Got Milk?

Posted: October 19, 2022

Sparkman Farms does

Ashley Sparkman pets her favorite cow.

Life on the Sparkman farm is different now than in 1954 when Johnny Sparkman’s grandmother first started milking cows.

“She started out milking 20 cows, and now we milk over 400,” says Johnny, the third generation to work the farm. Johnny’s grandmother, Pearl Sparkman, was 31 when her husband died. She had an opportunity to work for an uncle who later turned the farm over to her. Pearl’s son — Johnny’s father — took over operations, and Johnny worked on the farm when he was a kid.

Johnny graduated from the University of Tennessee with a degree in dairy science. He met his wife, Susan, who also had a dairy background, and the couple married and returned to the family farm.

He worked on the farm, and Susan taught school, and he eventually went to work for the dairy cooperative full time while continuing to work on the farm. The couple have five sons and a daughter. After about 10 years, they branched out from the original dairy farm Johnny’s father had and started their own operation. Johnny lost his wife to cancer about 2 1/2 years ago, and now, two of their sons, along with their wives, work on the farm.

Efficient Production

By the late 1990s, there were about 1,800 dairy farms in Tennessee. Now, there are just 145. But as dairy production decreased across the state, the demand for milk hasn’t slowed down. “To stay in business, we had to grow and add technology to become more efficient,” Johnny says. “We had to rethink how we’re doing things. We couldn’t continue to operate like we did years ago.”

When Johnny started his own operation in 1984, each cow typically produced 30 to 40 pounds of milk each day. Farmers measure milk in pounds, so the production from individual animals converted to 3 or 4 gallons.

“Now, it’s nothing for a cow to produce 10 to 12 gallons a day,” he says.

The milk production is based on the quality and health of the cow, and the Sparkmans work to improve genetics and produce a better quality feed — both factors in increased milk production. Sparkman Farms grows most of the feed for their cows, formulating it to have the most nutritional value.

The farm consists of 1,100 acres, with corn growing on 750 acres and forage for haylage — hay baled at a high moisture content for the nutritional value — on most of the rest.

“We’ve adapted to grow most of our feed for the cows,” Johnny says. “We focus on their nutrition to make sure they’re getting a balanced diet that will maximize the quality of the milk.”

The Sparkmans milk the cows three times a day compared to their twice-daily routine when overall production was less. Even with an extra milking, production is significantly higher because of the technological advancements that play a role in increased production.

Increasing production is more important than ever since it’s become more difficult to find additional land for expansion. “We’re feeling the urban pressure,” Johnny says. “We’re very limited on being able to buy more land, so we have to look for other things we can do to increase production.”

Each cow has an electronic meter that monitors temperature, detects when a cow is dry and unable to produce milk or is ready for breeding. It can easily detect when a cow is sick, which can impact production. The information is downloaded to a computer connected to Ben Lomand Connect’s fiber internet, and the farm’s software computes and tracks the data. Johnny employs 10 people full-time, including family. He oversees the milking process and has four workers in that division. His son, Nicholas, over- sees feeding the cows and heifers, and daughter-in-law, Ashley, works with the breeding and record keeping, which is quite involved.

Another of his sons, Tyler, oversees the calves, vaccinations and their overall health. His wife, Kristen, does the financial record-keeping for the farm.

It’s important to Johnny to make sure the farm continues to grow, even though land expansion isn’t an option.

“We want to make our farm viable for another generation and our grandchildren,” he says.

Importance of Promoting Dairy

Johnny worked for the local dairy cooperative for 20 years while continuing operations at the farm. He gained a lot of knowledge about dairy operations and the co-op model that many farmers are part of. “I’ve been a co-op person all my life,” he says.

The cooperative mindset plays a role in helping others succeed, he says. That’s why educating the public about the importance of dairy production and supporting other farmers is a priority for him.

He’s a founding board member of the Tennessee Dairy Producers Association, and he serves as the chairman of the Tennessee Dairy Promotion Committee.

“It’s important to have a voice for dairy producers,” Johnny says. ”By working together, we can make sure that Tennessee dairy farmers are doing all they can to help keep up with the demand.”

Content provided with permission from Ben Lomand Connect.