The Thomas family brings Jersey cows back to the family farm
DAMASCUS, ARK. – Heath Thomas has many memories of his grandfather’s Jersey herd roaming the family’s farm near Damascus, Ark., the same farm he and his family reside at today.
“My grandpa grew up right here on the same place, and he started dairying years ago, and that’s where I got started,” Heath said of his late grandfather Milburn Thomas. “For our birthdays, he would give each kid that liked to show a Jersey calf; I started showing when I was 4.”
For many years, Heath showed cattle with his mom Tanya Thomas, aunt Theresa Townsend and cousins, going to local, regional, and national shows with their Jersey cattle.
“It gave me a lot of opportunities growing up, traveling and going to judging competitions,” he said. “I went to the World Dairy Expo when I was a senior in high school to judge with 4-H.”
Showing slowed down for Heath as he got older, but he continued his registered Jersey operation, just on a little smaller scale. Today, Heath and his wife Ashley travel to shows with his stepsons Connor and Trip Mix, daughter Bentlee and son Rhodie. Heath continued to breed Jersey cattle, leasing the milking cows to other farms. Those older cows have become the foundation of the family’s show string, which Heath said continues to improve with the use of AI. The family has been racking up titles along the way, including Arkansas State Fair Junior Champion and Grand Champion in both junior and open shows; Reserve Junior Champion and Grand Champion at the Ozark Empire Fair in Springfield, Mo.; and various other awards at county and regional fairs and shows.
“I want my kids to have the same opportunities I had,” Heath said. We have genetics that go back several generations, even some that go back to my grandpa’s cows. Each of my four kids has their own set of animals to show and their foundation cow that we have bred from. Right now, they can’t really handle the big cows yet, so we focus mainly on heifers.”
The Thomas family retains about 80 percent of their heifers.
“Our primary focus is the show cattle side, so those heifers that don’t fit into that are sold,” Heath said, adding that his show-quality cattle are also very productive females. “At this point, we have two 91-point cows and three 90-point cows. One of those 91-point cows and the three 90-point cows are all from the same family. That family goes back to a heifer I bought at the national sale in 2008.”
In addition to producing high-quality show animals, the Thomas family is once again milking.
“I’ve had my cows all home since last fall. We went to the Arkansas State Fair, and while we were there, I found out the dairy they were at was going out. When we got back from the fair, we brought the cows home. The only reason I leased them out is because my grandpa sold all of his milk cows in 1999, and that’s about the time Theresa got married and moved to Missouri. It was just a matter of finding a place to keep the cows so we could keep them. When we were faced with selling, taking them somewhere else, or bringing them home, we decided it was best to have our cows at our place.”
With milk-producing animals back at the farm, the family had an excess of milk, and as calves were weaned, they decided to begin offering raw milk sales earlier this month. They are milking three, with additional cows freshening in fall/early winter. The family utilizes a portable milking machine, and milk is transferred into plastic, disposable jugs for customers to pick up at the farm.
“A lot of the customers we’ve had have been elderly folks who have missed the taste of real milk,” Heath said. “I was telling some of the guys I work with, who are all city guys, and I showed them the milk jugs and what milk looks like before everything is taken out; they couldn’t believe it. They asked what all the yellow was, and I explained it was the cream. They couldn’t believe there was that much cream in a gallon of our milk.”
Cows graze the farm, and all cattle, including the milking cows, are fed a custom 16 percent protein feed from a Little Rock dealer. Heath added that finding the right formula is difficult in Arkansas because of the dwindling dairy industry in the state.
“There is no market for dairy feed, and the dairy feed that is here is just too high,” he said. “My bottle calves, all the way up to the cows, get the same feed. We supplement with extra fat and protein in the winter, and supplements vary depending on if it is show season or not.”
Bringing the cows home and continuing the dairy legacy established by his grandfather is important to Heath.
“It’s been a big deal to bring some dairy back here, back to the county we live in and to Arkansas in general,” he said. “There were more than 200 dairies in the county at one time, but I don’t even know if there’s one now. We live right off Highway 65, so everyone sees the little brown cows; they see we are here. If it worked out where we could and it was sustainable, I would love to quit my full-time job and be a full-time dairy producer. If our customer base increases and we keep building, we would like to expand. We don’t want to get up to 20 or 30 head, but we would like to keep 10 head milking all the time if we had the demand.”