It isn’t unusual for dairy farmers to call it quits. With a move toward larger dairies, small farmers often feel the pinch, and opting out is sometimes the sensible option.
That’s what happened to Karen and Mike Hooper, who retired from their dairy farm outside of Syracuse, NY, and headed to Florida. Dairying had become stressful, and the herd — as well as the farmers — wasn’t able to function optimally. Cows were pushed to make more milk, and suffered with hock and hoof issues, mastitis, and other concerns.
“We were taught old-school,” Karen Hooper said, and getting the most milk from the herd was the goal. “Organics wasn’t even on the radar.”
But, that all changed during their eight-year hiatus from dairy farming. Unhappy in Florida, and missing the cows, the couple decided they needed to explore another path to dairying. They began to read and research, study and observe, and came to the conclusion that there was a better way. While they had dismissed organic dairy farming during their conventional dairy days, what they were learning caused them to reconsider.
With organic dairy products in demand, sometimes conventional dairy farmers try to make a switch. Unfortunately, if this doesn’t include a real commitment to and understanding of organic principles and practices, success is fleeting. The Hoopers committed everything to a new beginning in certified organic dairy farming.
“You need to have the passion for organics to be successful,” Mike said.
They formulated a long-term plan to return to dairying. With a goal in place to keep farming until they were really ready for retirement, they designed a dairy farm management plan and started from scratch. They built a new barn in 2010, and the dairy began milking in 2015. They started with 12 non-organic young stock, and increased the herd to 100 before beginning the herd’s transition to certified organic. The land was organic from the beginning.
Welcome to River Ridge Dairy, in Memphis, NY. It’s just across the street from the Hopper’s old dairy, but a world away in philosophy and design.
“It’s all about the cows” is the repeated mantra here. From barn design to organic certification, robotic milking to cow brushes; it’s the cows that matter.
“It’s all cow comfort and longevity of the cow,” Mike Hooper said. The goal is to have cows for seven or eight lactations.
They built the compost bedded pack barn, where the cows are free to wander as they please, to accommodate the type of farming they wanted to do.
“There are no restrictions on the cows,” Karen said. “Everything is free choice to them. It’s what makes sense for us.”
The cows are free to eat when they want, lie down at will, visit the cow brush — which they do frequently — and go to the robot to get milked. During the grazing season, the milking herd can wander in and out of the barn at will, and gates will lead them to fresh pastures every 12 hours, after milking, rotating them through the 100 acres of pasture. Heifers and young stock will be rotationally grazed all summer, with no barn access.
The farm office is upstairs, above the robots, overlooking the barn. From here, the large glass windows provide the couple with a full view of their operation, while the computer system constantly relays information from the two Lely Astronaut robotic milking systems. The maternity pens and the nursery are in view, too. Weaned calves are in a small group pen within the main bedded pack barn. A deck off the office is the perfect perch for viewing the cows.
The bedded pack barn is rototilled every day, to kill any pathogens. The temperature of the bedded pack remains at 120-130 degrees, and it has no foul odor. Sawdust is added once per week as a top dressing, keeping moisture in the pack and off the cows, and adding carbon as it breaks down. The pack will get to about six feet in depth. In June, after aerating the fields, the bedded pack material is spread.
“We knew we were going robotic from the beginning,” Karen said. They wanted to be self-employed in dairy farming for the rest of their lives, and robots would make that possible. Today, they both work full-time at the dairy, and operate the farm with the assistance of two valued employees, couple Shawn and Tina Thomas.
The herd began milking last year. As the herd grew to include 83 milking head, an additional robot was added. The Hoopers can grow their herd to the desired 120 milking head with two robots.
The Lely robots are serviced by their dealer, Finger Lakes Dairy Services, Inc. Having a reliable, nearby dealer to help monitor and maintain the robotic system was essential to their decision to go robotic. While the robotic milking system frees the couple from milking time, it also requires its own routine upkeep, as well as prompt maintenance and service should something go wrong.
The robotic milking system allows the farmers more time to observe and be with the herd.
“We give them no reason to fear us or be scared,” Karen said, noting the herd is much calmer, with less health problems and increased productivity than their conventional herd was.
The Hoopers are alerted by the robotic system if any cows are reluctant to milk on their own. One or two cows might occasionally need a push, and they will round up those cows, and lead them into the robot.
Fresh cows are allowed to milk as frequently as they wish. Individual parameters for milking specific cows are entered into the robots. The robots provide each cow with a preprogrammed amount of feed pellets during milking. The nutritionist can access this information and make changes remotely as needed.
A total mixed ration is fed twice per day at the bunk, consisting of baleage and a small amount of corn, with minerals and salt offered free choice. Almost 100 percent of the bunk ration is grown on the farm’s 300 acres of cropland. The pellets fed through the robot are a purchased custom made certified organic high-energy mix. Cows are fed a portion of their daily intake via the robot.
“We average about 10 pounds of pellets (through the robot) a day per cow. It depends on the individual cow,” Karen said. “The robot calculates her need throughout her lactation.”
The Lely milking robots provide a tremendous data on the cows. Information gleaned from the robots can be remotely monitored. Data such as butterfat and protein content of the milk, rumination times, activity level and cow metabolic data are all available.
“For an organic producer, finding a problem before it’s a big problem is huge,” Mike said.
The Hoopers have a veterinarian room, stocked with homeopathic and natural treatments. They’ve had no issues with pneumonia, no feet issues and have only needed the vet for pregnancy checks and one emergency visit.
The goal is to “keep them on their ‘A’ game,” Karen said of the herd. “It’s all about the cows. I don’t want to lose my girls.”
It’s all about longevity for the dairy farmer, too. With robotic milking systems and healthy, content cows, the Hoopers may just be a part of a new dairy revitalization.