Couple contract with corporation to build their own dairy operation
When Matt Johnston started his freshman year at the College of the Ozarks, he requested his job be on the university’s beef farm. He ended up working at the dairy farm.
When he was a sophomore business major, his supervisor at the dairy told Matt he would make a dairy farmer out of him, but Matt never wanted to be a dairy farmer – ever.
Then one day it hit him, he actually liked milking cows and the work associated with a dairy farm. Today, he manages a 590-head herd outside of Sarcoxie, Mo.
“I like the challenge of a dairy farm,” he said. “I like that things change every day and you have to change with it.”
Matt and his wife, Taleah, are the contracted managers of the 472-acre operation, which is owned by Grasslands Consultants, LLC. It is one of 14 dairy farms in Missouri owned by the company.
Matt and Taleah, manage the operation under their company, Flooded Rock Dairy, and receive a portion of the milk check. Employees of the farm work for Matt and Taleah, and the Johnstons provide the equipment for the farm. They are currently in their fourth season at the farm, their second as contractors.
Like most New Zealand-style operations, the farm is forage-based. Cows cycle through 70 paddocks, ranging in size from 6 to 10 aces. Fortunately this spring, Matt said their forages have flourished, thanks to the agreeable weather, and they only need to graze a portion of the available paddocks.
“The grass is growing so fast right now that it’s hard to keep up with the rotation sometimes,” Matt said with a laugh. “Right now, all of my bottom ground is going into hay and baleage, which will be my winter feed.”
Inside the milking facility, which can handle 100 cows at a time, cows are offered about 4 pounds of a mixed ration, primarily cracked corn, distillers grain and magnesium. That ration changes, depending on the season and the needs of the herd.
While the cows do receive some grain, Matt said foraged-based herds are more efficient.
“The grain in the barn costs about 15 cents per pound, the grass costs me about 4 cents per pound,” Matt explained. “I’m saving 11 cents a pound by utilizing my forages instead of feeding commodities. You have to know how to manage your grass. For me, grass just makes more sense when you look at your bottom line.”
Pastures include perennial ryegrass and oats, among other forages. They planted turnips the last couple of years for summer grazing, but have opted to try chicory this year.
“Turnips are a one-time hit; they don’t grow back,” Matt said. “Chicory grows back and we have the pivot so we can put water on it. We’re going to see how it goes.”
Chicory is on par with legumes if grazed in the vegetative stage, with high digestibility, low NDF, high-energy content and high crude protein.
The farm currently produces about 52,000 pounds of milk a day, with a herd average of about 50 pounds a day.
“It’s all about management,” Matt said. “You have to manage your grass and the health of your herd. The way I see it, your cows need to be full at all times, plus they breed back better. This year, my cows are in better shape than what they have been in the past.”
In the winter months, the Johnstons work on building up the condition of the herd in preparation for calving and building reserves for their lactation cycle.
“We feed a corn silage and baleage all winter,” Matt said. “We just ration them to where they are getting fully fed every day and monitor them pretty close. When they calve, we want them to have a condition score of 5. When they calve, they are going to lose a little condition, but you want them to maintain a little flesh when they are milking. I pay attention to the cows to see if they are getting the nutritional balance they need.”
The cows are a mix of Jersey, Holstein and Brown Swiss. While the herd is not registered, close attention is paid to genetics.
“A lot of our genetics were brought over from New Zealand,” Matt explained. “We are looking for a smaller framed cow, so she’s not eating as much, but she will milk well and have that higher butterfat. You’re trying to have the best of both worlds.”
The dairy is seasonal, meaning all cows are dried off and calve back about the same time.
“Between Jan. 20 and Feb. 20, we calved out 450 cows; we were kind of busy,” Matt said with a laugh. “We try to play the grass. We have more grass in the spring and when cows are peaking in May, our grass is growing like crazy. We start drying off cows in October and by the beginning of December, we’re only milking about 300 cows; by mid-December only about 200. By Christmas, we’ve dried off everything and we are like beef farmers. In mid-January, we start back again.”
Each breeding season, cows are bred twice via AI, followed by Jersey clean up bulls.
“We are running a program that we got through the University of Missouri Extension,” Matt explained. “We synchronize everything in a week. We try to breed as many cows as we can in that week, then turn bulls out for about 15 or 16 days. Then we’ll pull the bulls back out and breed for another week, just too catch everything we can. After that week, in theory, we have the majority of them bred and put the bulls out again.”
About 25 to 30 percent of their heifer crop is retained as replacements. Retained heifers go to another farm owned by GCL after weaning and will remain there until they are about 2 years of age. They are then returned to the farm to calve and begin their milking cycles.
When the heifers return to the farm, Matt and Taleah said it’s a special time for their assistant manager, Tony Pingsterhaus.
“One stepped off the trailer and he was like, ‘Daisy, is that you?’” Matt said. “She came right on over and let him scratch her. He was like, ‘Oh, Daisy!’ He does a lot with the calves and he makes them all pets. He’s great with the calves and takes a lot of pride in what he does.”
Bull calves and non-retained heifers are sold directly from the farm at 24 hours of age, after receiving two rounds of colostrum.
Taleah is active in the farming operation, helping where needed and taking care of the accounting for their business, as well as for other farms in the area.
The Johnstons have dreams of owning their own dairy farm.
“We tried to go out on our own; we had our business plan all lined out, but we couldn’t find anyone to do the financing,” Taleah said.
“The bankers said without someone giving us cows or giving us land, we would never be able to do it. I told them I will figure it out because this is my dream,” Matt said.
Thanks to their agreement with Grasslands, the couple have a path to ownership. After being a contractor for three years, they will have the option to buy all of the cows on the farm they mange, making it a “shared” operation with GCL.
“After we pay the cows off, that’s when we start looking for our farm,” Matt said.
The couple’s ultimate dream would be to secure two farms in hopes they can give someone else the same opportunity they have been given.
“We want to help other young people get their start,” Matt said. “What we’re doing is building up our equity a little at a time and we want to do that for others.”
“Doing this is the only way we can build up to what we want to do,” Taleah added. “We love what we do and we know there are others in the same predicament we’re in. Our parents didn’t farm, so where do you get started?”
The Johnstons know the dairy industry is an uphill struggle, but Matt is confident they can make their dream a reality. “I won’t let it fail,” he said.