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Southeast Area Members of Distinction - Edgewood Dairy
When Charles Fletcher converted his family’s dairy from a conventional farm to a pasture-based seasonal dairy in 1997, he hoped to turn a profit. Now, 15 years later, hundreds of producers and industry personnel visit his operation each year to view one of the most productive and profitable grazing dairies in Missouri.
Today, Charles and his wife, Melissa, along with their children, Tyler, 19, and Mikala, 14, own and operate Edgewood Dairy LLC, a 320-cow grazing dairy, in Purdy, Mo.
Charles was one of the first dairymen in Southwest Missouri to convert to the grazing platform.
“People kind of wondered about us a little bit,” Melissa says. “A lot of people came to the driveway wondering what was going on. I’ve always said, if I had $5 for every car that came down the driveway, we wouldn’t have to milk cows because we’d be millionaires.”
Charles first witnessed the grazing technique on his father’s dairy in the early 1970s. Eventually, however, his father, Gene, shifted his mindset to “production focus” in the 1980s.
Undecided about the dairying lifestyle, Charles left home after high school to seek other opportunities. He returned home in 1987 and built a poultry house near his family’s farm in Washburn, Mo. Six years later, he formed a partnership with his father, who was still dairying, as well as his brother and brother-in-law, who owned their own poultry farms. When the partnership formed, the family was milking 75 cows and managing eight poultry houses.
In 1997, the family was left with a big decision to make. As rising input costs continued to affect their profitability, Charles knew something had to change. Either they needed to liquidate the herd or change their way of dairying.
With a passion for dairy driving him, Charles decided to try intensive grazing. He had just attended grazing school while serving on the Soil and Water Conservation District Board, and says he was interested to see if the techniques he had learned could save the operation.
“I learned some interesting things about grass and how to use it that day,” he says. “That night I came home excited with a roll of wire and spent the next couple of hours measuring off sections of grass to see if the system would really work for us.”
According to Charles, they saw results almost immediately. Their then 75-cow herd began eating less grain, but continued to produce at high levels.
“It was amazing to watch our profitability begin to rise,” he says. “By putting our cows to work, we cut input costs and were eventually able to expand the dairy.”
With the information he gained, Charles began to rewrite the farm’s entire business plan, and with their newfound success, the partners expanded.
On the conventional dairy, Charles fed the herd about 25 pounds of grain per cow per day. Since converting to grazing, he feeds about 10 pounds of grain per cow per day. In addition, the farm’s veterinarian costs were cut in half and the farm’s operational costs decreased by more than half.
Since Southwest Missouri is a desirable area to grow grass, the Fletchers began using a seasonal grazing system. This option allows them to consolidate labor in certain areas and to take full advantage of grass during peak times.
To maintain their seasonal platform, Charles had to find the right cows to meet his system. He uses a cross-breeding system of Jersey, Holsteins and Swedish Red breeds to ensure his cows calve during seasonal blocks.
“We found that the Holstein cows were a great animal for production, but they weren’t great at reproducing,” Charles says. “And because of the climate we are in, which is both hot and cold, the cross-bred cow tends to lend itself to this type of climate. She handles the heat a little better.”
By 2001, the Fletchers dropped the poultry operation and started a new 240-acre dairy in Purdy, Mo., with 180 cows. Seven years later, Charles split from the partnership with his brother and brother-in-law soon after his father retired.
Today, the dairy consists of 52 5-acre paddocks. Charles divides the herd into two groups, allowing 160 cows to graze on a paddock. When designing the dairy, Charles put the parlor in the center of the farm, so it was easier to move the cows from place to place. The herd moves on 24-foot lanes from each paddock to the parlor.
To keep track of the dairy’s forages, Charles uses a rising-plate meter that calculates dry matter content from each paddock. He inputs the data collected on his computer to receive the growth stage of each paddock to help know which paddock to release his herd on after each milking.
“It’s important that the cows graze the grass when it’s growing,” Charles says. “We want to get a maximum dry matter intake from the grass into the cows when they have a maximum dry matter intake need. This method keeps our costs low.”
In addition to keeping their costs low, grazing has allowed the family to have more time together. All of their work on the dairy is done in blocks — calving together, breeding together — and when these labor-intensive areas are complete, the family has more time to relax.
“It gives us more freedom, but still the opportunity to work together,” Melissa says. “At times it’s a lot of hard work, but at other times there is actual down time. Simply put, it’s a great lifestyle, and we love it.”
Melissa spends most of her time handling the farm’s books, but says that she enjoys the calving season since it gives her and Mikala the chance to get out of the office and work with the animals.
“I love calving season,” she says. “It’s always a time where I feel like it’s a new start. When spring comes around, we’re able to get out there and feed the babies.”
Looking back, Charles says some of their biggest challenges came from changing their mindset from being “production-minded” to being “profit-minded.” Instead of focusing on production per cow, they had to start thinking in terms of profit per cow and profit per acre.
“Our milk production per cow is typically less than what you’d see on a conventional dairy, but our profitability is equal to or greater than other types of systems,” Charles says.
Charles’s success with management-intensive grazing has also earned him national recognition throughout the dairy industry. In 2008, he was named Innovative Dairy Farmer of the Year and he earned the 2007 Missouri Forage and Grassland Council’s Grasslander of the Year award. He also visited New Zealand in 2005 and came home with more ideas about how to manage pasture-based dairies.
Charles spends time off the farm speaking to groups about his grazing success.
“It’s important to share the knowledge that we’ve gained on our farm, so that we can kind of pay it forward to the next generation,” Charles says. “It’s also our chance to teach the next generation about a low-cost form of dairying.”
As for the future of Edgewood Dairy, things are yet to be determined. The couple’s son, Tyler, is a freshman at the College of the Ozarks in Branson, Mo. Yet even while away from home, Tyler is still dairying as part of the college’s on-campus Work Education Program.
“Right now, I’m just focused on graduating from school,” Tyler says. “I’m contemplating going on to vet school, but really, I just want to see what else is out there before I go on and be a dairy farmer. I know my dad would really help me if that’s the decision I make, but I also know that he wants me to come to that decision by myself.”
As for Charles, he plans to continue to build on his success and share his knowledge with others.
“I think our greatest accomplishment is the fact that we’ve been successful in building a model that other people want to repeat,” he says. “We are in a good place, but there’s always room for improvement.”