Kent Jisha bought his farm in Hopkins County, Texas, 20 years ago. Before that, he’d been a dairy veterinarian since he graduated from Texas A&M in 1987. He even spent a couple of years in practice in Wisconsin in the late 1980s.
“I went to Wisconsin to get cow experience,” Kent explains. “Here, you look more at groups of cows rather than individual cows. In Wisconsin, every cow has a name, and if one cow in a guy’s herd didn’t eat right that morning, the farmer knew it.”
If you ask Kent why on earth he went from veterinarian to dairyman, he’ll say simply, “I like cows.”
Kent’s wife, Ramy, was also a veterinarian and ran a small animal practice for three years in nearby Sulphur Springs, where Kent grew up on his family’s farm. These days, Ramy works on the farm and helps run their 200-member organic vegetable Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program while caring for their three children.
An hour east of Dallas, the Jishas’ 1,000-acre spread is in oak woods and prairie. The area attracted early European settlers because the open grasslands and surrounding forest were ideal for settlement. In fact, Kent says, it looks a lot like Wisconsin. The area is good for growing grass, but it’s not great soil for crops. What’s more, the intense heat and humidity of the summer months is hard on the cows—so much so that the Jishas’ cows calve seasonally. This means their cows are dried up (stop milking) and bred so that they calve in the fall and winter, giving them a break during the stressful summer months.
Kent used to farm conventionally. “I started out as a small dairy, just grazing, and I remembered not having so many problems. Then I got to the point where I was milking five to six times as many cows and making less money than when I milked fewer cows. My conventional dairy required feed mixing wagons and tractors and lots of employees and fuel. It was a constant headache. I thought, there’s got to be a better way, or I don’t want to do it. Now, the organic dairy is so simple. I have more time to spend with my kids.”
Kent and his two sons like to head out on the ATV to check on the dry cows, monitor the pastures and move the cows from field to field. The Jishas currently have 150 head of cattle.
The pastures consist mainly of perennial Bermuda grass and annual Sudan grass, both staples in the southern states. “They’re not the greatest grasses in the world nutritionally speaking,” Kent says, “but the Bermuda grass sends roots eight feet down and that’s important when it comes to drought and a lack of irrigation. We get a lot of rain in the winter so winter pasture does really well. We also have broadleaf Signalgrass. For years I tried to get rid of that stuff when I was conventional. Now I realize that you can use these native plants instead of spending so much money trying to kill them. And the cows love it.”
A new occasional crop on the Jishas’ farm is iron and clay cowpeas. Cowpeas were introduced to the U.S. during early colonial times and are now a staple crop in the Southeast. They are extremely high yielding in forage mass and have plenty of protein, something dairy cows really need. Because they are a legume, they build soil health by fixing nitrogen. Kent is intent on feeding his cows off of his own land. “With the cost of fuel and grain, it makes no sense whatsoever to buy feed elsewhere. I believe I need to grow my own feed, and I try to let nature grow what nature grows.”