Moms learn about farm operations, agri economics

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 187 views 

Farm living is the place to be for John Robert and Carolyn Hart of Prairie Grove. The farming duo milks 113 cows twice a day, and house 50,000 or so pullets for laying hens on their third-generation family farm.

Down the road from the Hart’s are lush green acres dotted with grazing cattle – just the life ordered by Anita and Jared Munyon, also third generation family farmers in Washington County.

These two farm families hosted a dozen local women – and one man – who took part in the University of Arkansas promotion “Moms on the Farm.” The event, held Saturday (April 13) is an annual outing designed to educate the public on the connection of the family farm and the local food supply.

For most of the moms on the tour, it was an eye-opening experience as they, like much of today’s population, are two to three generations removed from family farming.

That isn’t the case for 66-year-old John Robert Hart who traces his family back 108 years on this same 250 acres he calls home. He lives in a home built prior to 1861.

Carolyn Hart, his wife of 44 years, says their home has been updated, remodeled and expanded at least three times over the years. It was the place where John grew up. But there are remnants of the original structure in the home’s floor boards that are stamped 1861, and visible from the basement.

The Hart’s dairy herd totals about 300. The couple is milking 112 of them now, 20 are dry, the rest are retained heifers and this year’s calf crop.

“It takes us about four hours to milk each morning and we get started around 4 a.m. Then we repeat the same process in the evening,” he said.

Each cow gives about five gallons a day, which totals roughly 18,750 gallons a month for the 112 milking now. The 1,250 gallon tank in the milking barn is emptied every other day by Hiland’s Dairy.

Each day this couple collects 625 gallons of milk, which is enough to serve 40,000 school children at lunch.

It’s a big job, but Hart says he’s never wanted to do anything else.

“We haven’t taken a vacation in 10 years, but that’s alright cause I’m doing what I love,” he added.

The couple also has 12 calves which have to be bottle fed twice a day, and that adds another half hour of so to the morning and evening rituals.

“A few months back we had 55 calves to bottle feed, which greatly added time to the milking schedules,” Carolyn Hart said. “You just roll up your sleeves and do it,”

The couple admits it hasn’t always been easy, with volatile milk prices and continually escalating grain costs. He said the operating margin continues to shrink. Each milking cow consumes about 60 pounds of forage a day, roughly 28 pounds of grain with supplemented hay, alfalfa and pasture grazing.

Hart said milk prices now are roughly $19 per hundredweight, but they got as low as $9 in 2009, which drove dozens of local dairies out of the business. He expects his price will rise to about $22 per hundredweight by early fall.
The couple said it is not unusual to have to get a loan to cover the feed costs on the interim. But in recent years it’s taking longer to pay the money back as the operating margins continue to shrink.

The Munyons, also third generation family farmers with more than 1,000 acres between Prairie Grove and Lincoln, closed their dairy in late 2009. Both loved the dairy business but couldn’t make the economics work.

The Munyons found other ways to sustain their livelihood by expanding their commercial beef farm to more than 560 head, which includes heifers with an abundant calf crop.

Anita bashfully shared she kept 11 of the dairy cows, because she couldn’t stand the thought of letting them all go.
“They will die on this farm,” she said, pointing to the cows grazing in small pasture next to her home.
Looking for a way to diversify their income, the Munyons signed on as contract growers for Simmons Foods to operate four poultry houses and raising roughly 400,000 broilers a year. This is enough meat to feed every man, woman and child in Northwest Arkansas for nearly a week.

The chickens raised on the Munyon farm are slaughtered and processed in Decatur. The chicken is then sold to food service companies who then sell to companies like Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell, Longhorn Steakhouse, Pizza Hut, Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, Chili’s, Red Robin, Heinz, Aldi, Schwan’s and Applebee’s.

The broiler chicks get to the farm the same day they are hatched and spend six weeks under the watchful eyes of Anita Munyon. Neither Jared or Anita had any prior experience in poultry farming, as they both had dairy backgrounds and formal training in livestock.

“We are still learning the poultry business and there is a lot to learn,” Anita Munyon told the group.” She has a bachelor’s degree in agricultural business and Jared attended a prestigious dairy school in the Midwest following his high school graduation.

“It gets harder and harder for young folks like us to keep farms going. With land running $3,000 an acre, tractors costing $100,000 or more and tighter profit margins with rising input costs,” Jared Munyon told the group.

The Munyons own 750 acres and lease another 300 acres to provide forage for their cattle. They do not supplement with grain and firmly believe a farm should be sustainable – the land provides the needed nourishment for the livestock.

They routinely sell their calf crop at seven-months old, retaining enough heifers to replenish the numbers the next year. Those calves will make their way to a feed yard operation and eventually be sold to a meat packer such as Tyson Foods, Cargill or other smaller independents, who then slaughter and process the meat for retail and wholesale distribution.

With live cattle prices higher on shorter supplies, the Munyons say it’s tempting to sell, but they intend to stay in the business for many years.

The last leg on the farm tour featured a cooking demonstration by Wendy Petz, former president of the National Cattlewomen’s Association, who lives in Huntsville. Petz prepared for the group three easy recipes which were chosen to show the diversity of beef and chicken.

The demonstration was loaded with relevant facts about the differences in beef cuts and how they should be prepared accordingly.
“USDA select is a lower quality of beef than USDA choice,” Petz told the group.

She said the “choice” grade will have more marbling – fat content laced within the muscle – which gives it more flavor and more tenderness than a leaner “select” cut.

When preparing “select,” Petz told the group to guard against overcooking, because there is less fat and this cut will be drier than a “choice” cut cooked for the same amount of time. Petz also warned against cross contamination of raw meat and raw vegetables.

“Keep your raw meat separate from uncooked vegetables. That goes from the time you put them in your grocery cart, to the storage in the fridge and the counter preparation,” Petz said.

Janeal Yancey, coordinator of the tour, told the group to not put raw meat in the popular recycle grocery sacks.

“If you put meat in the sack and it leaks, it could contaminate whatever else goes in that bag. Also, when storing meat in a refrigerator keep it at the bottom, put the fresh vegetables on the top shelves and keep dairy in between the two,” Yancey said. “This is best practice and required in food service.”

During the 15-mile bus ride back to the University of Arkansas the moms on the tour were impressed with the operations and said they had a new appreciation for family farmers and their contribution to the food supply.