Last month I had the opportunity of being on board for a week-long dairy tour sponsored by Alta Genetics that comprised 12 dairies in five Midwestern states. In addition, the tour included two days at World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wisconsin. The two bus loads of dairymen were from 22 countries, and of that number about 40 percent spoke Spanish, 20 percent from Europe and the balance sprinkled among other locations. There was truly an international flavor present. At first, the group seemed a little reserved; however, as the week wore on, they became increasingly more communicative, even jovial. And that’s okay.
I learned that the criteria for these selected dairies was for them to be a “large commercial size” and their management style was to be somewhat consistent with each other, which means well-managed and progressively aggressive. Obviously a motive from the sponsoring organization was for their guests to see many daughters of their stud’s sires. (The title of the tour was “Seeing is believing.”) Pictures in a catalog try to tell the story; however, nothing takes the place of a personal visual assessment and talking to those who work with these cows day in and day out.
Yes, we looked at some showcase cows that were incredibly impressive in both type and production. Strength, stature, uniformity, sustainability and the “will to make milk” was obvious. Correct feet and legs, body width, dairy character – it was all there. Production levels unheard of a few years ago are now the standard.
But what inspired me more was the confident, and yet humble, pride these cows’ owners possessed for having set in motion years ago the necessary steps to raise up such quality livestock.
Let me explain. Usually within 30 minutes or less after a calf is born on one of these farms, it is tagged and identified. Furthermore, a sample of hair, with its roots, is pulled from the tail and labeled. This is sent for DNA identification to confirm the calf’s parentage. This fool-proof, exact identification method coupled with the assurance that a sire’s offspring are producing in herds with a similar size and management certainly lends enhanced credibility to a sire’s proof. I believe the guys at Alta are on to something.
Cow comfort and cleanliness was a top priority at every dairy in all areas, including the dry pen, maternity area, fresh pens, milking pens. Sand, straw, tires, mats, recycled manure, lime, sawdust – it didn’t make any difference what was used. What worked for one guy may not for another, but what was interesting is that whatever system or combination of systems they used, they made it work!
It was the same for waste removal. Producers used barn scrapers, tractor scraper, flush, lagoons, sand pits, gravity separators, mechanical separators, dryers, extractors, drag line injection, pumper wagons, tanker trucks, squeezers, solid spreaders, slurry spreaders, etc. And now new on the scene were digesters. What a variety of ways to get rid of poop! As a youth, I had one way and one way only – a five-tined pitchfork and an 8-foot pull-type spreader.
I didn’t see any trash piles or garbage at these dairies. All were concerned about being in compliance with local health ordinances and in being good stewards of the land. They take pride in their surroundings and of being an asset to their neighborhood. This is commendable and a lesson for all dairies in our country.
Several dairies used only a horizontal rail to keep their cows restrained while at the feedbunk. And these were in large free-stall barns. Certainly they were less costly to install; however, they would necessitate breeding and treating be done in another area, which was provided. For me, this was different. And that’s okay. Why? Because it works.
Total mixed rations (TMR) were common at all of the facilities in that the main ingredient was corn silage or haylage. As one would expect, the balance of the rations were determined by accessibility, price and what the dairyman was striving to achieve.
This Midwest adventure was an awesome experience for me personally. The folks at Alta Genetics did a bang-up job; the producer panels were informative, the food and lodging were superb and the association with dairyman from the world invigorating. Even though the schedule was well-organized and cram-packed, it was a refreshing adventure at each stop to put on biosecurity boots and begin the walk-through of the facilities, to talk with the owners and managers, to be with the cows up-close, to go off on a little self-guided side-tour and visit with a stranger and to witness first-hand what dairying is like east of the continental divide.
It further became evident to me that no one, anywhere, has a monopoly on how to produce lots of high-quality milk. There are many different ways, techniques and methods. And most are willing to share what has worked for them. That’s a good thing. I came away from the Midwest with a renewed hope and appreciation for the uniqueness and greatness of American agriculture and the dairy industry in particular. The individual entrepreneurial attitude of dairymen everywhere is truly remarkable. The faith they exhibit to “go and do” and to do it better and more efficiently is truly the American way. God bless them. PD