by Sabryn Whitman, University of Massachusetts Department of Veterinary and Animal Sciences
Every January, students from different New England universities spend a week touring dairy farms on a trip known as the Winter Traveling Dairy Tour. This year, students from the University of Massachusetts, the University of Connecticut, and the University of Rhode Island traveled to northern Florida to tour dairy facilities in the Gainesville area. Usually, the tour chooses a state in the New England region, but this year, thanks to Dr. Shelia Andrews from the University of Connecticut; Dr. David Bray, retired University of Florida Extension Dairy Specialist; a very generous grant from the Northeast Farm Credit AgEnhancement Program; and support from our respective departments we were able to travel to Florida.
Our first stop on Monday morning was the University of Florida’s Dairy in Gainesville. Eric Diepersloot, the farm manager, gave us a tour of the 1,097 cow research unit, which is one of the largest in the area. The university has a double 12 rapid exit parlor where they milk around 500 cows twice a day. All of the cows are equipped with an ankle ID that contains information such as how much milk she usually produces. The ID is linked with equipment in the milking parlor that gives the workers access to the information while they are milking. Information like that is vital because — for instance — if she isn’t producing the amount of milk that she normally does, it can be a good indication that something isn’t right. Diepersloot also showed us a barn that contained waterbeds for the cows. He told us that they were part of a research trial to find out what type of bedding cows preferred: sand or the waterbed. It turns out that they actually liked the waterbeds better!
Our next stop was Brandy Branch Dairy in Jacksonville. Farm Manager June gave us a tour of the farm. They are currently milking about 1,500 cows in a double 32 herringbone parlor, with a 74 pound average per cow. The farm has 400 acres that they use to grow crops for feed. June told us that they used to use bulls for breeding, but they switched over to using artificial insemination and synchronizing heat cycles two years ago. One of the biggest problems that the farm faces is the cost of bedding. Currently, they are re-bedding once a week with sand and spending somewhere around $5,000 every week! June claimed another current problem is mastitis, although it the somatic cell counts seem to be decreasing a little bit. The farm used to send their heifers to be raised in Tennessee, but it is becoming a very big expense, so they plan on raising them on the farm instead.
The next morning we headed to Rex Run Dairy in Hawthorne, run by John and Nancy Mims. They started dairying 1976 with a small herd of about 25-30 Holsteins and Jerseys; they now have around 130 milking Jerseys. The dairy was quite unique compared to the other dairies that we saw. First of all, it was the smallest. Also, they raise their bull calves and then sell them in volume anywhere between 12-15 months of age. When we asked John why he did this, he told us that right now the market for steers is doing very well. The farm makes their own cheese from raw milk as a side business. Nancy, who gave us a tour of the cheese making facility, told that they currently distribute their cheese through three local outlets: farmers markets in the area, and two whole sale distributors in Orlando. Right now they are limited in their cheese production because they only have one vat. However, they are considering downsizing the herd and focusing more on the cheese business since that is what is making the most money right now.
The next farm we saw was Lussier Dairy in Hawthorne, run by Matt and Linda Lussier, and son Kevin. This year marked their 20th anniversary moving from Vermont. When they arrived on the farm twenty years ago, there were a total of 180 cows. Now, they have close to 700 cows, with about 500 milking, and almost 700 heifers. They also raise their steers and then sell them to feedlot operations at around 300-500 pounds. Matt, who is also the president of the Florida Milk Promotion Board, talked to us about his breeding techniques. He he used to use artificial insemination with sexed semen, but now he puts a Jersey bull in with his Holsteins. Unlike most dairy farms in Northern Florida, Matt does not flush his barn. He dry scrapes it every morning, which is something more common in New England farms.
After visiting Lussier Dairy, we headed to the University of Florida’s Plant Science Research and Education Unit in Citra. Staci Saunders and James Boyer gave us a tour of the facilities 1,100 acres that is home to many different research projects. In fact, in 2012, there was somewhere around 600 research projects going on! James told us that the facility has a special program involving the local jail. Inmates who have committed small crimes (such as theft) come and work at the facility to help harvest vegetables and other crops. For every 30 days that they work, it takes nine days off of their sentence. The facility also donates produce to the jail to help feed the inmates. The research unit has a few other interesting features. There are 35 acres on the property that are certified organic cropland, which is mainly used for vegetable work. Also, there are 360 acres that cannot be used for research purposes. So instead of letting it go to waste, the Sheriff runs his cattle on the land.
Our last stop of the day was the University of Florida’s Horse Teaching Unit in Gainesville. Justin Callaham, farm manager, talked to us about the program they have at the university. He said they have approximately 160 students every year who graduate with an equine emphasis in Animal Science. They take classes on everything from foaling to training to selling. On the property we visited, they have about 30 mares. They house more horses on the research facility located in Ocala. The program tries to focus mainly on Quarter horses, but they do have a few Thoroughbreds.
We were back on the bus bright and early again the next morning to travel to Grassy Bell Dairy in Bell. The farm is a part of the Alliance Grazing Group and is a 2,000 cow grazing dairy set on 500 acres. Farm Manager David Noellsch talked to us about how he manages a grazing dairy. When the cows are out grazing, they are sectioned off by temporary electric fences to prevent overgrazing the land. The farm uses the center pivots in each pasture to irrigate the land and also to keep the cows cool during the warmer months. When the cows are brought in to be milked in the farms double 60 herringbone swing parlor, they are fed six pounds of grain. After they are milked, they are fed about 14 pounds of a “one-shot” concentrate containing corn, soybean, distiller’s grain and other things. Dave told us that the amount of grain and composition of the “one-shot” will change when summer comes around to help compensate for the intense heat. The farm also does direct load, which means that they do not have a bulk tank. The milk is run through a rapid chill pipe which cools the milk and is then loaded directly onto a tanker truck. Grassy Bell also does not raise their calves. They are sent to calf rearing facilities so the farm can focus on the milk production.
Our next stop of the day was North Florida Holsteins, a completely registered herd in Bell. Don Bennink, the owner, talked to us about the farm’s milking techniques. The milking parlor consists of a double 40 parallel that milks about 3,600 cows twice a day. With three people working, they can milk roughly 480 cows in an hour thanks to equipment such as automatic identification and take offs. The milking parlor is also equipped with a sort gate that will sort sick cows or cows that need treatment from the rest of the herd based on their FID tag. This allows employees to deal with the problems immediately so they don’t have to worry about going back and finding the cow again later. The farm also does direct load and fills about six tanker trucks a day. Don then showed us the maternity ward where the cows calve. There is a milk machine in the barn which allows the cows to be milked 15 minutes after they calve. The calf is then fed its one serving of colostrum. The farm keeps both its heifer calves and its bull calves. The bull calves are either sold for breeding or other purposes. Being the only completely registered herd that we saw, it was remarkable to see how well things worked and how organized it was for being such a large herd.
Our last dairy farm of the tour was Alliance Dairy in Trenton. Jan Henderson gave us a very nice presentation on the dairy and its affiliates. The dairy was the first permitted dairy in North Florida. In 1990, they had 2,000 cows. Now they have 5,800 cows and they hope to have 9,200 in the near future. Alliance is proud to have a methane digester that will help to power the farm as well as the surrounding community. Jan told us that the digester will pay for itself within five years. Alliance is a member of the Southeast Milk Cooperative, who hauls their milk for them, as they do direct load also. Grassy Bell Dairy is one of three dairies owned by the Alliance Grazing Group, an affiliate of Alliance Dairies. Aside from milking cows, Alliance also owns a feed company called Suwannee Valley Feeds. Forty percent of the income from the business goes to outside businesses and the other sixty percent goes to Alliance Dairies, which certainly helps to offset a lot of expenses.
The final morning, we headed back to Orlando to Animal Kingdom for a Backstage Safari tour of the park. The park is home to over 1,500 animals and we got to see how the park workers cared for the animals. We started out on the actual safari ride, where we got to see many different species up close and see how they interacted with each other and their environment. After that we got to visit the area where the elephants are housed, which as you imagine, is extremely large. We checked out the Animal Nutrition Center next. Every single day, the diets for all of the animals are prepared and distributed. It was really incredible to see all of the different types of food that go into the diets, such as a lot of fruits and vegetables for the herbivores and meat products like mice for the carnivores. Lastly, we were able to see the veterinary hospital and talk to a few of the veterinary technicians that work there.
It was so interesting to be able to tour dairy farms in other parts of the country. The management styles in Northern Florida are so different than up here and even different farms varied in their management styles there. There are many decisions to make in dairy farming, but the biggest is money. Some farmers are barely making enough money right now to cover all of their expenses. We all got a chance to see these decisions being made as well as ask why farmers were making them. It was certainly an experience I’m sure none of us will forget.
We would like to express our deep appreciation to Northeast Farm Credit’s AgEnhancement Program for providing the funding for ground transportation, which made this trip possible. We would also like to thank Dr. Shelia Andrews from UConn and Dr. David Bray, for taking the time to organize the trip for all of us.
by Sabryn Whitman, University of Massachusetts Department of Veterinary and Animal Sciences