Douglas & Ronnie Walker Honored as Jefferson County Agricultural Innovators
On Tuesday August 4, 2015, twelve Innovative Farmers and Ranchers were recognized by University of Florida IFAS Extension and Farm Credit of Northwest Florida at the Jefferson County Opera House, in Monticello. This is the fifth year these two organizations have teamed up to honor a selection of the most innovative farmers from the Florida Panhandle.
The purpose of the Agriculture Innovator Recognition Program is to annually recognize innovative farmers and ranchers from 16 Florida Panhandle counties, from Jefferson west to Escambia County. In 2015, County Agriculture Extension Agents selected 12 Agricultural Innovators to be recognized.
All of the county honorees have distinguished themselves as creative thinkers and leaders in the agricultural community. Douglas and Ronnie Walker, from Monticello, Florida were honored as Agricultural Innovators in Jefferson County by Jed Dillard, Jefferson County Extension Agent. Read their story in the paragraphs that follow.
Douglas & Ronnie Walker
Jefferson County Agricultural Innovators
When Walker and Sons Farms decided to get into the dairy business in 1987, Douglas Walker contacted the University of Florida Dairy Science Department. “I asked them to send me everything they had on running a dairy. They sent me a stack of information that took me six months to read, but I read it all and figured out what I needed to do to run a dairy.”
The combination of IFAS know how and Walker hard work has been a formidable collaboration. In just five years, while Douglas and Ronnie’s father Ulysses headed the company, the dairy received the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Service’s Honor Roll Award for medium sized dairies. Now the company operates two Jefferson County dairies with a combined milking herd of twenty-two hundred cows.
The Walkers had been in the stocker cattle business before starting that first dairy. “We knew how to grow a light-weight calf on grazing. We just did the same thing with Holsteins, “said Douglas. We grow out all our own heifers with grazing. Oats and clover followed by crabgrass.” For row crop farmers and home owners, “crab grass” is a dirty word. For these dairymen, “It comes in after the ryegrass goes out and carries the heifers until it’s time to plant again. Folks told us we wouldn’t be able to develop dairy heifers on grazing. We’ve done it. Our feed bills are lower, and now our nutritional consultant is recommending it to other folk.”
Like many dairies, the Walkers irrigate with lagoon effluent to grow silage, but they use a fifty percent rye grass fifty percent corn mixture, capitalizing on an early feed crop that thrives on water and nitrogen. Additionally, ryegrass provides erosion control between corn crops.
Much of the dairy industry depends on artificial insemination to breed cows and move genetics forward, but Walker and Sons has a little different take on that as well. “We find our climate is tough on extremely high producing cows. So we started using the bull mates from some heifers we were buying out of Tennessee. We decided we couldn’t afford the heifers, but we started using their brothers. They’re not the absolute elite sires in the country, but they are high quality sires and keep our production where it needs to be.”
Knowing production costs, especially feed cost, is almost an obsession for Ronnie and Douglas. “We weigh every ingredient when it’s loaded in the mixer, and the feed wagon has a computerized scale to know to the pound what we’re putting out.” Cows on “Walker # 1” (Fancy names are not characteristic of the Walkers.) have access to both grazing and a Total Mixed Ration fed in a barn of the Walkers’ design. “We figured out what we wanted and got an engineer to design it.” Cows are misted every five minutes in warm weather and a gravity fed tank periodically flushes the floor. “When grazing is good they don’t eat as much from the trough.”
The dairy utilizes USDA’s Milk Margin Protection program to insure against economic disaster as well. “Any serious swing in costs or prices has the potential to really hurt us. We don’t insure all our risk, but we buy enough to prevent total disaster. That’s one less thing to keep us awake at night.”
The dairies were recognized in 2011 as producers of the state’s top quality milk — for the third time. They are justifiably proud of their product. As Douglas says, “When you buy our milk by the gallon, an eight ounce glass costs only 23 cents. That’s the most important thing to me. We provide high quality, affordable nutrition for our consumers.”
Improving Agriculture through Extension Involvement
The Walkers give credit to UF/IFAS for the information that has enabled them to prosper. They are steadfast participants in Dairy Herd Improvement Association and the science of animal agriculture. They support youth events such as the recent State Land Judging Contest held in Jefferson County and are always willing to cooperate with Extension programming. The company also has beef cattle and actively supports the Jefferson County Cattlemen’s Association.
Impacting Agriculture in Northwest Florida
The Walker families are tireless advocates for the dairy industry as well as all agriculture. Ronnie is Jefferson County Farm Bureau director, and Douglas serves as a director for Farm Credit of Northwest Florida and Southeast Milk Incorporated (SMI). He chairs SMI’s supply committee and is a member of its trucking and audit committees. Douglas is also a member of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Commercial Feed Technical Council. As a dairy industry leader, Douglas helped the Department of Agriculture resolve complexities in the Cattle Identification Rule affecting cattlemen who moved cattle across state lines with no change in ownership, a large issue for Jefferson and the other thirteen counties bordering Georgia or Alabama.
Ronnie and Sheri and Douglas and Sonja are proud to share Agriculture’s story with consumers and provide an outstanding example to other North Florida farmers. They are true leaders in the county as well as in the state of Florida.
Jefferson County Extension is proud to recognize Walker and Sons Farms as Agricultural Innovators.
You might also be interested in the stories of the other 11 Agricultural Innovators highlighted in previous weeks: