Going from milking 80 cows to 1,200 has been a fulfilling experience for Indiana dairy farmer Brian Rexing, who has picked up quite a bit of wisdom along the way.
A fourth-generation farmer, Rexing grew up on his family’s dairy and row-crop farm located just a few miles away from his New Generation Dairy near Owensville. The plan has always been for Rexing and his older brother to farm separately when the time was right.
“Luckily, my dad got me into buying land as soon as I graduated high school. I bought my first farm about a week out of high school,” Rexing says of getting started in farming in 1991.
The ball kept rolling, and Rexing began adding to his land base in an area where grain production reigns supreme and not many livestock operations can be found. The nearest dairy comparable in size is 60 miles away.
In 2006, Rexing was participating in Dairy Farmers of America’s Young Cooperator and Emerging Leader program and began exploring the idea of venturing out from the family dairy. He looked at facilities in Michigan, Illinois and Kentucky to determine what farm design would work best for him.
“When you’re starting out from scratch, there are a lot of things to wrap your head around,” Rexing says.
He purchased land that worked logistically for a dairy with access to water, electricity and the Interstate. The sandy soil profile was also a nice fit for raising livestock. New Generation Dairy began construction in February 2008 and milking cows on July 29, 2008.
“I grew up milking 60 to 80 cows on the home farm. On the first night [at the new dairy], we milked 119 in 4.5 hours,” Rexing says.
Within a few months, the first calf heifers Rexing bought were almost all calved, and the dairy was milking 500 head. By the end of the first full year, there were nearly 800 head being milked, and then, the dairy crunch in 2009 hit.
“Luckily, I had everything in place and I was stable enough that we were going to expand in 2010,” Rexing says. Cattle prices sank, the construction crew wasn’t busy and it worked out better financially to do the expansion 10 months in advance.
A budget was initially set to buy springer heifers at $1,700, but fortunately the price dropped to $1,350. The previous plan had been to grow from within via home-raised genetics, but with those types of prices and the advantage of not waiting, Rexing couldn’t pass up the opportunity to purchase stock from other sources.
“The only way I could get my cost per cow down was to expand. It was the only way I was going to make it work,” he adds.
Rexing was optimistic the dairy market would bounce back, but he did have his concerns when milk prices were $10 to $11 per cwt. Prices were better in 2010 and 2011, and the built-up land base of owned and rented ground helped generate additional revenue.
He now farms approximately 3,000 acres. Some of those are farmed in partnership with his father and brother The nearest acreage is dedicated to feed for the dairy, and farther fields are used for cash crops. This year, 2,000 acres were planted into corn, with a quarter of it being for silage.
Brown mid-rib forage sorghum has been making an appearance the past few years in fields near the dairy that aren’t irrigated and have sandy soil. In 2014, Rexing’s forage sorghum produced 40 tons per acre in additional feed.
“It makes good feed and has really good energy,” he says.
Rexing gets a second cutting from the forage sorghum. He’ll typically harvest the first cutting 65 to 70 days after planting and then spread lagoon water on the 7" of forage stubble that is left.
“Corn silage is still our base,” he adds. “But you’ve got to mold what you feed your cows from what you can grow the best. We’re dairymen first, and we’re crop farmers also.”
The forage sorghum acres have increased from 30 acres just a few years ago to 100 acres this year. With a new heifer-raising facility, the forage sorghum looks to make up an even larger part of the ration.
Rexing has been planting sorghum-sudangrass as a cover crop following corn silage harvest in August. It has yielded 4 tons to the acre at worst, with 8 tons being more common. The sorghum-sudangrass is left to grow until the first frost.
“My theory is you grow whatever you can grow. You don’t let land set idle when there is a growing opportunity,” he says.
The most recent addition to the operation is an old horse rescue facility that was formerly a turkey farm. It has been converted into the new heifer raising facility. During New Generation Dairy’s expansion phase and even in recent years, all heifers had been developed through a custom raiser starting at 4 months of age until 7 months pregnant.
In the new facility, calves will now be just three-fourths of mile from the dairy and have access to pasture through cell grazing. Wind breaks and open sheds will provide shelter during adverse weather.
Having the heifer facility nearby also helps remove the stress of transporting cattle three hours both ways—a benefit for the people as well as the cattle.
All of the workers are excited because they’ll see them grow from babies all the way through to cows. “That was pretty neat to hear that,” Rexing says.
Rexing didn’t go to college, but he says he gained his education dealing with the dairy crash in 2009. “We had to squeeze everything out that we could squeeze,” he says.
He now feels more prepared for that type of market situation and has bright hopes for what the future can bring to his operation.
Rexing and his wife, Ranell, have four children, ranging from ages 2 to 13. With the dairy and grain growing operation, Rexing foresees many ways the multiple siblings could come back to the family operation and still allow each child to focus on their own interest.
“I think someday down the road, there will be an opportunity for the next generation,” Rexing says.