Dodson Farms – Halls, Tennessee
A crisp winter wind chills the air and a fresh blanket of snow covers the ground, not yet marred by footsteps or tire tracks. Hopeful children eagerly watch for school closings while their parents savor a steaming cup of coffee before bundling up to shovel walkways. It’s a typical snapshot of “snow days” in America.
For our country’s farmers, however, the proverbial show must go on. Livestock must be tended to, despite the bitter cold and snow, and preparations must be made in advance of spring planting.
“Mother Nature can’t stop us from checking our herd, keeping it healthy and reproducing,” says Johnny Dodson, a fourth-generation Tennessee farmer who maintains a small beef calf and cow operation alongside his diverse crop mix of soybeans, corn, cotton and wheat. “On winter days, we check our pastures for cold or distress signs in our cattle two to three times a day. It’s important to have the herd in good health.”
He continues, “Not only was I taught to respect and care for animals, but they are important for our livelihood. An unhealthy animal is not productive or profitable, and costs more to maintain than a healthy animal.”
Dodson’s cows are born in late winter or early spring. In addition to their mothers’ milk, they have no shortage of grassy pasture to feast on come spring and summer. In the fall, he sends them to another farm to “background,” or train to eat from a trough. On that operation, they eat a diet of soy, corn and an occasional supplement of protein.
“Cotton seed is one wonderful protein source for bovines, with both fiber and seed providing oil and protein” Dodson says. “Soybean meal would be an alternative source of protein.”
A season for learning
Dodson, who farms with his son, John, a recent University of Tennessee graduate, also views winter as a time to review the latest products and technology, seeing how they work and gauging whether they might be a fit for their unique Tennessee growing conditions.
“We may have cold winters, followed by hot summers and occasional draught, but our fertile Mississippi river bottom soil allows for a diverse mix of crop,” Dodson says. “This allows us to spread our risk over a range of crops, as opposed to putting all our eggs in one basket. We are always looking at new practices to help with each of these crops.”
Dodson’s practices have included sustainable techniques for some time, but he says he continuously looks at ways to “farm smarter and adopt technology to reduce my carbon footprint.” This includes everything from grid sampling to precision-applying herbicides. “As technology improves, we will continue to adopt it,” he adds.
After he harvests his crops, Dodson’s appointment schedule remains as full as his grain bins.
“In addition to our animals, not only do we clean, maintain and store our equipment so it’s ready to go come planting, but we also attend a number of meetings and learning events,” he says. “I’ve always been taught that if you want to change things, you need to get involved and participate. I don’t know whether I found soybeans or they found me, but I stay busy.
“I attend meetings for the United Soybean Board, state soybean association meetings and events related to university research, irrigation and more. Agriculture is a continuing education, with lots of opportunity to give back and improve.”
Mother Nature not only has an impact on Dodson’s daily farm chores; she also has a hand in his seed selection.
“By February, we’ve already made the majority of our seed selections for the year,” he says. “The big challenge is predicting where commodity prices will go between now and planting. My crop mix is determined by both Mother Nature and commodity prices.”
His workload may not fall with the leaves on the trees, but Dodson doesn’t mind braving winter conditions for the good of not only his animals, but his customers as well. “It’s important for international customers to know that U.S. farmers try to provide a healthful product in an environmentally sound way. No weather can get in the way of that commitment.”