by Sally Colby
Dustin Gingerich’s grandfather retired from dairy farming when Dustin was young, but he recalls always having an interest in farming.
“I would have gotten into beef cattle, but I didn’t think the money was good enough,” said Dustin. “I’ve always liked cattle but I didn’t know if I wanted to be tied down to milking. Now 20 years later, I’m milking cows.”
Dustin started Rocky Ridge Jerseys in southern Franklin County, PA, where he maintained the herd in a grazing set up. About six years ago, Dustin and his wife Carrie purchased a dairy farm outside of Shippensburg, PA, which became the new home of the family’s 170 registered Jerseys.
Every dairy cattle farmer has reasons for breed preference, and Dustin likes Jerseys because they’re efficient in feed conversion. “We’re averaging in the mid-60s,” he said, “and Jerseys are also really good on components. I usually get more per hundredweight. On the downside, the cows aren’t as big as others at an auction, but a good Jersey at a dairy sale will bring as much or more than a Holstein.”
While Dustin admits his interest in genetics wasn’t strong when he first started dairy farming, he has since become an avid follower of Jersey genetics. He watches advances in breed improvements and incorporates those improvements in his herd. Dustin and Carrie’s three oldest girls – Hannah, 15, Abby, 12, and Lydia, 10 – are also developing an interest in genetics. Although four-year-old Leah isn’t quite ready to learn about the fine points of good dairy cattle, she’ll benefit from the experience of her three older sisters.
Dustin selects bulls based on type, milk and feet and legs. “Jersey has an udder index (Jersey Udder Index™ or JUI) so I look at that too,” he said. “Every year I sell some good cows, either to families who want just one cow to milk and others to purebred Jersey herds.”
Prior to moving to their current location, Dustin managed the herd in a grazing setup. Although he enjoyed grazing, he found it was difficult to keep pastures neat and mud-free, even with well-designed slate walking lanes.
The farm that’s now the Gingerich family home has a well-designed free-stall barn with slatted floors for underground manure storage. Every aspect of the farm was originally proportioned for Holsteins, so prior to moving the herd, Dustin had to make changes, including narrowing and lowering the free-stalls.
Stalls were resized primarily to control cow movement. “I don’t want a cow to go in a stall, turn around and lie down backwards,” said Dustin. “Neck rail height determines how far how forward they lie down, so if the neck rail is too high, the cow could go a lot farther into the stall, and that leaves a lot of manure in the stall. I don’t want them halfway out of the stall either – there’s a happy medium.”
Dustin also altered the existing swing parlor to accommodate smaller cows. “It’s a fairly simple setup so it wasn’t hard to make it work for my cows,” he said. “We have automatic take-offs but no air gates. If the parlor had been fancier, it would have been more complicated and expensive to alter it.”
Although Dustin didn’t have experience managing a dairy herd in a slatted floor barn, he quickly saw that the cows remained clean without a lot of extra work. “I like having the pit underground,” he said, “and I can scrape the holding area and the dry cow barn and put it into one pit.”
One of the barns on the farm is less than ideal for cattle housing, and Dustin would like to eventually construct another slatted floor barn to replace it. The new construction could potentially house the milking herd and the existing milk cow barn would house heifers.
Dustin pays close attention to cow comfort, starting with sawdust bedding on mattresses. “I can’t use sand with the pit,” said Dustin. “I love sand bedding but it’s hard on equipment and hard to get out of the pit. We have a good sawdust supplier so that’s what works best for us.”
Cows remain clean thanks to appropriate stall size and frequent stall grooming. “Stalls are cleaned at each milking,” said Dustin, adding that he re-beds about every three days. “I can tell whether the stalls need to be bedded when the first group of cows comes in for milking. It takes a good bit of time to keep everything clean and bedded but it’s worth it to have clean cows. It takes more time to clean a dirty cow at milking, but if I keep them well-bedded, the udders stay clean.”
Fans are focused on the free-stall area to keep cows cool. “We want the cows eating at the feed bunk,” said Dustin, “but we don’t want them to go over to the bunk and stand there to stay cool and not go lay down.” To encourage cows to use the stalls, fans at the feed bunk are set to go on at a higher temperature.
Heat detection is by frequent herd observation. Dustin said keeping an eye on cows for heat also helps him monitor herd health and detect potential problems. The target for first breeding is age-based, usually at about 14 or 15 months, with the goal of calving for the first time at about two years. Dustin realizes the importance of a good pre-fresh nutrition program to prevent issues at calving and watches nutrition carefully. Calves are raised in individual pens in a calf barn and eventually join others in group housing.
Although Carrie works off the farm as a teacher, she manages calf care with help from the three oldest girls, who also help Dustin with milking. When COVID-19 closed schools, Dustin and Carrie decided to homeschool, which allows ample time for the oldest daughters to help on the farm.
Hannah, Abby and Lydia are interested in showing cattle and take advantage of their free time at home to practice with their animals. When asked about the most difficult aspect of showing cattle, the three agreed that training their calves to lead properly is the most challenging.