As breeders celebrate our favorite cow families this month, it is fitting to feature a dedicated farm family that has been breeding, milking and marketing cows for five generations.
Jennings Gap Dairy, the Swope family is an active dairy farm family located in Churchville, Virginia, just south of Bridgewater in northern Augusta County. I sat down with the patriarch, Bill ‘Pops’ Hughes, his daughter, Betty Ann Swope and his granddaughter, Billie Jo Swope Rhodes to find out more about the ‘then and now’ of their dairy operation.
Bill Hughes is originally from Skaneateles, New York, a Finger Lakes village in Onondaga County. His family started farming in 1853 and worked with purebred cattle since 1857. His father, Hugh M. Hughes was no stranger to the dairy farmers in NY as he was a Beacon Feed salesman for many years, as well as an active member of the Holstein-Friesian Association. Bill had a brother and a sister, but he was the only one determined to work with cattle. His NEODAK prefix started in 1943 and comes from an Indian name, “Home in the woods.”
Between 1958 and 1967, Bill and his wife, Kathryn ‘Gram’ Hughes had six children while farming near Ithaca, NY. They milked thirty-five cows on a 200 acre farm. In 1967, they moved south to Apex, North Carolina and farmed for seventeen years milking cows and growing tobacco on a 165 acre farm. Unfortunately, Apex was soon surrounded by urban sprawl. Four daughters of the six children wanted to continue in agriculture, so in 1984, the family traded for their current location at the intersection of Jennings Gap and Stover Shop Road. Three sisters moved at that current time and another moved back several years later. When they started here, there were seventy cows that were hauled from North Carolina and milked in a double six herringbone parlor, a bed pack and seven upright silos for feed storage.
All of the young, married couples got their start from Neodak. Barbara purchased a farm in Mount Solon where she and her family operate a dairy and poultry farm. Cindy and her family moved back to New York to continue her dairy endeavors. Karen and her family run a poultry operation on what was part of the originally purchased farm. Betty Ann married Dwight Swope, son of Roy and Nancy Swope from Dayton, Virginia. Roy and Nancy owned the poultry farm on the other side of the intersection. That is how Dwight and Betty Ann got their start in the turkey business.
The Churchville dairy added a calf barn and in 1990, a 400 acre neighboring farm was purchased in addition to the 225 acres that was already there. In 1993, Neodak sold out and in 1997, Dwight and Betty Ann Swope purchased the family farm and changed the name to its current: Jennings Gap Dairy. The foundation of this herd is Holsteins. Grade cattle were purchased in 1997 to help them get started and currently, half of the black and white Holsteins are grades and bred A.I. alongside their registered herd mates. Some of the Holsteins were purchased from Scott Hood in Middletown, Maryland and an additional group of twenty-five cows were developed from Agnes Kane’s farm in Addison, NY.
The main reasons for any culling in the herd include below average type traits and reproductive problems. In 2000, a double eight parallel parlor was constructed, then in 2007, a 200 stall free stall barn was added. It houses the entire milking herd and the dry cows. A bed pack is used for close up dry cows and they even have the ability to keep special needs and older cows in a more comfortable, separate area on the dairy. You won’t see a lot of consignments to sales from Jennings Gap as they are still developing and improving their herd. They have purchased some deep pedigreed cattle that last, breed back and help pay the bills.
Some of the older sires influential in the breeding program were-Wedgewood Buccaneer, Ocean-View Dixiecrat, Paclamar Astronaut, Kemview Vanetas Vision, Maughlin Storm, Pen-col Duster, Madawaska Aerostar, and Regancrest Rbk Diehard. Betty Ann points to the late Vernon Figgins for guiding them with their breeding decisions. He understood their focus and helped them pick bulls that fit their three main goals-longevity, good udders and correct feet and legs. Currently, they use sires from different companies and are on both the Breeder’s choice and Judge’s choice programs through St. Jacob’s ABC/ABS Global. They use very little sexed semen and continue to focus on good cow families, milk and long lasting cows. In 2016, new heifer barns with headlocks were constructed. This project helped with their ability to A.I. breed and do some embryo transfer work.
When looking around the farm office, the walls are covered with banners, plaques and a couple pictures of memorable cows. Bill pointed out that Farlow Valiant Rosie was All American and All Canadian in 1984. Another white cow pictured was Neodak Elevation Satellite, nominated All-American Aged cow. She was special to him as she had their prefix, was named Junior Champion at the NC State Fair in the 1980s as a senior yearling, then went on the win the Aged cow class and named Grand Champion twice in milking form.
When you drive by the farm, you will see a colorful cow herd! It consists of 76 black and white Holsteins, 44 red and white Holsteins and 23 Brown Swiss. Billie Jo was influential in adding the docile, brown cows to the family farm. At six years old, she acquired her first calf, Opal, from Dublin Hills Swiss (Smith family) in Maryland. They have a nitrogen tank allotted just for their Swiss genetics. They added Hoodstead’s (Scott and Judy Hood) herd in 2010 when they dispersed. These Swiss are classified and shown by the family.
Billie Jo continues to improve their black and white genetics and is currently developing a Gold Chip daughter, Budjon-JK Even Better-ET, from Emily’s Edair and raised her Atwood bull calf to use for ‘clean up’ in the herd. They are also working with some heifers from the ‘Roxy’ family.
In addition to the black and white grades purchased as a building block, the Swope’s purchased a small herd of 100% red Holsteins from David Condon in New York. The cows had no records, but were they were upgraded through a program with the Red and While Holstein breed association.
One of the best purchases Billie Jo made in developing their red herd was—Scenic Edge L Java-Red-ET, through a sale Mike Deaver had in Wisconsin. She was VG 87 and has an EX 91 daughter, Josie, and several other very good offspring. Java-Red is from the same family as Howard-Home RMK Jena-Red-ET. Another farm favorite is Glen-V-DF Annabelle-ET is Excellent 90, nominated Jr. All American spring calf in 2013 and also goes back to ‘Jena.’
She is working with a Ladd-P granddaughter of Apple, and excellent Contender from ‘Rubens Nan’ and an Armani two year old from ‘All the way-Red.’ Their first red homebred to score Excellent is Jennings-Gap SCRE Macey-Red EX. 92. She goes back to a ‘Marie’ cow in Frank Good’s herd, “Molhil” in Dayton, Virginia and was named Grand Champion of the Virginia Spring Show last year. They are excited about their four milking ‘Secure’ daughters and like that they are sound, milk cows.
Billie Jo came back to the family farm to work full time in 2015. After her active 4-H and FFA high school years, she attended Blue Ridge Community College and received her Associate’s degree in Business. She had worked for Farm Credit and continued showing cattle and working at the farm in the evenings. She worked nights at World Dairy Expo for MD-Hillbrook, and Chris and Jen Hill assisted her in finding animals to add to their developing, dairy herd.
Blake Rhodes and Billie Jo were married last summer. He helps his family with their poultry operation and also assists at Jennings Gap Dairy. She now has more time to do some farm planning with her family. Her goal is to milk a herd of registered cows. “Cows have made me who I am,” states Billie Jo and she takes that to heart as she makes all the breeding decisions on the farm and manages the calves and heifers.
The calf mortality has been zero percent since she took over. The calves are fed milk replacer in hutches for about two and a half to three months of age. They are weaned, three to four in a group for two to three weeks in ‘super hutches’ where they get hay, water and grain. The time in these super hutches have proved to be a successful transition period for the young stock. Eventually, they move to a small group heifer barn at six to ten months of age and finally, to the newer barn, depending on size (about fifteen months).
Family and diversification are what makes this farm successful. Billie Jo’s older brother, Frank does much of the feeding and mechanic work. His wife, Krysta and daughter Ella help out as needed. Their father, Dwight, built his first poultry house in 1982 and has never looked back. Dwight, named the Top Grower for the Virginia Poultry Growers Cooperative last year, operates six heavy tom (turkey) houses for the cooperative. He rents seven layer houses to Cargill. Diversification has been the key to making ends meet for their enterprises. Dwight also manages the crops, all homegrown forages of high moisture corn, soybeans, barley, and hay. They only buy grain concentrate and mineral for the herd ration. He also hires the ‘off farm’ labor and runs a small, custom harvest business along with a seed business.
Other committed relationships, the Swope’s have formed are with both their veterinarian and nutritionist. Over the past twenty-five years, Dr. Hunter from Westwood practice in Staunton and nutritionist, William Meyerhoeffer have been steady partners for overall cattle care and nutrition.
The dairy cows at Jennings Gap have continued to be recognized over the past several years for various accomplishments. Each year, at the Augusta county DHI meeting, at least one of their cows from the three breeds, is recognized for high milk record award and the milking herd has won low SCC (somatic cell count) honors. They classify all breeds and have received premier breeder and/or exhibitor banners with their cattle at Virginia state shows and county fairs. Recently, Billie Jo, has worked on further developing her best cow families by working with Dr. Hinshaw at Ashby Vet practice and Trans Ova Genetics and utilizes both E.T. and IVF for embryo production.
For the Swope’s, family is not just their immediate family. For twenty-five years, Betty Ann served the Augusta County 4-H programs. She and her family love working with kids. She coached dairy judging teams in both North Carolina and Virginia and provided children with calves to show at the fair each year. Derek Heizer (now a veterinarian in North Carolina) and Billie Jo, clipped calves at the county fair where their show promoted dairy all week long in Fishersville, VA. Every year, Jennings Gap Dairy sponsor youth awards here in Virginia and in Pennsylvania, at the Junior All-American dairy showmanship competition.
In addition, Betty Ann paid lifetime Holstein memberships for many youth who helped feed calves and show cattle. Fond memories they share are of Kathryn ‘Gram’ Hughes marking her show catalogs at ringside and taking pictures of all the children. She knew them all by name. All cousins have been involved with cattle in some way and all of Bill and Kathryn’s seventeen grandchildren have been in the show ring! Though the children grandchildren and great grandchildren have spread out geographically, growing up with the farming way of life has kept this extended family close to one another. “Cows have been in the family and have been influential in these kids’ lives,” Betty Ann states. “Grammy’s grandchildren all have done well and developed a work ethic.”
A few friends and neighbors entrust their cattle care to the Swope’s as they house some Holsteins for the Ron and Katie Roudabush family, Jeremy and Becky Daubert family and Lois Skeen. Bill Hughes, now 84 years young, concluded by saying “this is a family farm, not a milk factory!”
“You can’t have the family farm without the family.” -Gilbert K. Chesterton