by Sally Colby
Every dairy farmer does their best to provide excellent care and comfort for cows, but one Maryland farm goes a little further. David Pyle and his wife Katie Dotterer-Pyle, owners of Cow Comfort Inn Dairy in Union Bridge, MD, are young farmers who are committed to outstanding animal welfare.
Both David and Katie were third generation dairy farmers on their family farms; David on a 200-cow dairy in Vermont and Katie on a 1,000-cow dairy in central Pennsylvania. Katie’s plan was to take over the farm after graduating from college, but her father’s rule about returning to the family farm required her to work elsewhere for a year. She chose to work at Mason-Dixon Farms in Gettysburg, PA and that’s where she met David. They married, returned to Katie’s family farm and worked there for a little over a year.
“From the time I met David, he wanted to have his own dairy farm,” said Katie. “We decided to leave the (family) farm, bought 90 Holsteins in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and rented the farm they were on. We were there a year, then relocated to Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. At that point we had 120 cows. We entered a partnership and grew the herd to 400 cows within a year.”
After about four years in Lewisburg, David and Katie realized they wanted to farm on their own. “We started looking for dairies,” said Katie. “David wanted to go to Idaho or New York, and I wanted to go somewhere I’d never see snow again. Maryland was a compromise, and it was also the right situation for us. We’re a feed-purchase operation and focus solely on the cows.”
In 2013, David and Katie purchased and moved to an 87-acre farm in Maryland with 200 cows from the partnership. They added 200 cows to bring the facility up to capacity. “In Virginia, we had started breeding the Holsteins to Jerseys,” said Katie. “I always wanted Jerseys and David’s family had registered Jerseys. By the time we reached 400 cows, it was still a mixed herd but the majority were Jerseys.” Since acreage is limited, heifers are raised on a nearby farm and dry cows are on another nearby farm until they freshen.
The Jerseys are paying off because they’re more efficient, handle heat better than Holsteins and have higher components. Katie says David is a true cow whisperer and knows every cow in the herd. “His strong point is reproduction, and he does a full reproduction program including weekly ultrasounds,” she said. “He also loves working on herd nutrition.”
Sire selection is based on longevity, feet and legs and calving ease. All sires for the milking herd are Jersey, and some cows are bred with beef semen, either Angus or Wagu, and those offspring are sold in lots for finishing as beef.
The calf barn, or ‘calf palace’, is spacious, light and well ventilated. Calves are raised in individual pens for about 10 days then moved to group housing where they’re fed with an automatic calf feeder. “Group housing is the way to go,” said Katie. “Calves usually need a bit of help getting started but they catch on quickly.” Calves’ RFID tags monitor milk intake, which allows quick action if an individual animal is consuming less than normal.
The herd is milked twice a day in a double 12-herringbone parlor. Cows are equipped with ankle monitors to track steps for heat detection and to catch potential health issues early, and also track milk weights. An office computer runs the herd monitoring system for consistent cow checks, and deviation reports allow quick response to any issues.
Alley scrapers run continuously to keep the freestall barns clean. “Manure goes through a separator, which pushes out the liquid and makes great bedding,” said Katie, adding that dried manure solids are the most economical choice for cow comfort and consistently low somatic cell counts. The liquid portion is funneled to a reception pit, then stored in lagoons prior to land application according to the farm’s nutrient management plan. Stalls are equipped with mattresses and are groomed twice a day when cows are out of the barn for milking.
Katie has always wanted to have her own store and is working toward that goal with plans for an on-farm ice cream stand this summer. “Being first generation, we don’t have the equity of a multi-generational farm,” she said. “How can I, as a first generation farmer, do this on the cheap but still have a good product using our milk? The plan is to make the best soft-serve ice cream with really high fat content. We’re going to have soft serve ice cream and milkshakes to start.”
As strong believers in helping the non-ag public learn about agriculture, David and Katie organized a cow camp on the farm last summer. “Each child had a heifer calf to work with all week,” said Katie. “They learned how to care for it, lead it, wash and clip it. At the end of the week, we held a mock show.”
Campers were all non-farm kids, and Katie says that while it’s a lot of work, it’s worthwhile. “Every day, there was an educational component,” she said. “Monday was about washing and clipping, and on Tuesday our hoof trimmer and veterinarian were here. The vet brought a sonogram machine and a projector so the kids could see a live calf in utero. Everyone listened to the cow’s heartbeat, and they could talk with the vet about what he does. On Wednesday, our nutritionist brought buckets of feed and talked about the stomachs of the cow.” Katie says her favorite day was Thursday, when Land-O-Lakes demonstrated the Charm test for antibiotics. “This was to drive home the fact that there are no antibiotics in milk,” she said. “We milked a cow into a can and the kids had test tubes; one with good milk and the other purposely contaminated. They didn’t know which was which, and took turns with the Charm test to see which samples had antibiotics.”
Katie works part-time off the farm as a Spanish teacher and also teaches English to Hispanic workers on the farm. She plans to offer online Spanish classes for the ag/dairy industry this coming fall. Although it takes time, Katie actively supports the dairy industry and promotes Cow Comfort Inn through Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter.
Katie sums up the farm mission she and David are committed to: “We work together as a team here with two goals — to take care of the cows as best we can and to ship a high-quality product.”
Visit Cow Comfort Inn on Facebook.