A native New Yorker, Ron St. John came to north central Florida in 1986, and has blazed a trail of innovation and expansion in dairy farming ever since.

St. John lives in Trenton, Fla. He owns five dairy farms, including two in Georgia, and has a new one under construction in Florida.

As a result of his dairy farming success, St. John has been selected as the 2011 Florida winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award.

St. John now joins eight other state winners from the Southeast as finalists for the award. The overall winner will be announced on Tuesday, Oct. 18 at the Sunbelt Ag Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.

Last year, he farmed 11,820 acres, including 6,995 acres of rented land and 4,825 acres of owned land. He has about 17,000 milk cows.

Confinement cows produce some 20,500 pounds of milk per cow per year, while cows in his grazing dairies produce about 14,000 pounds of milk per year.

After evaluating costs and returns of both confinement and grazing dairies, he says grazing dairies produce greater returns on investment. Labor costs are especially lower for grazing dairies.

He raises replacement heifers, keeps some for his own herd and sells the rest. He also buys herd bulls. The bulls are mainly used on his Georgia dairies and after artificial insemination at his Florida farms. 

In Florida, he grows three crops per year, corn silage, forage sorghum and ryegrass. “We’re growing brown midrib forage sorghum,” says St. John. “It produces more digestible fiber and yields more than the forage sorghum we had grown. At some point, brown midrib sorghum may replace some of our corn.”

Forages serve another purpose by using nutrients in the waste effluent he applies to the land. “The number of cows we keep is determined by how well we recycle nutrients,” says St. John. “I like to think we’re the ultimate recycler.” He says corn is especially good at taking up nutrients.

He started his Georgia dairy operations in 1996.

In Georgia, the growing season isn’t as long. If there’s a Georgia crop that’s short-changed, it is forage sorghum. “If we don’t plant sorghum on time, we just plant ryegrass,” he adds. “We get tremendous ryegrass yields in Georgia.”

On his grazing dairies, he also relies on Tifton 85 bermudagrass that he over-seeds with oats and ryegrass for winter grazing.