequently purchased — has been continuously owned by the Pless family.
Today, the family partriarch is 86-year-old George Pless, Christopher’s great-great-great-great-grandson. George has seen the farm evolve in many ways, from the adoption of modern technologies to the transformation of the farm to a dairy from a diversified operation typical of the early and mid-twentieth century.
The Plesses started shipping grade A milk (after previously selling cream and manufacturing grade milk, as well as crops, hogs and eggs) in 1966. They were encouraged to enter full-time dairying by the establishment of a local creamery — Cabarrus Creamery (no longer extant) — which needed suppliers.
At the time the dairy used a double-two walk-through, which served as their parlor until 1992.
With that old parlor, Jerry Pless recalled, “It took a while to milk 80 or 90 cows.”
That become quicker in 1992 when they dairy built a double-eight parlor. Today the Plesses milk up to 240 cows 2x. The herd is mostly Holstein, with a few crossbreeds (mainly Guernsey crosses). The herd has grown since the late 1990s, when it numbered about 100 cows.
The dairy is still almost entirely a family operation, with most of the work being done by George’s sons Jerry and John, Jerry’s son David, and the brothers’ nephew Tim Sifford. The four of them do all the milking and almost all of the farm work. They do have their corn custom chopped and hire help to drive silage trucks.
At milking time they work in pairs, with one person feeding and the other milking. With take-offs, it’s easy enough to run the parlor with just one man.
The Plesses grow about 250 acres of corn, double cropping 75 to 100 of those acres, and 300 acres of small grains — barley, wheat and oats. Some of the barley they ensile to help stretch their corn silage, while the oats they take off both as hay and as grain for calves.
This year with the rainy weather the farm had unusual yields. Upland corn did very well, whereas bottom land was a disappointment — the reverse of the usual situation where bottom land outperforms upland corn.
It was so wet the Plesses had to replant their bottom land corn twice. “It kind of shrunk up and died,” George said. At harvest, bottom land yielded just a third of a normal crop.
The Plesses would like to find more ground to farm, but available acreage is scarce in the area.
“Since land’s limited,” Jerry said, “we’re trying to find ways to make us more profitable without farming more or milking more — ways to become more efficient, more productive. One thing we’re trying to do is a better job of forage production.”
To that end, they intend to sow clover in their small grain silage this year, having done so in the past and finding that it makes higher quality feed. They are also experimenting with BMR corn. In the past they had interplanted it with conventional corn, but this year they planted a dedicated stand of BMR.
Unfortunately, that was in bottom land — which had weather-induced low yields — so the Plesses haven’t yet got a good sense of how pure BMR silage will work in their system. They’ll try again next year.
The Plesses also find efficiencies in a number of other different ways. They sell heifers and raise up steers. They use futures and options to, as Jerry put it, “put a floor under milk and a ceiling on corn.”
They have also extended their housing facilities by hanging shade cloth next to their freestall barn, creating a low-cost expansion of their housing. They use a wood-burning outdoor furnace to preheat water for the barn.
They’re also reconsidering their bedding system. Right now they use sand but their waste lagoon (built in 1992, with the parlor) gets filled with sand and has to be cleaned out. So they’re thinking about adding a sand settling lane, or possibly even using mats.
It’s a long way from how things were farmed in George’s early years. He remembers picking corn (and cotton) by hand. He doesn’t walk so easily now, but that’s in part because of the many years he spent following behind a team of mules or horses, working the fields.
Despite the toil his body took, his efforts haven’t gone unrecognized. He and his family were recognized with North Carolina’s Marvin E. Senger Distinguished Dairy Farmer Award in 2005.
More importantly, he can see his family’s farming tradition is bound to continue, with two more generations beyond him dedicated to operating and improving the family dairy.