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Dairy farm continues to thrive after 103 years

A dairy farm is different from other types of farms. Though most farmers must wait to find out how their crops are doing seasonally, a dairy farmer knows how his production is every single day.

The Pratt family farm in Union Township near Symmes Creek has existed for more than 100 years this way, never getting too far ahead, always focusing on the day-to-day.

The seventh generation

Bill Pratt majored in dairy science at Ohio State before graduating in 1995. That same year, he began working at the family farm, and has been a farmer now for almost exactly 10 years.

Although Pratt has only been a farmer for a decade, he is by no means a stranger to the trade.

The Pratt farm was founded in 1903. Bill is the fourth generation of Pratts who have farmed the land and the seventh generation of his family to farm in Lawrence County.

It seemed a given that Pratt would be a farmer, but he did consider another path before entering school.

"For a time, I thought I might major in veterinary medicine at Ohio State, but when I got into the dairy science program and started taking tours of other farms, I kind of got the bug and it stuck with me I guess," Pratt said.

Day of the dairy farmer

The Pratts typical day starts at 4:30 a.m., as Bill prepares the milking machine, delivers feed for the cows and moves the cows to the milking area.

The three-hour milking process takes place in a 50-year-old stone room called the "milking parlor" where the cows are elevated a couple of feet above a center aisle.

It is the most comfortable building on the farm on a scorching hot June afternoon. The several sanitary products help to mask the smell of manure that is present everywhere else in varying degrees.

The cows have a little trouble with the machine when they first start, but they're soon comforted by the routine of daily milking.

"It's important to keep a tight schedule for cows, they like to be bored," Pratt said. "They're one of the few animals that love to be bored. They like to have the same routine - the same feed everyday. If that's interrupted it negatively affects their milk production."

The Pratts used to drink the milk made on the farm, but their milk before processing contains around 3.8 percent butterfat - whole milk tests at only 3.5. When Pratt's father discovered that he had high cholesterol, the Pratts switched to buying low-fat milk.

After the first milking, Pratt allows himself a breakfast break before beginning some of the actual farming, collecting and raking hay, and planting or harvesting corn. Then there's another milking to be done. All told, Pratt normally puts in about 75 hours a week.

Pratt then has to ship his milk off to Charleston to be processed by United Dairy. He's often considered opening his own processing outfit at his farm, but the capital just hasn't been there yet.

The milk from the Pratt farm is intermingled at United with that of large dairies, which could have as many as 1,500 cows as compared to Pratt's 150 mature cows.

Mega-farm

Surprisingly, Pratt isn't scared of mega-farms; in fact, he believes they help improve farming conditions in the area. For example, a mega-farm might mean that Pratt would only have to take his milk a few miles rather than to Charleston.

"In a way, I think it helps build the infrastructure back that we may have been losing, a lot of people are concerned that it's going to affect our milk market," Pratt said. "I don't think that's necessarily true, because it brings back services we've been losing because farms are going out of business."

Raising awareness

The real danger to agriculture in the area, according to Pratt, is a decrease in awareness. As each generation moves further away from agriculture, they become less aware of his business.

"Today, a lot of the questions we get might be 'Do you still milk cows by hand?'" Pratt said. "They don't understand about how far the technology has come. The next generation may not even know that there's more than one breed of cow or that a cow has four teats."

When these youth don't know about agriculture, Pratt said, it makes them less tolerant of the way he does his business. As the awareness drops people become more irritated when stuck behind a tractor or by the ever-present smell of manure near the farm.

Some do appreciate the simpler life, but Pratt said those who relocate to the country also make business a bit more difficult.

"A lot of people like the idea of being in the country, but the more people that reach out into the county, the more congested things get and the harder it is for us to operate without having complaints or just a lot of traffic," Pratt said.

Though he worries about the encroachment of civilization on his farm, and the dwindling awareness of his trade, Pratt isn't one to complain since 2004 was the best year in a long time, after a few dismal years.

Day by day

Pratt isn't focusing on 2006 yet or even 2005. All he knows right now is that the heat is hard on his milk production and his cows, which gather near the fans he has installed, are eating about 6 pounds less per day.

As they have done for over 100 years of dairy farming, the Pratts are living and working as all dairy farmers must: Day by day.