When Bill McGee retired in 1991 as professor of dairy science at Mississippi State University, he kept right on doing what he’d done all his life — working with dairy animals.
“My hobby has always been work,” he says. “I still love getting up every day and looking after the calves and cows.”
On his scenic Mactoc Farm in the rolling hills of the Oktoc community near Starkville, Miss., not that far from his alma mater, an average 400 Holstein dairy animals are in a continuous management rotation from calfhood to two years.
Until a few years ago, Bill and his eldest son, David, who earned a dairy science degree at Mississippi State University, operated a dairy on the farm here. Their top quality registered Holstein herd consistently led the state in annual average milk production per cow (rolling herd average). They were able to increase production by more than 10,000 pounds of milk per cow, to 28,000 pounds rolling herd average.
“An emphasis on good genetics, herd health/nutrition, and doing everything possible to keep cows in tip-top condition really paid off for us,” Bill says.
His other son, Darren, who had earned dairy science and Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degrees at MSU, did the veterinary work for the herd, and contributed heavily to its financial management and development of feeding programs.
In 2005, the remnants of Hurricane Katrina took down about a third of the shade cloth over a 200-cow lockup barn. That was replaced with a permanent roof, and shortly afterward, a straight-line windstorm collapsed the roof.
“We were facing a $100,000 expenditure to make repairs,” Bill says. “In addition to that, an large upscale housing development had gone in nearby, and there had already been a lot of opposition by local citizens to a hog farm in the area.
“Rather than face complaints by neighbors and potential environmental battles over our operation, and make the costly building repairs that would be required, we decided to get out of the dairy business. We sold our herd and milking equipment, and the proceeds from that allowed us to wipe out our debt.
“Several years earlier, Darren, who had a veterinary practice here and had been doing large herd consulting work all over Mississippi, formed a partnership with Grandy Ladner in Heritage Dairy at Wyatte, Miss., not far from Memphis, milking about 500 cows, all Holsteins.”
Darren later took a position with a Monsanto division that was spun off to Eli Lilly Co., and moved to Indianapolis, where he now coordinates dairy research programs nationwide.
Raises cows for dairy partnership
“The acreage at Heritage Dairy wasn’t really large enough to support a herd that size,” Bill says, “and Darren was now limited in the time he could devote to the dairy. So, after David and I sold our dairy operation, we divided the 700 acres of land here and later worked out an agreement to raise dairy animals for the partnership dairy.
“When baby calves are born at Heritage Dairy, they are brought to our farm and put in individual pens. David and his daughter, Kelli, who are now both enrolled in nursing school, care for the penned calves until they’re approximately three months old, after which they go on ryegrass pasture, with some supplemental grain.”
At about 15 months of age, they are bred via artificial insemination, and when they’re two years old, just prior to calving, they’re moved back to Heritage Dairy. When their calves are born, they’re returned to the McGee farm to continue the cycle.
The system results in a constant turnover, Bill says, and there will be about 400 animals on Mactoc Farm at any given time.
“The heavy calving season starts in September, and we usually have ryegrass available when the calves are taken out of their pens, but because of the unusually dry fall we’ve had this year, the grass still wasn’t up to a stand at mid-October.”
He plants Marshall ryegrass, which he says is an excellent forage producer, with a longer season than Gulf ryegrass.
When heifers are old enough to breed, they are segregated out and put on hay and supplemental feed until they’re pregnant, after which they’re turned onto ryegrass.
Most of their hay is grown on the farm, and Bill says they will put up about 1,000 bales in a season. “We use a Claas round baler, which has an attachment that covers bales in plastic wrap. This prevents weather deterioration and helps preserve the quality and nutritional value of the hay.”
“Heritage Dairy does a certain amount of culling to improve herd genetics,” Bill says. “Surplus animals are sold to other dairies for production purposes — hopefully, that can occur when when prices are good.”
With sexed semen now available, he notes, it’s possible to breed for better than 90 percent females.
“In the past, bulls were selected for their pedigree, but that didn’t necessarily mean their daughters would be good milk producers. Of every 20 bulls sampled, only about one was adequate for AI service.
Genetic markers help select top milk producers
“Now, bulls can be tested in the lab to determine if their genetic profile contains markers for producing daughters that will have high milk production. With these genetic marker profiles, bulls can be more accurately selected, reducing the number of bulls that need to be sampled.”
During his decades in the dairy sector, Bill has seen what was once a thriving industry continually decline.
“When I came to Mississippi State University in 1954, this county had over 100 Grade A dairies and was known as the ‘Dairy Center of the South.’ The university had a dairy herd and operated an extensive dairy breeding and research program. They also had a processing plant where they made all kinds of products, including cheese and ice cream.
“There was a huge Borden plant not far from the campus that bought Grade C milk — all the sweetened condensed milk for the South was processed there.
“Almost every farm in this area had a dairy and there were hundreds of them around the state. Today, there’s only one commercial dairy left in this county, plus the university’s dairy herd and processing plant, and statewide there are now probably well under 200 dairies. As was the case with us, quite a few operations didn’t start back up after Hurricane Katrina.
“A few of the dairies here converted to beef cattle, but in this area now, it’s mostly subdivisions or other residential land.”
Like most other facets of agriculture over the years, Bill says, dairy farmers had to get bigger in order to spread costs and stay profitable.
“Over time, a lot of them just got out. The entire Southeast is now a milk-deficit area; the really large production is in California, Wisconsin, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas.”
In 2009, Mississippi ranked 40th in the U.S. in milk production, 37th in the number of milk cows, 47th in milk output per cow, and 36th in the number of licensed dairy operations. There were only two operating milk processing plants in the state, at Kosciusko and Hattiesburg.
Another factor contributing to the decline of dairying in the South, Bill says, “is our brutal summers — the heat and humidity are really tough on dairy cows.”
Boyhood love of dairying turned into career
Bill’s love of dairying and dairy cows traces back to his growing-up days in Newton County, Miss.
“My father farmed a little bit of everything — cotton, corn, sweet potatoes, chickens, beef cows, hogs, you name it — and we had about 20 cows that we milked by hand.
“I just liked working with cows, so it seemed natural that I’d pursue a dairy science degree. After I finished at MSU,
I worked a while for dairy farmer in the Starkville area, then took a position at the Black Belt Experiment Station at Brooksville, Miss., where they had a small dairy, Angus cattle, sheep, and cotton, corn, soybean, and fertility trials.
“While I was there, Dr. Joe Bearden, who was head of the dairy program at MSU, asked me to come back to the university and be their herdsman, which would also allow me to go to graduate school.”
He earned his master’s degree and for about 10 years taught dairy herd management and dairy judging and coordinated management of herds at experiment stations around the state, then was made a full professor.
During that period, he learned about a dairyman at Starkville who wanted to sell his Guernsey herd.
“I wanted to buy the herd,” Bill says, “but I needed a partner. A friend, Ed Custer, agreed to go in with me, and we managed to get a loan, bought the herd, and rented 400-plus acres on what was then the outskirts of Starkville.
“We sold ‘Golden Guernsey Milk’ to Walker Farms in the Delta and paid off our loan in four years. In 1974, Ed wanted to retire, so I bought him out and continued at that location until 1979.
“I had built up some equity in cows and equipment, and when a 392-acre property here in the Oktoc community became available, I managed to borrow enough to buy it. It was pretty run down, and I built barns and began getting things into shape. We built a house here on the farm and moved in 1979.”
During that period, Jimmy Webb, a MSU graduate who played pro football for the San Francisco 49ers, took an intense interest in the effort that was under way to obtain legislative approval to establish a veterinary school at the university.
“Jimmy agreed to promote the measure and was very effective in working with the governor and legislators,” Bill recalls. “When the veterinary school was launched, he enrolled and attended classes during his team’s off seasons, with the idea of coming back here as a veterinarian after his football career ended.
“He bought 310 acres adjacent to my property. But, even though he succeeded in earning his veterinary degree at MSU, he stayed on in California and established a very successful business doing embryo transplants. I bought his land, which gave me roughly 700 acres.”
Despite encroaching residential development in recent years, Bill says he plans to continue working with dairy animals.
“It’s something I enjoy, it keeps me busy, and I have the pleasure of working with family members. I couldn’t ask for a better arrangement.”
Dog attacks kill, mangle calves
It was 3 a.m. on a Sunday in July and Bill McGee was awakened by “panicked bawling”of calves in the pasture near his house.
“I told my wife, Patsy, who’d been awakened too, that something must be spooking the calves. I figured it was coyotes; we hear them at night from time to time, but they’ve never bothered any of the cows.
“I grabbed my .20-gauge shotgun loaded with bird shot and went outside to see what was the matter.”
The scene that greeted him was like something from a horror movie.
A tan pit bull was clamped down on the head of one of the three-month-old calves, and another pit bull was nearby.
“I fired my shotgun at the dog and it ran away,” Bill says.
Surveying the damage in the immediate area, he found one heifer dead, one missing an ear, and others with chunks bitten out of their legs or rumps.”
As bad as that was, McGee was to discover when daylight came that in another pasture three more heifers were dead and a half-dozen others were missing ears and tails, or had gaping wounds where the dogs had slashed them.
“It was just pitiful — blood everywhere, like a war zone,” he says. “It was one of the most sickening sights I’ve seen in all my years in this business.”
The following night, a family friend, Mark Murphy, patrolled the herd in case the dogs returned. About 10 p.m., four dogs came back and launched another attack. Murphy managed to shoot one, but the others ran away. And another heifer was dead.
“We lost six calves, weighing 200 lbs. to 400 lbs.,” McGee says. “Those that were mangled have survived, but their usefulness may be limited.”
While the nearby city of Starkville has a leash ordinance that is strictly enforced, there are no regulations governing stray dogs in the county.
The sheriff’s department investigated the incidents, McGee says, “but of course no one would admit to ownership of the dogs.”
Nationwide each year, thousands of cows, calves, and sheep are killed by roving dogs, farm organizations report.