May 22, 2024

46 Years of Dairy Farming: Norris Sloan’s Journey

Norris Sloan didn’t start dairy farming over four decades ago with consumer education in mind. Today, however, being an advocate for the dairy industry is one of his most important roles.

Nestled deep in the hills of south-central Missouri, 15 miles from the nearest town, Sloan often pauses his routine to educate visitors about milk nutrition and pasteurization. This is a significant shift from the early days when dairy farmers mainly discussed milk prices.

“Being involved in dairy organizations is more about educating consumers than networking with other farmers,” Sloan explains.

Sharing the Dairy Story

Once a bustling area for dairy farming, where five milk trucks would pass by daily, Sloan’s farm now sees just one truck making a 100-mile trip to collect milk. Despite this, Sloan continues to thrive in the industry he loves.

In an era where there is a growing disconnect between producers and consumers, Sloan finds great value in his work. Through organizations like the Midwest Dairy Association, Missouri Dairy, and Dairy Farmers of America, as well as involvement with the local school system, Sloan embraces the opportunity to bridge this gap. It all starts with sharing his story.

Charting His Own Course

Sloan, a first-generation dairy farmer, has overcome many obstacles in his 46-year career. He began in the 1970s with a single Holstein heifer, a gift he received after being named Star FFA Greenhand. With the help of a neighbor, he began milking after the heifer calved.

After high school, Sloan worked for his uncle in a dairy equipment service and sales business while planning his future in dairy farming. In 1978, he married Annette, and they soon started their dairy operation with leased cows. Both worked off-farm jobs initially, but eventually, Sloan was able to quit and focus on his farm full-time.

 Overcoming the Odds

The Sloans faced numerous challenges over the decades, from droughts to high interest rates. They managed by keeping expenses low and utilizing their best resource: grass.

“Grass is our asset,” Sloan says.

Their cows rotate through pastures every few days to graze on fresh grass, which works well until the grass becomes dormant. The rugged Ozarks terrain is ideal for grazing but not for growing crops like corn for silage, making it costly to transport feed.

“We’re challenged because byproducts are not close. Everything must be hauled in,” Sloan notes. “Unless you can figure out how to feed your cows on your own, you must be satisfied with a little less production.”

All the feed for their dairy cows is homegrown. Their pastures mix native fescue with legumes and orchardgrass, and they focus on timely hay harvests to ensure quality forage.

 Navigating Change

Today, the Sloans milk about 100 Holsteins, mostly bred to beef bulls. They plan to transition to beef cattle when they can no longer manage the dairy.

While their children do not plan to take over the farm, Sloan is more concerned about finding labor to sustain the business.

“Times have really changed,” Sloan says. “We used to have people stopping by asking for work.”

Though they have had a reliable local workforce over the years, Sloan is uncertain about the future due to rising minimum wages and fewer people seeking farm work.

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