For the Love of Farming

5/25/2013 7:00 AM
By Jane W. Graham Virginia Correspondent

Cattleman Still Awed’ After <\n>Decades on the Farm

DUBLIN, Va. — “I love it, I just love it,” Ken Alexander said as he drove through his grass-based farm on land that his family has been living and working on since his ancestors arrived in this part of Virginia in pre-Revolutionary days.

The 600 acres is part of an original land grant and sits squarely in the middle of Pulaski County, surrounded by industrial, commercial, educational, historical and recreational facilities with Interstate 81 running in front of the house and barns. Here, Alexander’s cows eat their grass and hay, and raise their calves.

Alexander’s farm faces the historic village of Newbern, laid out in 1810, by a pioneer named Adam Hance. He grew up in a building there, now called the Wilderness Road Museum, and worked on his father’s farm when farming was really hard work, he said.

In his 7th decade, Alexander has no intention of retiring. He loves what he is doing too much. He uses rotational grazing for his commercial cattle in the summer, having his farm divided into nine paddocks. He moves the cattle through the paddocks during the growing season. He opens them up in the winter for the cattle to move through.

He makes hay on the farm for the winter, feeding the hay to his animals.

He uses bulls with his cows and keeps seven to serve his herd of approximately 150 cows. He currently has 143 calves, totaling close to 300 animals grazing in the fields.

Alexander maintains a rigid vaccination schedule, vaccinating the cows three times a year, in April, June and September, and the calves four times a year.

Grass has been growing slower this year than usual, Alexander said. This is due to the “weird weather” of the past few months, he believes. The recent cold nights have not helped the grass grow. While there has been a lot of moisture falling the past few weeks, the surface of the ground is dry because the winds have been strong and have blown continuously, he said.

He said the first cutting of hay is going to be a little lighter than usual. While it is short, it has already headed out.

“I’ll cut toward the end of May,” he said. “It will lose nutrient value if I don’t cut it.”

The Virginia Tech graduate went to work in the business end of the furniture industry here and worked in that field for 20 years until the plant where he was employed closed. He has spent the last 30 years doing what he loves to do, farming.

Asked what the biggest change he has seen in this time, he replied without hesitation, “hydraulics.”

He went on to say that the use of hydraulics in farm machinery has changed the labor picture so vastly, enabling one person to do the work that it once took several people to do. It’s been a factor in making farm equipment so much more advanced than when he was a boy.

Another change he points to is the improvement in modern day vaccines. He said they are so much more effective and that there are vaccines against more diseases than in the past.

The ear tags and buttons now used for identifying animals are another advance, he said, pointing out that animals can be tagged and followed to different destinations throughout their lives.

Somehow this is no more amazing to Alexander than the natural way a mother cow can identify her calf in a field full of animals.

“She knows its scent,” he chuckled. “It’s absolutely amazing that they can tell the difference, but they can.”

It’s a reason Alexander repeats his key reason for being a farmer.

“I farm because I love it. If you have to do your work, you should do something you love.”

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