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Of the 1,000-plus dairy enterprises that once dotted the landscape of Oktibbeha County, Miss., just one commercial operation is left — McReynolds Dairy. John T. McReynolds, who milked his first cow at age 6 on his father’s farm, is the lone survivor of the county’s once-teeming industry.
First herd of Jersey cows
Dairying in the county traces to the mid-1800s, when Col. W.B. Montgomery, a local dairyman, went to the Isle of Jersey and brought back a herd of Jersey cows, pioneering what became a thriving Jersey industry. He eventually had the largest herd in the South and a national champion Jersey bull.
The growth of dairies here led to increased emphasis on grasses, clovers, and other forages, and a thriving business developed in buying and selling dairy and beef cows, which were shipped all over the country from the Starkville railroad station. Today, there are Jerseys all across the U.S. that trace their lineage back to that 1800s herd.
It was due in large part to Montgomery’s influence that the state legislature, in 1878, passed an act establishing Mississippi Agricultural & Mechanical College (now Mississippi State University) at Starkville.
“Dairying here probably peaked in the 1960s, and it has been downhill since then,” McReynolds says. “I think a major reason for the decline has been availability of labor. It’s a demanding, confining routine — twice a day, every day of the year — and not many people want to do it.
“Dairy economists say you need a 300-cow herd to have an economically viable operation nowadays. With equipment and facilities, you’re talking easily $1 million just to get started. If you’ve got that kind of money, there are other less demanding investment options.”
After earning his graduate degree, McReynolds worked as a loan officer for the Farmers Home Administration, and “when this farm came up for sale, I looked it over and thought to myself, ‘Dang, this is really a nice place.’ It had a world of good bottomland that would grow anything.
“Shortly after I bought the place, John Beckum, who lived on the property, came over to meet me. We talked and he allowed, ‘I guess you and I can get along,’ so I put a beef cattle herd on the land and I continued working for FHA.
“Later, John complained that he couldn’t make a living working with just beef cows, so I went to the sale barn and bought a few plug dairy cows to give him something more to do. That’s how I kind of backed into dairying again. I started buying better cows and adding facilities, and just got bigger and bigger.”
After a stint with the Federal Land Bank, and then as agency manager for Farm Bureau, in 1972, “I decided to become a fulltime dairyman. And I’ve been doing it ever since, except for the period I dropped out in the 1980s under the government’s Dairy Termination Program. I found out pretty soon, though, that I couldn’t make a living growing 1,200 acres of soybeans, and after five years I got back into dairying.
“In 1996, I entered into a partnership with Alva Rivers — one of the best things I ever did. He told me he’d do everything related to the cows, but he didn’t want to fool with paying bills, keeping books, or have anything to do with the business end. He brought with him 60 Jersey heifers and 40 bred Holsteins.
“He was as good a cowman as I’ve ever known. We’d both already satisfied our egos by cleaning up on prizes at the state fair. We worked well together — never had a cross word about anything.” (Rivers died in 2001.)