As the two brothers stood with their father and watched the boom crane lifting steel beams in front of them, they felt a sense of accomplishment mixed with anticipation. The beams were the early stages of a free-stall barn under construction at the Hillcrest Dairy Farm in Dearing. The 482 ft. by 126 ft. barn will be home to 364 milking cows at the farm, which is co-owned by Billy Rodgers and his sons, Mark and Andy.
"It's not an expansion of the business, but it will increase the production of milk for us," Mark said.
The barn-raising began last Tuesday, and has created quite a lot of interest within the community. Mark said people have been dropping by all week to watch the progress and take pictures.
"The farm is a good, viable member of the community," he said. "It's a good, honest living. I'm proud of the product that I've produced at the end of the day."
Mr. Billy reminisced how the farm had changed since his father started it in the early 1940s.
"It was rough that first 10 years, until we joined the dairy co-op," Mr. Billy said. "We never made money until we became part of the co-op. That was a really good move for us."
Mr. Billy said it was "just me and Dad" running the farm until Billy's two sons came back from college and expressed a desire to join them, enabling them to increase the size of the farm. Today, Hillcrest Farm owns 750 acres and rents 500 acres, on which they have approximately 800 total Holsteins, averaging 350 milking at a time. Mark oversees the dairy herd and milk production and Andy manages the crops, construction projects, farm equipment and accounting.
"It works real good," Mark said. "I'd rather share the decisions with my brother."
Mark's daughter, Caitlin, and Andy's son, Joshua, also help out, along with 10 full-time and several part-time employees.
And they even hired a construction crew that would keep up the farm's family atmosphere. Beachy Construction Co., is owned by James Beachy, who travels around the southeast building barns with his four sons. Mr. Beachy said his family is enjoying working at Hillcrest because the Rodgers are letting them stay in a home right on the farm. So, the Beachy men returned to their home in Kentucky and brought back Mrs. Beachy to stay with them. Usually, the men have to stay in a hotel, so they said they are enjoying the opportunity to have home-cooked meals.
Mr. Beachy said the framework of the barn should be completed in two weeks, and then the Rodgers family will have more work to do on the inside. The barn will have a concrete feeding alley down the center, with the stalls on each side, allowing the flexibility to feed the cows in groups. Sand will be used for bedding, which is more comfortable for the cows and more sanitary because it harbors no bacteria.
To learn how to have the perfect sand bed that keeps the cows happy, employees have to drop to their knees in the sand without bracing their fall with their hands. If their knees hurt, then the sand is too hard or too wet.
"We want it to be like the cows are just laying out on the beach all day, except they're not hot," Mark said.
It seems happy, comfortable cows produce more milk. Running east to west, the barn's roof will keep the cows out of the Georgia summer sun. One hundred fans and misters will keep the temperature perfect in the wall-less barn all summer.
Cows are milked twice daily, with each one giving eight and one-half gallons per day, peaking out at approximately 6,500 gallons every two days. The comforts of the barn, without having to move the cows around from field to field, should allow them to milk three times a day in the future, Mark said.
"Milk is our only source of income. We are striving for the maximum quantity we can get, while keeping it at the highest quality at all times," Mark said, adding that the farm will never be a large dairy. "We will keep the family atmosphere while trying to be more environmentally conscious."
As a farm should be, Hillcrest is green. And the addition of the barn with its steel beams and concrete feeding trays will make it even greener. Land that is presently used for milk cow pastures will be converted into irrigated cropland, allowing the Rodgers to triple their grain crops from which they mix the cows' food. The space that was left when dirt was taken to level the barn's foundation will be converted into a pond to increase irrigation.
The sand used in the stalls will be washed and reused in the stalls, and the manure will be flushed out and used as fertilizer on the crop land. Both the irrigation and flushing systems use water from the ponds on the farm.
"Our waste water system is probably as big as, if not bigger than, the City of Thomson's," Mark said.
The barn is just another phase of the upgrades that's been taking place at Hillcrest. They recently began using a computer system with an electronic ID on each cow. As each cow enters the milking parlor, the computer tells how much milk that cow has given and how much she normally gives. Each problem, no matter how minor, can be detected immediately.
Although it is a big project, Mark said hopefully the barn will pay for itself within 10 years. Mr. Billy proudly talked of how Andy had to get bids for each aspect of the construction, including the cement, plumbing, electrical and fans. He and his wife, Gladys, enjoyed visiting with everyone that stopped by to check out the barn. He laughed as he pointed to the old barn "over there on the hill," comparing it to the massive, new one and describing the other improvements since his sons joined him.
"We've done real good," he said.