by Karl H. Kazaks
MEBANE, NC — In the past 25 years, North Carolina’s dairy community has undergone a transformation which mirrors that of the industry nationwide: larger herd sizes on fewer total farms.
In the Old North State, the number of dairies has dropped from over 1100 to about 300. Even with bigger herds and better production, total fluid milk output in the state has decreased — all while the human population has increased by almost 50 percent, to just about 10 million.
Witness to that change — as well as to the dramatic decline in the number of dairies in his home county, Orange — has been Jeff Sykes.
Sykes, who milks 100 Holsteins 2x, has also survived trauma of a much more personal sort. He and his brother Johnny were raised on the farm and took it over from their father Vernon in 1992. Vernon died two years later — and then 10 years ago Johnny died, too, of a brain tumor. He was 45.
“We worked together,” Sykes said, with Johnny overseeing the field work and Jeff the dairy. With Johnny gone, Sykes became the sole man in charge of the farm.
“We found a way to try to make it work,” Sykes said, describing the challenge of losing his brother and partner. About what it took to take over farming, he said, “I learned a lot and I’ve still got a lot to learn.”
The dairy, in addition to Sykes, has just two full-time employees (including one full-time milker) and some part-time help. Because of the short supply of labor, farm management is set up to minimize man hours. The dairy still uses two vertical silos, one concrete and one Harvestore®. The cost of maintaining chains and unloaders, said Sykes, is warranted by the amount of time saved compared to feeding from bunkers.
The farm encompasses about 400 acres. Each year Sykes grows 100 to 120 acres of corn and about 50 acres of oats of barley. He also does some grazing, planting about 20 acres of annual ryegrass in six different tracts. When it’s available for grazing, he’s able to cut back on the amount of silage he feeds.
Sykes worked for one year as herdsman at the North Carolina State dairy right after school before returning to the farm full-time. Today he emphasizes breeding as a way to improve his herd.
“I remember years ago we had a lot of feet problems,” he said. By breeding for healthy feet, he has been able (for the most part) to eliminate that problem. Now, his goal is to breed uniform cows.
Working with ABS, Sykes has devised a mating program for his herd. On average, he uses about six to eight bulls a year.
Sykes is able to get about five lactations on average out of his cows. (He has had a cow go 11 lactations.) Because his cows last longer, he’s able to sell cows and heifers to bring in extra income.
Four years ago, in fact, Sykes sold his top 35 producing cows. But he wasn’t concerned about reducing the quality of his herd. “I knew the heifers we had coming on,” he said. “I know my cows.”
Part of being able to sell animals — both in marketing them and knowing what’s on hand as replacements — is good record keeping. That’s something Sykes makes a priority.
Sykes hasn’t looked to expand his dairy, partly because rental farms in the area have been lost to development. “I’ve always looked to manage what you’ve got and stay with it,” he said.
“I think we’ve done pretty good to hold on to it,” he said, surveying the family farm. “We worked too hard to get it and keep it.”
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