Dairy Channel: How the West is done: Ohio dairy players hit the road for an education

On the last Saturday in March, seven ATI students, their instructor, 11 dairymen, assorted Extension and FBPA types headed west to tour dairy operations in Arizona followed by three days at the Western Dairy Management Conference.

Observing the culture and lifestyle in Las Vegas was at least as much of a learning experience as the conference itself. More about that later.


Saturday, March 31

8:30 a.m. Meet van in Wooster, get in the back seat and sleep all the way to Columbus to try to add to the 1.5 hours of sleep I got last night (enough to stay awake to drive to Wooster from Salem.)

10 a.m. Get to Columbus airport earlier than expected – a good thing since the America West attendant informs me and the next eight people traveling in our group that there are no more seats on the flight we had tickets for. They had over-booked the flight, something like overloading freestalls except that people on planes all have to be seated at the same time and use their seatbelts during take-off and landing, which means that the extra people really can’t all go.

Finally, we all get on the flight, although most of us will have to move to a different seat during a layover.

3 p.m. (Nevada time, 7 p.m. Ohio time) We finally get into the airport in Las Vegas. Talk about culture shock. The first thing you see getting off of the plane is people playing slot machines.

4 p.m. We hit the jackpot! Everyone’s luggage made it. Load our three vans and head south. Our route takes us over Hoover Dam. What an amazing piece of construction!

The desert is different this year than in 1999 when we were out here for the last Western Dairy Conference. They have had a “wet” spring (I think that means it rained once) so the desert is blooming. What a gift to see.

10 p.m. Arrive at hotel in Williams, Ariz. Too dark to see anything. Call Steve to let him know we got here okay. It is 1 a.m. at home, but that is about the time he usually wakes up wherever he fell asleep in the living room and makes his way to bed.


Sunday, April 1

8:30 a.m. Set out for the Grand Canyon. Lots of desert, few people, many trailers planted here and there near the road are probably squatters.

North of town, a huge black bull is standing by the side of the road. Not exactly on the right side of the fence. We leave him where he is. Later see six antelope. Stop and take pictures. We get some nice shots before they turn tail (literally) and run.

A few steers here and there. No pasture as we know it. Looks more like tumble weed before it tumbled.

Lots more desert.

Finally get to Grand Canyon. Really wide, really deep, an awesome place. A mother’s worst nightmare. Honestly, there are few guardrails along the hiking trail, which is literally on the edge of the canyon. If the sheer drop is more than 100 feet, there is usually a token guardrail. Falls of less than 100 feet seem to be considered non-fatal.

Head up (literally) to the Fairfield Snow Bowl. Elevation is over 8,000 feet. There are actually some meadows with grass up here. Birch and pine trees predominate. Continue to Oak Creek Canyon Natural Area and Sedona. Absolutely amazing rock formations for miles. You could get used to this kind of scenery and a lot of people are – new building all over the place. At least fancy homes are designed to blend in with the scenery.

Really late arrival at the motel. Dark again, so can’t see what Phoenix looks like. This tourist stuff is OK!


Monday, April 2

8:15 a.m. Back to work. Meet Bud Keister in Tempe at the United Dairymen of Arizona Cooperative headquarters. Originally from Wayne County, Bud was a dairyman in Columbiana County when I started there as a county agriculture agent. About six years ago, Bud and his family sold their herd and left for Arizona where Bud worked on a master’s degree in dairy science. Since then, he has also completed his Ph.D. Also spent several years managing a dairy in Hawaii.

Bud is currently teaching at the University of Arizona, but he will be leaving soon to join a dairy partnership in Hawaii.

9 a.m. Meet with Keith Muirfield, CEO of United Dairymen of Arizona. The major concern they have right now is the incredible damage foot-and-mouth disease could have on Arizona’s dairy industry. He predicts their industry could be destroyed in two weeks.

UDA is advising their dairymen not to give farm tours to folks from other countries unless they have already been in the United States for several weeks.

UDA was formed in 1960 to serve the fluid milk market in Maricopa County (Phoenix). The 100 members represent about 95 percent of Arizona’s dairymen.

UDA issues quota to its producers. Milk produced over a dairy farm’s quota typically receives $1.42 per hundredweight less than quota milk. To add cows or production, you buy quota from someone going out of business or sell at the non-quota price.

Banks will not finance quota purchases so that money needs to be cash up front. For a herd of 1,300 head, about average around here, this can reach $900,000. Quota, anyone?

UDA processes milk into cheese, creamers, butter or powder in addition to bottling fluid milk. Three driers that can process 300,000 pounds of milk per hour make UDA the largest balancing plant in the United States. The nearest dairy plant is 400 miles away.

Recently, Shamrock Farms, an independent, family-owned dairy farm and processor in Arizona formed the Maverick Cooperative. They do not have a quota system.

Talk about urban pressure. The 130,000 head of dairy cattle in Arizona are under as much pressure from new construction on farmland as Ohio’s cows. Last year, the population of Maricopa County grew by 11 people per hour, net. A mind-boggling fact.

10:30 a.m. Arrive at the Arizona Dairy Company, 2,500 Holsteins managed by Ross Tappan. Bud describes Ross as a very talented and laid-back manager who gets the best out of people. Average tenure of milkers at the dairy is 15 years. The dairy is owned by two “farmers” (strictly crop type folks) who grow the crops for the dairy and use manure for fertilizer.

The real hoot here is that a 2-inch rain is considered a major rain event and they don’t want it. It messes up the irrigation and “cutting” schedules. Alfalfa is “cut” 10 to 12 times per year. Time between cuttings varies with the season, ranging from 21 to 40 days. Stands typically last for four years.

Green chopped alfalfa is fed nearly year around in addition to silage, hay and grain. The dairy owns three choppers, one for haylage, two for corn silage. Since it rains little, silos are literally holes in the ground, trenches with silage at ground level when full.

Water is a major issue here. It is all owned and monitored by the State of Arizona. The dairy industry was not proactive in setting standards for per-cow water use standards. They were set based on a “traditional” management system rather than the flush systems being built now.

Arizona Dairy Company is still using most of the original facilities built in 1973. Under this traditional dry lot management system, their water use comes in at an outstanding 85 to 90 gallons of water per cow per day. Other dairies we will visit struggle to get under 200 gal/head/day. Wells at the dairy are 800 to 1,000 feet deep. The farms pays a bit under $3,000 per year as a fee for the water they pump from their own wells.

Wastewater from the dairy goes into drying beds or is used to irrigate citrus.

12:15 p.m. Head to lunch. Pass three dairies lost to development. Houses being built all around. Many “For Sale” signs on good ground fitted for irrigation, now growing no crops.

1 p.m. Lunch is at what appears to be a new casino on an Indian reservation. Inexpensive buffets are designed to pull people in. Gambling is not legal in Arizona, with the exception of reservations. Have to go around to a side entrance to get the students in. Mostly retired types in gambling at this time of day. Get a life.

Next week, a 3,700-head dairy and calving 700 heifers in March.

(The author is the northeast Ohio district dairy specialist with OSU Extension. Send comments or questions in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460.)

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