CALHOUN COUNTY DAIRYMAN RISES TO THE TOP
A shiny, green sign in front of Wright's Dairy marks the police jurisdiction for the city of Anniston. It also is symbolic of the changing landscape of Calhoun County and how one family has created a thriving business by adapting to that change.
|David Wright and Robert Constanzo demonstrate how milk is bottled in the processing plant at Wrights Dairy.|
David Wright, a second generation dairy farmer, said his family had to rethink the way they operate the dairy when economic pressures to increase their herd size began to conflict with the physical limitations of the 200-acre farm.
"We tried to milk a little over 200 cows on this farm, but it wasn't ecologically friendly," Wright said. "We went to a grazing program, and we cut back the operation. It's still a commercial dairy; we just don't milk as many cows."
The grazing program, however, isn't all that's changed about the farm. Today, Wright's Dairy is known as the place "where the cream still rises to the top." That's because David and wife, Leianne, keep about one day's production of milk each week for their own non-homogenized milk, buttermilk and farm-fresh ice cream. The milk is pasteurized and bottled at the farm, and customers come from far and wide to shop at the farm store or to pick up fresh milk at the Wright's drive-up window.
Located just off Highway 431 in the Alexandria community, Wright's Dairy lies at the end of a gravel road that's separated from the farm's lush pastures by a picturesque white-board fence. The store and processing plant are housed in a red barn that's connected to a state-of-the-art, double-16 milking parlor. An abandoned white silo towers above the entire complex, providing visitors with a glimpse of how the farm looked when the Wrights used a traditional silage-based feeding program.
As for the milk, customers say there's nothing else quite like it. Children and senior citizens seem to especially love the pure flavors of the farm's creamy nectar, Wright said. Older folks are big fans of the farm's buttermilk because it's "just like grandmother used to make" while younger generations prefer the sweet taste of the non-homogenized whole milk, he added.
Regardless of their choice, Wright said his customers are getting more than just a drink that tastes good; it's also a product that's good for them.
"Because the cows are grass-fed, our customers get some extra bonuses in our milk like conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which is an anti-carcinogen," Wright said. "Our milk also contains more beta carotene, and the butterfat is higher--about 4 percent, compared to 3.25 percent in most milk you find in the grocery store."
But Leianne said the farm's transition from a traditional feeding operation to a rotational grazing system also made the farm a better place to raise a family.
"When we first got into it, we certainly didn't know about the ancillary benefits," Leianne said. "We had heard this was a better way of life, and we wanted to be able to spend more time with our two children, Henry (8) and Lydia (6). While David was investigating the technical aspects of grazing systems, I began going through the Bible. I learned a lot about the old ways of doing things, and we just decided it felt right. We felt led to do this. Since then, the farm has been more productive, and a lot of the problems we thought were intrinsic to dairy farms just disappeared."
Although the Wright's farm has been operated as a dairy for more than 40 years, David said its proximity to Anniston likely would have forced him to choose another line of work had he not made the transition to a grazing program and started bottling his own milk.
"Without the processing plant, we would have to milk 300 cows to be profitable, and that was virtually impossible this close to town," David said. "There would be too much mud and too many flies."
David solved the problem of flies and mud by reducing his herd size to 120-150 milk cows and by keeping the manure in the fields where the grass can use it as fertilizer.
"We divide the whole farm with poly-wire and put the cows on a new paddock every day," David said. "That gives the grass plenty of time to recover between grazings, and it's more efficient because the grass lasts longer."
During the winter, David said each ryegrass paddock is grazed about once every seven days. In the summer, he uses a 30-day rotation on paddocks that are planted with a mixture of brome, clover, chicory and alfalfa. Twice a day the cows are moved to the milking parlor where the double-16 design allows two employees to milk 100 cows in about an hour. As a result, the Wrights only have to deal with about 15 percent of the cows' total manure production. The rest is distributed on the pastures.
To make the job of building the paddocks easier, David invented and patented a device he calls a Polywinder. It's pulled behind a four-wheeler and resembles a large fishing reel mounted on a two-wheel trailer. Because the reel operates on inertia--like the flywheel on an engine--one man can easily roll or unroll the electric fencing with little or no cranking.
The small fence posts are stored in a special holder mounted on the trailer, and a combination post puller and driver also is included. In addition, the Polywinder reel is equipped with a handy break and drag mechanism so the farmer can control the speed at which the poly-wire is rolled or unrolled. These features mean that one farm employee can put up a mile of fence in an hour and take it down in even less time, David said. It also gives David the flexibility to fence around streams to ensure the farm remains "eco-friendly."
The Wrights' commitment to being good neighbors, however, doesn't end with their environmental stewardship. They also are providing educational opportunities for area children.
Prompted by numerous requests for tours, the Wrights opened their doors for three-days this spring to more than 300 students and preschoolers. For $5, the children get a hayride, a tour of the grazing area, a presentation on the history of milk processing, a milking demonstration, a chance to pet goats and chickens, an opportunity to bottle-feed a calf and a glass of ice-cold milk.
The tour begins with a hayride. Long-time Wrights' employee, Kenneth Payne, maneuvers the tractor around the fields as Leianne helps the children understand the importance of agriculture through the use of colorful illustrations. At the paddocks, she explains how each kind of grass provides different nutrients for the cows just like a dinner plate filled with meat, potatoes, bread and vegetables. The alfalfa, she explains, is like a Snickers® bar for a cow. She also tells how each cow drinks enough water in a day to fill a bathtub and how the Wrights place free-choice vitamins and minerals in areas where they need fertilizer so the cows' manure can help the grass grow.
"Healthier grass makes healthier cows, which makes healthier milk, which makes a healthier you," she explains.
Back at the store, David shows the children antique dairy equipment and conducts a milking demonstration featuring Wanda the Wonder Cow. Although Wanda only produces about five gallons of milk each day, David shows the wide-eyed youngsters how much his top producer makes by lining up 16 gallon jugs and one-half gallon jug across the straw-covered ground. Finally, the children visit the calf barn before washing their hands and enjoying a glass of milk. Needless to say, milk mustaches and smiles abound as the children depart sporting their "got milk" stickers.
To help the tours run smoothly, David and Leianne enlist the help of David's sisters, Judy Mayer and Susan Manning, and his father, Milton. Susan, who is retiring this year from her teaching position in the St. Clair County school system, is the tour coordinator. Next year, David hopes to offer seasonal tours in the fall and spring as well as several family days and special tours for seniors.
As for the future of the processing plant, David hopes to begin bottling skim, 2 percent and chocolate milk later this summer. The store will continue to offer an assortment of other farm-fresh products including Amish cheese, jellies and candies as well as soap manufactured from the Wrights' milk by David's former classmate, Jan Murray of Ragland.
Customers and tourists, however, aren't the only folks who drive from miles away to visit the Wrights' unique operation. David said other dairymen also frequent his farm to learn more about direct marketing and rotational grazing. He is careful, though, to balance his optimism with a word of caution. "Location is very important," he said. "You just have to evaluate what kind of farm you have."