The Turner Dairy Farm in the rural red clay hills of southern Bedford County, VA, owned by Wayne Turner, his father, his uncle and cousin, is a morass of mud after four inches of rain in two days. The deluge has delayed late winter top dressing of grains and the Turner team has pivoted their work to graveling the network of roads and pathways traversing the 1,400-acre operation.
Wayne Turner, whose great-grandfather founded the family farm with beef cattle just after the turn of the 20th century, is accustomed to switching gears, whether it’s adjusting feed rations for calves to optimize growth or repairing a skip loader.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” said Turner, a 30-something Virginia Tech dairy science major who graduated in 2006.
While attending classes, Turner commuted 75 miles every weekend from campus to labor on the family farm and he continues to work hard seven days a week. It’s much too early to tell whether his two preschool-aged sons, Nathaniel and Wyatt, will follow their father into farming, he noted.
“Dairy farming is a 24/7 job,” said Turner. “I got five phone calls last night. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love it.”
Turner Dairy is just one of six dairy farms in Bedford County. When his dad and uncle got into the business nearly 50 years ago, there were close to 100, Turner estimated.
“Workers are older now, in their late 60s,” Turner said. “We’re not running into people in their 40s anymore.”
Additionally, according to a number of news sources, Washington’s immigration crackdown worries a lot of farmers who depend upon guest workers.
Turner’s wife and mother are employed off the farm for local agriculture agencies to ensure a steady cash flow and health insurance. The farm is an LLC.
Turner’s grandfather turned the operation into a grade A dairy in 1951. At that time, he constructed a cement and wooden milking parlor. Turner’s father and uncle converted it into a double-6 herringbone parlor in 1971 after they finished high school. Today, just six people, including two employees, work the farm. Finding qualified labor is a big issue in the industry, according to Turner, who is currently running one person short to keep expenses down when milk prices are “historically low.”
Milk prices have been on the decline for several months. Fortunately for producers like Turner, nutrient prices also continue to be relatively low.
Like other producers, Turner asks, “what must I do to remain competitive?” There are four major factors that influence survival and profitability: production efficiency, cost controls, scale of operation and debt.
Turner keeps meticulous records. For example, animals are monitored around the clock through electronic neck tags that measure feed consumption, time ruminating, resting, activity and feeding data into relevant alerts, to-do lists and reports to proactively manage health and nutrition.
In addition to updating and expanding the milking parlors, the Turners sold their upright silos to farmers in neighboring Franklin County, opting for in-ground silos that hold up to 18 months’ worth of silage, a dependable source of feed easy to access with a skip loader. Milk is sold to a regional cooperative, with the government determining the price.
“There is no price guarantee,” which makes milk production, coupled with other market factors and expenses, such a challenge, said Turner.
The family pays close attention to its breeding program featuring tested, proven sires and AI for its herd of 400 Holstein and Black Angus cross animals. They raise 100 acres each of wheat and soybeans for market. Additional acreage for their herd feed rations is planted in rye, corn and wheat.
“All of our Holsteins are AI and Black Angus are crossbred with Simmental now, which are gentle and calmer,” said Turner. “A lot of people around here have Simmentals. The AI program translates into more efficiency and more milk.”
Milk cows produce around 83 pounds of milk a day per animal, according to Turner. On schedule, cows are fed, rotate in and out of the barns and milked 12 at a time, twice a day, with maintenance and cleaning chores squeezed in between. Two people are in the parlor at all times.
“In the summer,” with its heat and humidity, “we don’t get that,” said Turner of milk production. “Weather is a big issue in Virginia. We’ve been in a dry slot in recent years, with one year the corn only hitting waist-high.”
But, just recently, the Turners and other farmers got too much of a good thing — rain.