Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

Farmer turns dairyman to diversify family operation

PD Editor Walt Cooley Published on 31 December 2013
The Pirtle family has been farming in Roswell for over four generations.

Jack Pirtle’s farming family didn’t own a single dairy cow until he was 25. Then one day, they bought 600 of them.

Now the 32-year-old, farmer-turned-dairyman operates a 3,000-cow dairy and raises 2,800 replacement heifers in Roswell, New Mexico.



“We were doing custom harvesting and selling our corn silage and barley silage to the dairies that moved in here in the late 1990s and early 2000s,” Pirtle says.

“We had four or five dairies that we were delivering feed to. One of them decided to back out of a pretty big contract. We decided that when we had the chance, we needed to get into the dairy business.”

The family wanted more control over the price and payment they received for their custom crops. In 2006, they foreclosed on a troubled dairy and inherited a genetically deficient herd of low-end milk cows and Jersey-crossbreds milking just 50 pounds per day.

“I didn’t do everything that everyone said I should try to do,” Pirtle says. “I didn’t know that I was thinking different or that I would solve things differently, but when I saw a problem, I tried to solve it.”

Step 1: Improve nutrition
The first day on the job, Pirtle went to the dairy and watched an employee mix a batch of feed with the “worn-out, harsh-looking” mixer he had just inherited with the purchase of the dairy. He wasn’t impressed with early results.


“I watched the guy put the mineral mix in it, and it didn’t go anywhere,” Pirtle says. “It just sat there on the top.”

He realized he needed a newer truck and accurate feed-tracking software to deliver proper nutrition. But from early on, Pirtle has also been focused on delivering adequate mineral nutrition.

“If those nutrients are that important and that expensive, then we need to find a better way to get them to the cows,” Pirtle thought at that time.

After trying an in-line waterline mineral delivery system that failed to work and drove off his first nutritionist, Pirtle agreed to become one of Animal Health International’s first dairy users for a system to precision batch process, weigh and deliver micronutrients.

“Now I can customize my vitamin pack down to each individual load, if I want,” Pirtle says. “It’s all computer-programmed and weighed automatically. Eliminating human error on a part of the dairy that was that important was something that I saw we needed to do.”

Pirtle’s ration today contains nearly 50 percent forage content, a very Midwestern-looking ration fed in a Western state with typically concentrate-dense diets. His family’s farming operation grows 45 percent of the total mixed ration for the dairy’s cows.


In a typical year, the family will raise 60,000 to 70,000 tons of corn silage. Pirtle is very complimentary of the family’s current nutritionist, Mark Castleberry of Castlerock Nutrition.

Backhoe working in custom crops

“We’ve had several farmers ask us: ‘Why would you get in the dairy business? Why don’t you just sell the feed?’” Pirtle explains. “But we can remember times when farming wasn’t the best. And we wanted to be more integrated.”

Pirtle notes that even though the farm is holding the dairy up right now, he doesn’t think it’s going to be like that forever.

“We didn’t buy a dairy to dairy for two or three years,” Pirtle says. “I had a guy tell me, ‘You may not hit any home runs owning both the dairy and the farm, but you’ll always be on base.’ It’s a better, safer strategy for our family. We need to be preparing for even my son’s generation of the business.”

Pirtle, his wife, Lindsey, and their two kids, Travis and Avery, are four of an extended family of more than 15 that together the dairy and farm must support. This past year, the Pirtles have been selling the unfed portion of their corn silage for $68 a ton at 72 percent moisture for delivery to local dairies.

“We now have 2,500 acres of farmland, and it takes that much to produce the feed that I’m selling,” Pirtle says. “But perhaps in good dairy times, the 300 acres that the dairy sits on may outproduce the 2,500 acres.”

Step 2: Improve milk quality
After a year and a few facility upgrades, milk production was up to 72 pounds per cow per day on the dairy. Pirtle recalls telling his herdsman they would have a party if the dairy hit 80 pounds of milk per cow.

“We not only hit 80 pounds, but we passed it so quickly that it became a standard,” Pirtle says.

Improving and then maintaining milk quality was the dairy’s next goal. Pirtle ran into New Mexico scientist and entrepreneur Dana Heacox, who pitched him the idea of using ozone gas injected in water for disinfecting drop hoses, floors and other parlor surfaces.

“I told him, ‘No, that’s a horrible idea,’” Pirtle recalls of his skepticism.

Heacox eventually convinced Pirtle to try his invention. His most convincing argument was its effectiveness against pathogens.

“Ozone is a very old technology,” Heacox says. “It’s usually created by lightning, but it’s been harnessed and used in Europe since the early 1900s. Ozone kills bacteria far better than chlorine, peroxide and iodine. It’s a more efficient biocide.”

Within a month of ozone use on the dairy, the dairy’s SCC had fallen 40,000 cells per mL.

“I put the machine on the place, and it’s been there ever since,” Pirtle says.

For the past two years, Pirtle and Heacox have been testing additional ways to use ozone gas to disinfect the milking environment and even the cow herself. Pirtle is now a partner in Heacox’s technology, known as Next Generation Ozone or NGO.

“We’re now using ozone gas in the water in our deck wash and wash pens,” Pirtle says. “We’ve eliminated the use of pre-spray by doing that.”

Heacox also discovered that he could inject the ozone into olive oil, which the dairy now uses as a post-dip emollient. It also dries the milkers’ fresh cotton cleaning towels in ozone for 20 minutes.

“We discovered that gives you about 40 minutes of disinfection,” Heacox says. “Everything is more sterile.”

The dairy currently averages a 140,000 to 145,000 SCC.

Step 3: Improve herd health
Pirtle and Heacox have also proven that ozone gas can be beneficial to improving cow health. Pirtle eliminated most of his use of copper sulfate in footbaths by instead running ozone-gas-injected water through them.

They have also been experimenting with using ozone gas inside a cow’s udder. Heacox says he has seen cows with a hot quarter of more than 1 million SCC drop down below 10,000 SCC after a few treatments of ozone gas injected directly into the infected quarter.

Heacox thinks there may be some benefit to ozone blood therapy to improve foot rot and other hoof diseases and is investigating the theory.

“I know it sounds like magic dust. But you can’t just put the machine on your place, plug it in and not manage,” Pirtle says. “It’s another tool to be added into a good management system.”

One piece, now the whole puzzle
Pirtle credits humility from having farmed “close to bankruptcy” at times in the past, his “hardworking family” and a desire to be proud in his work for the reason why a successful transition into the dairy business is even possible.

He says he’s still learning how to manage people, which he says is the biggest difference between being a farmer and a dairyman.

“Before I was just a piece of the farming operation, but now I’ve got to be a part of the whole dairy,” Pirtle says. PD

TOP: The Pirtle family of Roswell, New Mexico, has been farming in the area for more than four generations. They just recently got into the dairy business in the last decade.

BOTTOM: New Mexico dairyman Jack Pirtle says buying a dairy and feeding nearly half of the custom crops he raises to his own cows instead of to someone else’s has made his dairy “one of our best customers.” Photos by Ray Merritt.


Walt Cooley
Progressive Dairyman