The Farmer: A harvest thanksgiving at the Unity Farm



Monday morning in a light snow, Ralph Frye, who operates one of the state's smallest dairy farms, parked his tractor in the shed -- the last of his corn had just been hauled to storage for the winter.

Thanksgiving this year is right in line with the end of the harvest for Mr. Frye. The end of the growing season in a "pretty good year" in Mr. Frye's understated estimation.

Far better than 2012 when the hot, dry weather affected his corn crop. The grain was too dry to ferment well in the silage, which stressed Mr. Frye's herd since it depends on the corn for feed.

At any time, Mr. Frye, 63, has between 39 and 46 cows producing milk. As of this week, there were 82 cows in the herd, with 39 cows milking, 18 heifers too young to milk or in their first pregnancy, and 11 calves.

Usually, he cannot give such an exact count. Calves are born regularly, the males are sold, and older cows are sent to the slaughterhouse. But this week he was moving his stock around and he paid attention to their numbers.

Everything is set for winter at the Unity farm.

That does not mean there is nothing left to do but milk cows.

When this week's snow melts, Mr. Frye will be back in his fields to chop the corn stalks left from the combine. He uses a no-till method of planting, and chopped stalks decompose more easily. Throughout the winter he will work on his equipment, making sure everything is in running order when it is time to plant again.

On Monday, Mr. Frye and his farm hand, Ryan Long, were out in 20-degree weather moving the wagons that held the last of the corn harvest. One by one, five wagons and a dump truck were emptied of their loads of kernels. The grain slowly poured into a grain auger that lifted the corn into a long trailer. A truck would later drive the load for storage at a grain elevator in Ohio.

The herd has already started to eat the corn silage that Mr. Frye and Mr. Long chopped and bagged this fall year. And that more nutritious feed is producing more milk per cow.

In March, on last year's corn, the cows each produced an average of 59.6 pounds of milk a day. In July, they were producing 60.5 pounds a day. But in November, when they were fully on the fresh corn silage in their feed, their average milk volume has been 67 pounds a day.

Still, it could have been a better year, Mr. Frye said.

He replanted the fields in which damage from a late frost to his soybean crop was the worst. In hindsight, he said, he should have replanted his other fields as well. He uses the soybeans to help feed his herd.

His final yield of about 40 bushes an acre was not only below the average projected for the nation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for this year, but also below last year's average when there was a drought. Nationally, farmers were projected to have an average yield of soybeans of 43 bushels an acre. Last year the average yield was 41.9 bushels.

Mr. Frye hasn't gotten the final tally of how much corn he sent to storage at the grain elevator. He expected his yield to be about 160 bushels an acre, which is about in line with the national average.

Last year, corn prices were around $7 a bushel, with the average yield for farms falling to 123.4 bushels an acre because of the drought that hit the Midwest. This year's corn prices, according to the USDA, could fall to as low as $4.10 a bushel.

For Mr. Frye, corn prices are a bit like money in the game of Monopoly. He grows the corn he needs to feed his herd. So when the prices are up, he is happy that he doesn't have to buy corn, and when they are way down, he is glad he doesn't depend on selling it.

Milk prices are another story. Selling milk is how Mr. Frye makes his money.

The uniform price per hundred pounds of milk was $19.77 in October. That price, which varies depending on different incentives such as the health of the cows, is set by USDA in the milk marketing area including the Pittsburgh. In October 2012, the uniform price was $19.67.

Milk prices are also caught up in federal political gridlock. An impasse on the farm bill that is being debated by Congress could cause milk to be priced based on a 1940s-era formula that could trigger drastic increases in milk prices for consumers.

Mr. Frye and his wife are also feeding off this year's harvest.

Ann Frye said her freezer is full of frozen sweet corn that her husband planted on an acre along the driveway and green beans from the vegetable garden. Mrs. Frye said she alternates cooking the corn and beans, but maybe next year more variety would be nice.

She also froze some peaches and berries, and put up jars of tomatoes for sauce and pickles after a good cucumber crop.

This Thanksgiving morning at the farm will start like any other. Mr. Frye will be in the shed before 6 a.m. to bring his milkers into the barn. Then he will work his way through the stalls, milking the cows, four at a time. The steel pipe running through the barn that starts out so cold to the touch will warm as the fresh milk flows through to the holding tank.

When he is done, the cows will rest as he cleans the milking apparatus and readies breakfast for the herd, a mix of the fermented corn silage, cracked corn, soybeans and haylage, which is hay that has been stored in a silo and allowed to ferment.

When they are done eating, they will be led out to the field for the day.

Mr. and Mrs. Frye will sit down for dinner at the home of their son, Todd, and his wife, Carolyn, less than a mile away.

"He has a bigger kitchen," Ralph Frye said. Carolyn Frye will cook the turkey, the pasta and the ham.

Ann Frye will bake the pies.

After dinner, Ralph Frye will head back to the barn and milk the cows again. Being thankful doesn't mean a day off from farming.

Ann Belser: abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699.


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