When Gary Conner began operating his Stuarts Draft dairy farm - MainStreet Farmstead, in the late 1970s, the family farm was as much an integral part of the Augusta County community as it ever was.

For generations, agriculture has been the lifeblood of the central Valley. In many ways, small farms — from beef and dairy, to corn and turkey — were the backbone of the region since Europeans first trekked over the Blue Ridge and spotted the lush, green Valley. It’s a story that was repeated throughout Virginia, and much of the nation, from the earliest settlements.

Today, milk remains one of the top agricultural products in Virginia, ranking third in 2014 with $478 million in cash receipts compared to $714 million for beef cattle. Virginia’s dairy sector ranked 24th among U.S. states in terms of total milk production. Dairy farming operations can be found throughout the commonwealth, but tend to be concentrated in the Shenandoah Valley with Rockingham County leading production at 543.2 million pounds. Augusta County is ranked fourth behind Franklin and Pittsylvania Counties, producing 144.1 million pounds.

But Conner has seen tremendous change in his nearly 50 years as a farmer. Like elsewhere in the United States, Virginia’s dairy farm sector has undergone profound change and restructuring in recent decades. “In the late 1970s, there were something like 40 dairy farms just in this area,” Conner said. “Now there are four.” The number of farms raising dairy cattle has dwindled while average cowherds on the remaining farms have more than doubled in size over the last thirty years. Milk cow inventories are now roughly half of what they were in 1970, but increased farm economies of scale, improved cattle breeding, health and nutrition, and increased utilization of capital and advanced technology have doubled milk productivity per cow. As a result, there has been little overall change in Virginia milk production levels. And price fluctuations — not to mention an overall drop in milk prices — have become more severe and less predictable over the years, particularly for dairy farmers. Even with the support of the tight-knit farming community — friends, fellow farmers, Augusta Cooperative Farm Bureau, where he’s been a feed customer every year since 1970 — it was getting tougher to make ends meet.

A few years ago, Conner realized he had to do something if he was to keep his dairy operation viable. Selling the farm was not an option he wanted to envision. He and his family — he has nine children, two sons and seven daughters — had worked the land for decades. One of his sons, Gary Jr., works full-time with him on the farm and his other kids still help out when needed. The family takes pride in not  only the business, but the responsible way in which they’ve run it. Their Holsteins, which are milked twice a day, are all home raised. The animal’s nutrition, along with air and water quality are key to the dairy, and in many ways are what sets them apart.

But with the market forces putting more pressure on him every year, Conner knew he had to do something to keep the farm going. The answer? Cheese. He started building the farm’s cheese operation in 2012 and received a production license the following year. And in the four years since, the cheese side of the business has continued to grow, giving Conner and his family another source of income with a more diverse product line. Diversification among dairy farms, with the inclusion of cheese making, is a growing niche throughout Virginia. “These value-added products — cheese and also drinkable yogurt — are really the keys for us,” Conner said. All of the farm’s cheese is made on site, with the same love and care the family has put into its Grade A milk the last 40 years. The secret, Conner said, is not only a finely tuned operation where hygiene, cow health and quality are the top priorities, but also a little thing called time. Aging the cheese takes patience — but its worth it in the end. Conner likes to say he lets the cheese tell him when it’s done — not the other way around.

That dedication has paid off. Conner’s cheese, which includes various styles of cheddar — from Shenandoah peaks and jalapeno cheddar block cheese, to chipotle and garlic and chives “cheese clouds” — is sold at a growing number of central Valley locales, more than 100 in all. The Cheese Shop, Mt Crawford Creamery, and local vineyards and breweries are just a few of the places the family’s cheese, as well as their drinkable yogurt, is available. Families are also welcome to stop by the MainStreet Farmstead just outside of Stuarts Draft (548  Draft Ave) and purchase their cheese and milk products. But you won’t find Gary behind the cash register, he is busy making cheese behind the glass, watching his customers pay for their goods on the “honor system”. While Conner says his “joints ache a little bit” more than they used to, he wouldn’t give up being a farmer for anything. “I love being out in the open — whether it’s in the sun or the snow or rain or cold — just being out there and working, that’s what it’s about for me,” he says. Next to his family, he says, his animals are his number one priority. “Every animal that’s on the farm, I’ve been there when they were born, or was there within an hour,” he said. “All the farmers I know, their animals are number one.” Conner wishes more young people had the opportunity to get into farming. Increasingly today, fewer kids actually know where their food comes from. “It’s so hard for kids to just go and visit a farm nowadays with all the regulations and rules farms have to follow,” he said. “And there are so few family farms left that will do that.”

Conner believes most folks in the central Valley and elsewhere want to help their local farmers by buying local produce, dairy and meats. As proud as he is of being a farmer and working the land, one thing above all else fills him with pride and reminds him of the importance of what he does. “When someone thanks me for being a farmer,” he says. “That means everything.”

Augusta Cooperative is proud to service MainStreet Farmstead for over 47 years. On behalf of Augusta Cooperative, in celebration of June Dairy Month, we want to extend a special thank you to the Conner family for their dedication to the dairy industry.


Why, you ask, would you bother with cooling the dry cows in a dairy herd?  They are not producing milk; therefore, you don't have to worry about the additional body heat generated in conjunction with milk production.  A series of research studies over five consecutive summers conducted at the University of Florida - Gainesville, gives you 10 good reasons.  That is an additional 10 lbs of milk produced per head per day in cows cooled during the entire dry period compared to those that were not cooled.

One of those studies shows a difference (lb/day) in milk production of 11 lbs/day through 40 weeks of the subsequent lactation for cows cooled during the dry period vs those not cooled.  Cows in each study were dried off an expected 46 days prior to calving and housed in a free stall facility.  Cooling was provided by shade, feed lane soakers, and fans for the cooled cow group while non-cooled cows only had shade.  After calving, cows from both groups were moved to a lactating cow free stall barn where all were cooled.

Some of the studies also examined calf performance.  Results showed calves born to cooled cows have heavier birth weight (+13 lb), weaning weight (+27 lb) and improved immune function compared to those born to heat stressed, non-cooled cows.

The real surprise came when calves from this series of studies matured, calved and entered lactation as heifers.  Heifers that were born to cows that were cooled during the dry period produced, on average, 11 lbs/day more milk than those born to dams that were not cooled during their dry period.  The message here is that cooling of dry cows not only impacts those cows in their next lactation but also ultimately affects how the offspring perform as they grow, mature and enter lactation.  To be most effective, cows must be cooled during the entire dry period.  Cooling for only a portion of the dry period, such as the close-up period, showed little response.

But, you say that was Florida - It does not get that hot in Virginia.  Results from a recent study monitoring weather patterns throughout the U.S. showed Florida having the most heat stress days (days when temperature-humidity index THI ≥68) at 257 days with Virginia coming in fourth of the top 25 major dairy producing states with 140 days of heat stress days.  That equates to approximately 1500 lb per cow loss in milk production in the next lactation for cows experiencing heat stress during their dry period.  The study further looked at cost scenarios with several variations in milk price, production response, and facilities investments.  That analysis showed investments in soakers and fans or even construction of a new dry cow free stall facility with cow cooling had a very rapid pay off period under most scenarios.  If you are looking to continue in the dairy business and make capital improvements in your dairy operation a dry cow facility that provides cow comfort and adequate cooling should be high on your priority list.



Flies can serve as a vector to spread the Moraxella bovis organism associated with pinkeye in the herd.  Implementing house, face and stable fly control can help to reduce the incidence of pinkeye.  With the loss of CTC in minerals (unless a valid VFD is written), producers have one less tool to fight pinkeye.  Therefore, one may need to consider more fly control strategies as an aid to prevent pinkeye.

Augusta Co-op is still offering minerals that many customers have used in the past that contain an Insect Growth Regulator (IGR) in them.  While IGR is still an excellent tool for horn fly control, it is not labeled for control of face, house or stable flies.  Face flies in particular are considered to be vectors for pinkeye transmission among cattle; however, house and stable flies can contribute to pinkeye transmission as well.

Fly control methods include the following product categories:

Emulsifiable Concentrates - liquid insecticide concentrates that are designed to be mixed with either water or oil-based carriers and applied through backrubbers and mops

Dusts - granular powders that are designed to be applied through a dust bag that cattle pass under

Water-Based Sprays - concentrates that can be mixed with water and sprayed directly on the animal or sprayed on barns and buildings where animals congregate

Fly Baits - ideal for premise and barn areas and feature relatively easy application

Traps and Sticky Reels - a form of non-chemical control where a sticky substrate will trap flies

Clarifly or Altosid IGR - a feed-thru larvicide that is ideal for situations where cattle are consuming feed, mineral or tubs

Insecticide Ear Tags - provide control for up to 5 months and are applied to the ear(s) of the animal

Pregnancy Checking Your Cows and First Calf Heifers

We have discussed four key cornerstones to successful beef production.  In this post, we will examine the second cornerstone listed which is pregnancy checking your cow herd.

Why preg check your cows?  It's simple - pregnancy checking gives you the best road map of where your herd is headed and how things are going for a minimal investment.  It is the best economic snapshot of your herd's performance.

The single biggest contributor to economic success in a beef cow herd is reproductive rates and live births.  A 1% increase in reproductive performance generates a threefold greater return on investment than a 1% improvement in product or growth factors.  Cull cows, or cows marketed off the farm, generate up to 20% of the annual income of a beef cow operation.

An additional benefit of pregnancy checking is that it allocates time for breeding season management.  Many producers in Virginia struggle with being able to pull their bulls out of the herd after a 60-75 day breeding season.  By identifying cows that are late breeders at pregnancy check, we can cull them from the herd or move them to another management group to manage breeding season length.  These cows can also be marketed separately from open cows for extra value.

While at the chute, take advantage of the time to provide any herd vaccinations and other health checks that are needed.  By giving annual boosters of all vaccines including 7 way blackleg, the health program remains strong and conception rates cans stay at more profitable levels.  With today's markets, you simply can't afford to feed open cows.

The Freed family has called Rockfish Farms their home for four generations. The commercial cow-calf operation, located on Rockfish Road just outside of Waynesboro, VA, is one of the few remaining original homesteads, a fact that instills pride in Buck and Margaret Freed, the third generation to operate the farm.

The Freed family's history in the Shenandoah Valley dates well past 1903, but for Buck, farming became one of his primary occupations in 1961 after an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army; the other, a full time staff member at DuPont for several years, until farming became his sole focus.  Margaret played a critical role as the farm business manager while raising their three children.

Currently, in partnership with Buck and Margaret, Kevin, their son, and his wife Lora, farm full-time on the family operation.  Kevin returned home to farm after attending Ferrum College.  His knowledge of nutrition, genetics, and row-crop production assists in building their existing operation.

The Freed family is a strong advocate for land conservation and water protection.  In 2016, Rockfish Farms partnered with the Valley Conservation Council and set aside a portion of their existing property which would both limit development and ensure that the river water quality is protected by a forested buffer and exclusion of livestock.  One of Virginia's premier land trusts, the Valley Conservation Council, is a member-supported nonprofit that protects the natural resources, cultural heritage, and agricultural vitality of the greater Shenandoah Valley region.  Buck and Margaret want their children and grandchildren "to be able to see the farm used in the future as it has been for the past 100 years."

As for the 5th generation of Rockfish Farms, it is a bright one.  Kevin's daughter, Kendall, is currently studying Ag Business and Crop & Soil Sciences at Virginia Tech University.  After graduation this coming December, she hopes to return to the Shenandoah Valley and pursue a career in the Ag field and to assist on her family's operation.

Augusta Cooperative is proud to service Rockfish Farms.  On behalf of Augusta Cooperative, in celebration of May is Beef Month, we want to extend a special thank you to the Freed family for their dedication to the beef industry.