Member Spotlight - The Alvis Family
Holsteins and Sunflowers make a beautiful pair at
Alvis Farms LLC
By Terry Perotti, VA State Editor
Less than an hour west of Virginia’s capital of Richmond is family built, owned and operated Alvis Farms, located in Goochland County. They have welcomed both their urban and rural neighbors to educate them about agriculture. The foundation of their farm is the Registered Holstein cow. Sunflowers symbolize loyalty and longevity and have turned out to be a very successful enterprise for the family. The huge yellow and brown blooms are bright, cheery and inviting to guests and Alvis Dairy has embraced their meaning to fulfill their goal of agriculture sustainability and education.
The sunflowers were planted as a crop in 2016 and attracted travelers who wanted to pick them and take pictures with them, so family members decided to organize a unique festival held in mid-July. It has grown to be a fifty acre field of fun with a pick your own patch, sunflower maze, children’s activities and several agricultural vendor displays. Close to 8,000 attended the 2020 festival, including all the volunteers, neighbors, children, vendors and of course sunflower lovers of all ages and backgrounds. After the season, the birdseed harvested is sold at the Orange-Madison Cooperative.
Erin Henley, a 4th generation farmer and 2012 Virginia Tech Dairy Science graduate describes their family farm. They currently milk close to 800 registered Holsteins. The rolling herd average for the past year is close to 25,400lbs of milk with 940 of Fat and 760 of Protein.
The farm started in the 1930s with Erin’s great grandfather who raised tobacco, hogs, and laying hens. The family processed their own lumber from the surrounding woods to build their houses and barns. In 1965 her great grandfather and grandfather, George Alvis Jr., started the dairy with 25 cows that they milked by hand. From the beginning, diversification has been critical to support the family farm.
George Jr and his late wife Reva have four children, eleven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, most of whom live within a half mile radius of the farm. Besides Erin, her brother Thomas Henley, father Mert Henley, uncles Dennis and Randy Alvis and the farm patriarch George Alvis Jr. are all active in their successful operation. Her youngest brother, Adam, is a John Deere technician who also works on the farm on nights and weekends.
It was amazing to hear how resourceful the Alvis family is when it comes to recycling materials and building their own facilities. Erin explains that they poured the concrete for their main barns and the double twelve parallel parlor that was built in 2000. Their subway parlor is unique since all the pipes, vacuum lines and pulsators are underneath the facility and all of the milk is direct loaded on tanker trucks for Cobblestone Cooperative.
Another interesting fact is that they used metal from old, closed department stores to build their barns. The family and employees tore down the department buildings, and were able to recycle much of that material to use in constructing the barns. To save money on hired contractors, they laid the block and welded much of the steel portions of the barn themselves. Even the water troughs were drawn out and designed by George. The main freestall barn holds 500 cows, divided into quadrants and two smaller barns each hold 200 head. All of the heifers are on pasture and young calves are housed in hutches. At any one time, there are anywhere from 75-200 calves on milk.
Seven thousand acres of crops are grown to feed the approximately 1600 total head and they rent over half of the acreage to grow corn, wheat, soybeans, rye, alfalfa and of course the sunflowers. They feed a total mixed ration, purchase a hummus by-product along with several other by-products and the required minerals for a balanced ration.
As you can imagine, with a major city that close, there are some urban land use pressures and very limited room for any expansion to grow additional feed or for manure management. Breeding goals are important to the continuing success of the farm and cattle for future generations. All Holsteins are AI bred using a corrective mating program that emphasizes well balanced udders, functional feet and legs and positive health traits. The only herd bull they use is for “clean up’ with their pregnant heifers. The herd has received Holstein Association’s Progressive Genetics award for the past 15 consecutive years.
Erin coordinates the genomic testing of each heifer calf born on the farm and a select group of bull calves; over 4,000 animals have been genetically tested to date. The top indexing heifers are flushed to sexed semen and the resulting embryos are transferred into the bottom genetic end of their heifers. The majority of the high indexing heifers that are in the flush program today trace back to a couple of Freddie, Massey, Puzzle, and Sharky daughters. Bulls resulting from these flushes are raised and sold to other farms - some local to Virginia, and some in Florida. The farm has also sold several bulls to Genex to use in their stud program - Tamron, Tevon, Subway, and YumYum are all bulls that were sold to Genex, and trace back to the Freddie daughters on the farm. Today, some of the lower ranked cows in the milking herd are AI bred to limousin beef semen. The resulting heifer calves are used as embryo recipients, and steers are raised to be sold for beef; some are sold directly to the consumer, and the majority are sent to feed lots out west.
Alvis Farms LLC is the definition of being self-sufficient, diversified, community and family oriented! Erin’s father, Mert, manages a side septic business ‘Alvis Septic’ which installs and repairs drain fields, does real estate inspections of septic systems, as well as repairs and pumping. Her uncles oversee the entire operation, while Erin is the day-to-day manager of the dairy, and her brother Thomas’ main focus is on the crop side of the operation. Although everyone has their own main focus, each of these family members are involved in all aspects of the farm. The agritourism and educational ventures of the farm are led by the women of Alvis Farms - Erin, and the wives of Dennis, Randy, Mert, and Thomas. Their most successful event has been the sunflower festival but they can be found at the farm’s numerous properties hosting weddings and other farm related festivals. They also typically give approximately ten school tours a year for school-aged children from local schools, mainly kindergarteners and first graders.
Erin registers all the calves using Holstein USA’s Easy ID program and uses Holstein’s custom ear tags in all animals. Erin, along with her brother and cousins, started the Goochland 4-H Livestock club in 2005. Today Erin is the leader of the club, which consists of approximately twenty youth who work with a wide variety of farm species. Through 4-H, the Alvis grandchildren showed their favorite cattle at the local and state fairs. The Alvis great-grandchildren aren’t old enough to participate in 4-H yet, but look forward to having those experiences in the next few years.
If a visit to central Virginia is in your future travel plans, be sure to check out www.alvisfarmsva.com and look up the summer sunflower festival which continues to evolve each year with new ideas for agriculture education and reaching both children and adults who otherwise may never get the opportunity to see a cow up close or pick their very own sunflower.