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Looking up

With careful planning, sound management, and sheer determination, Sparkman Farms is in a strong position to face the dairy crisis
Story and photos by: Chris Villines 5/24/2019

 

Johnny Sparkman, right, and sons, from left, Tyler and Nicholas operate their family dairy in Sparta.
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Tough. Extremely tough.

Johnny Sparkman doesn’t hold back when describing what the past few years have been like for dairymen such as him and sons Nicholas and Tyler, the trio running Sparkman Farms in Sparta.

At least the milk is still flowing. Some 420 registered Holsteins are milked three times daily in the Sparkmans’ double-eight herringbone barn. But for many of Johnny’s contemporaries involved in the industry — hard-working families he got to know as a former fieldman for Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative Association — well-chronicled milk price plummets coupled with oversupply issues have forced them to declare their days of dairying done.

Forever.

It’s an emotional subject for Johnny, 68, as he approaches his 46th year in the dairy business.

“The last two years are when we’ve seen the most exits,” Johnny says. “I can name 25-30 friends of mine who aren’t in business anymore, and these are good, solid dairy farmers. People just haven’t been able to cope with the stress, the challenges. It’s a shame.”

What has kept Sparkman Farms afloat isn’t one reason but many, Johnny says. And, it all starts with the right mindset.

“I think back to the speech [former North Carolina State basketball coach] Jim Valvano gave after he was diagnosed with cancer,” explains Johnny. “He said, ‘Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.’ That’s been us — we’ve refused to give up. My mama used to tell me, ‘It’ll always get better’ when things got tough. I’ve hung on to that, and usually it does.”

Adds Nicholas, “You better love what you’re doing to be a dairy farmer. It gets hard sometimes, but it’s always been in my blood. Tyler and I are the next generation, and we’re determined to carry on our family’s business.”

That determination is shared by Nicholas’ wife, Ashley, who handles the farm’s AI breeding program; Kristin, Tyler’s wife, who manages the farm’s books and helps run the farm’s onsite milk culturing lab; and Johnny’s wife Susan, who does the payroll and keeps everyone in line.

Anticipating the storm brewing in the industry, the Sparkmans planned and made the necessary changes to be more efficient. Their partners throughout the process have been White County Farmers Cooperative and Tennessee Farmers Cooperative, where nutritionist Todd Steen and feed and animal health specialist Rick Syler have helped in evaluating all phases of the operation to maximize production.

“Going through the tough times, they’ve always …” Johnny says before pausing as his emotions get the best of him. “They’ve been so good to us.”

Johnny says his frequent communication with Co-op is crucial.

“If I didn’t talk with them a great deal about what these cows are doing, we would be running in place,” he emphasizes. “We sat down a few years ago with Todd and made a long-range plan focusing on facilities, cow comfort, how much production it would take to cashflow everything. And based on the plan, we’ve met those goals and maybe exceeded them a little bit.”

Johnny says a point of emphasis in discussions with Co-op has been continued improvement on forage quality.

“We’ve spent more time than ever the past couple of years evaluating corn varieties,” says Todd. “The key to getting good milk production and keeping costs down is having high-quality forages. It’s not about selling them feed, it’s about helping them be profitable. Because of the hard work they do and the intelligent, reasoned-out logic they apply, the Sparkmans’ cost of production is very, very good.”

One example of this collaborative effort on forages paying off occurred last year, when the Sparkmans transitioned to brown midrib (BMR) corn silage, which has a higher fiber digestibility. The increase in production was immediate, as the herd increased from the low-to-mid 80s in pounds of milk production per cow to the mid-90s, a level at which it has consistently stayed.

“When they were on the traditional corn silage variety, it made a lot of tonnage, but the digestibility was very poor,” says Todd. “That’s a great thing about the support system Co-op has in place. Rick and [White County Farmers Co-op’s] Zach [Jolly] are fantastic about being able to come out and help the Sparkmans with forage samples and letting me know that the dairy needs more feed or we need to adjust the cows’ diet.”

The milking cows’ diet, Nicholas says, consists of a TMR mix that includes corn silage, ryegrass, whole cotton seed, corn grain, and a supplement from the Co-op.

“Our heifers don’t go to the TMR mix until they’re between 400-500 pounds,” Tyler explains. “They are on the TMR for the rest of their lives after that. Before that, I bucket feed a 14% pellet from Co-op.”

In addition to Co-op, there are other ag-related organizations Johnny credits for being instrumental to the success of Sparkman Farms.

“First is the Tennessee Department of Agriculture,” he says. “Former Commissioner [Jai] Templeton saw that dairy farms were struggling and helped start the Tennessee Quality Milk Initiative, which [new] Commissioner [Charles] Hatcher has made even stronger.”

Another source Johnny has trusted through the years is University of Tennessee Extension.

“A few years ago, I wanted to know what my cost of production was so I took part in the UT Extension Farmer Management Program,” he says. “Working with [UT Extension area farm management specialist] David Bilderback, we went over all our production numbers, and when he left, I knew what it cost me to produce 100 pounds of milk. That’s important to know, and I would encourage farmers to take a look at that program.

“All of our purchased supplement comes from the Co-op. I’ll be honest, I thought we were going to get blown out, but we had the production and were very competitive economically.”

Johnny also praises the American Farm Bureau Federation, which last year developed a new risk-management insurance product, Dairy Revenue Protection, for dairy farmers in cooperation with American Farm Bureau Insurance Services.

“We can use this new insurance to try and lock in some milk prices that are more profitable for us,” he says. “We’re still learning more about it, but I’m sure it’s going to be useful to us going forward.”

Johnny says he wanted to give several “tips of the cap” to Co-op and other organizations since he is transitioning from being the focal point of the dairy to letting Tyler and Nicholas take more of the lead.

“I’m fortunate to have this next generation working alongside me,” he says. “A lot of my friends in the business didn’t have that, and now their dairies aren’t around anymore. My sons drive me because they’re driven to see this thing through — I couldn’t imagine getting up and doing this every day by myself.”

And he believes that, at least for the short term, the industry is on the upswing.

“Prices look like they’re recovering,” he says.

Good or bad, the veteran dairyman believes “a strong faith” will pull them through:

“We’ve been blessed in so many ways that I couldn’t even begin to name them all.”

To learn more about Sparkman Farms, visit their page on Facebook. For more information about dairy feed formulations and other services available for dairies through Co-op, contact your local Co-op feed and animal health specialist.

 
 
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