Farming in the shadow of the Smokies: Eastern Tennessee family continues long tradition of dairy, beef and orange tractors

posted May 14, 2018 7:47 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Heidi Clausen, Editor |

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    The Yates family’s dairy herd is a rare sight in eastern Tennessee, which is predominantly beef country.
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    This year’s beef calf crop was sired by a Charolais bull. The Yateses have more than 100 crossbred beef cows.
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    Jim Yates checked the winter wheat crop shortly before it was harvested. The Yateses double-crop wheat and corn.
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    Some ear corn is harvested and stored in cribs, mainly for calves.
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    Some ear corn is harvested and stored in cribs, mainly for calves.
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    The Yateses milk 110 cows twice a day in this double-six herringbone parlor, which they expanded from a double-four.
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    Jim, Stanley, Richard and Jay Yates farm about 600 acres of owned and rented land in eastern Tennessee, where they also milk about 110 cows and raise beef cattle.

Editor’s note: The Country Today Editor Heidi Clausen visited the Yates farm this spring while on vacation in the area for the national Gathering of the Orange Allis-Chalmers show in Gray, Tenn.

RUTLEDGE, Tenn. — Tucked into a quiet valley along a narrow, winding road in the green, rolling hills of eastern Tennessee, not far from the Great Smoky Mountains, lies the Yates Dairy Farm. Their black-and-white Holsteins are something of a surprise in this land of grazing beef herds.

Brothers Stanley, Jim and Jay Yates are carrying on a beloved family tradition that started decades ago with their grandfather, Charles, and continued with their dad, Richard, and his brother. Stanley and Jim took over the farm in 1994, later bringing younger brother Jay into the partnership.

“His daddy was born in 1897 in that house,” Stanley said, with a nod toward his father, Richard, and pointing to a nearby old farmhouse. The Yateses have been dairying here as far back as they can remember, but it isn’t the same as it was even a few years ago.

“Really and truly, I don’t know if there’s a future in the long haul,” said Jim, whose son, Nate, an agribusiness major at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, is interested in the family farm but maybe not milking cows and probably more as a sideline to another career.

“I don’t know if there’s a future if he wanted to milk,” Jim said. “It’s really changing fast.”

While their cow/​calf herd fits right in with the state’s substantial beef industry — Tennessee is home to 910,000 beef cows, according to 2017 data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service — the Yateses’ Holsteins are a rarity here. Their dairy farm is the only one for miles around, and with the challenges in the dairy industry and the next generation uninterested in milking cows, the Yates herd — one of three left in Grainger County and the biggest, with 110 Holstein cows — faces some unknowns.

“This is considered a large (farm),” Jim said, adding that 400 to 500 cows is considered a very large dairy herd in Tennessee and thousand-cow-plus herds are unheard of.

There are 65,900 farm operations in Tennessee, and the state has about 40,000 dairy cows, according to NASS. Much of the milk produced in this part of Tennessee, Jim said, is destined for the Carolinas. The Yates family’s milk is picked up by Dairy Farmers of America.

The family milks cows twice a day in a double-six herringbone parlor that was converted from a flat parlor to pit in the 1970s. For a few months in 2016, they milked their cows at a neighbor’s farm after a late-night lightning strike sparked a fire, destroying their barn.

“We never missed a milking,” Jim said.

The herd is housed in a 70-cow free-stall barn, with regular access to pasture year-round. They rotate through paddocks consisting mainly of hybrid Bermudagrass. With high summertime humidity, they have had difficulty growing alfalfa successfully, Stanley said.

Milking, at 6:30 a.m. and 4 p.m., takes about 2½ hours each time. The herd averages about 6 years of age. They freshen about 40 heifers each year. Feed consists of a purchased protein pack and mineral mixed with their ground, farm-raised corn. Cows average about 55 pounds of milk per cow per day.

“If we get 60 pounds, we’re doing good,” Jim said.

Production can be compromised by the summer heat, which the Yateses battle with misters and shade cloth.  Artificial insemination is used, with a bull for cleanup. A Genex technician provides on-farm semen tank servicing but may not for much longer, according to the Yateses.

“We might just take our tank to Knoxville and fill it,” Jim said. “Everything’s going that way, getting so scattered out.”

Don’t put all your eggsin one basket 

Diversity has been key to the Yates farm’s longevity. When one enterprise is lagging, another picks up the slack. Their hilly acreage is perfectly suited for beef cattle, and the Yateses graze more than 100 crossbred beef cows, along with their calves. A Charolais bull sired this year’s calf crop. Most of the herd calves in February and March, with a few calves born in the fall.

Calves are fed to 800 to 850 pounds and pre-conditioned (weaned and vaccinated), then sold through a local stockyard via video auction; they’re pooled with cattle from several other farms to get a better price, Jim said. The Yateses typically sell 30 to 40 head each time. Their last batch was bound for a Nebraska feedlot.

The Yateses grow feed for their livestock on 600 acres, including 200 acres they own. Their red clay soils lock in moisture well, but “when it gets dry, it’s dry,” Stanley said. Wheat — relatively cheap to grow here, compared to corn — is chopped for forage in the spring and double-cropped with corn. Some cob corn is harvested for calves; picking generally takes two weeks. The rest is combined. They average about 130 bushels per acre, they said.

The growing season here stretches from about April 25 until the first frost, typically in October. “It’s still pretty hot in September here,” Stanley said. Jim said the rolling terrain can be a challenge: “You have to watch where you plow up.”

Because their country roads are so narrow, the Yateses must run an escort when moving equipment from field to field to avoid collisions with other vehicles. Fortunately, they usually don’t have to travel very far from home.

“There are lots of folks moving to these hills,” Jim said.

Until the early 2000s, the Yateses, like many others in the area, grew a patch of tobacco. More recently, farmers here have turned to fresh-market tomatoes, which they market in Nashville, Knoxville and across the border in Virginia. Tennessee growers raise about 3,800 acres of tomatoes, according to the latest NASS data.

Some larger growers have more than 20 hothouses. One of the Yateses’ neighbors who used to milk cows got out several years ago and now has more than a dozen tomato hothouses.

Because their farm is a long distance from any towns — fetching milking equipment parts can be an all-day excursion — they have learned to be self-sufficient.

They continue to farm almost exclusively with Allis-Chalmers tractors and equipment, just as the generations before did. The family’s first tractor was a WC they bought in 1946, and they now have at least 30 A-Cs, although they have never done an official count. Often, they leave balers and mowers hooked up to a tractor all summer long so it’s always ready to go.

“They’re sticking out of everywhere,” Stanley said of their beloved orange tractors. “It’s a game; whoever dies with the most wins.”

But parts to keep them running can be tough to track down and often must be ordered in by phone from AGCO dealers in Ohio or Alabama, and the brothers have become proficient at repairing their own equipment. They do have a Kubota dealer close by, they said.

Despite the challenges, the Yates brothers agree that there’s nothing they’d rather be doing than farming these Tennessee hills. There’s always time for fun, on the farm and off it, restoring A-C tractors, competing in tractor pulls, catching up with friends at the local cafe’ and, in the fall, making apple butter in a 30-gallon copper kettle.

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