Houcks looking to upgrade their Culpeper dairy with automatic milkers

CM-MR-2-Houckby Karl H. Kazaks

CULPEPER, VA — “We need to upgrade,” said Joe Houck, explaining his family’s plan to build a new dairy parlor with robotic milkers. “Our current parlor was modern decades ago.”

Construction hasn’t begun yet, but within a year Houck and his son Craig, who farms full-time with his father, expect work to be underway on a new parlor and tank room, and an extension of the freestall barn.

At present, the dairy milks 140 Holsteins 2x. The Houcks intend to internally build their herd to 180 cows by the time they move to the new parlor, to be better sized for three automatic milkers.

At their present herd size, Joe said, “We’re too big for two milkers and two small for three milkers.”
Craig is looking forward to the automatic milkers for many reasons, including the fact that “you get a lot more information from the robots.”

Joe’s father started a grade A dairy in the early 1950s, then moved to the farm’s current location in southern Culpeper County, alongside the Rapidan River, in the 1970s. The herd is entirely registered, with its foundation tracing back to registered calves purchased in the 1950s.

“We’re third-generation dairy farmers with these cows,” Joe said.

“It’s nice to be able to trace the lineage,” Craig said.

The farm includes about 650 acres of cropland. The Houcks raise forage for their dairy as well as soybeans (group three and group four) as a cash crop.

Two years ago, the Houcks planted barley for forage, following a summer drought with reduced corn yields. Even with the good corn harvest last year, the Houcks have continued to plant barley for forage. This year they wrapped barley.

Last year the Houcks also grew triticale. They are looking forward to seeing how it works as a feed for their cows. They also grow forage oats. Their farming is almost entirely no-till.

Being adjacent to the Rapidan River has its advantages, but it also leads to the risk of flooding. In 1985, Craig recalled, a flood swamped some of the Houck’s cropland, completely submerging 100 acres of tasseling corn.

“You couldn’t see a tassel anywhere,” he said.

In addition to Joe and Craig, the farm has three full-time employees. Craig’s brother Mark also helps out regularly.

Joe’s wife Pat is in charge of much of the farm’s paperwork, helps with the calves and for many years was a milker. Craig lives on the farm with his wife Sarah and their two daughters, eight and five years old, Rachel and Scout. Joe and Pat also have a daughter who lives in Ohio.

When Craig looks around his farm he sees many signs of change — his growing daughters, the farm’s plan to use robotic milkers.

“Time marches on,” he said.

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