Leaders in learning

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JAMESTOWN, Pa. – When Al and Betty Wester head out to the barn each day for chores or milking, it’s not unusual for them to have an audience.
They do their work under the attentive eyes of students, teachers, moms, dads, city folk, rural dwellers and any other type of curious onlooker who takes time to stop. The visitors are there to watch, to understand, to learn where their milk comes from.
And the Westers are there to teach them.
On a mission. Al and Betty milk 107 head at their Jamestown, Pa., dairy, Wester Jersey Farm.
Besides typical goals like low somatic cell counts and high milk production, the Westers also want to educate.
They want people to understand how a dairy operates and how dairy animals live. They want people to have a firsthand farm experience and gain confidence in America’s food supply.
So, the Westers do what comes naturally – they invite them in.
“We think that people really need to tour a farm to understand what really goes on,” Al said.
The couple gives tours of their farm, explaining the process as they walk through the milking parlor and barns. They answer questions about the milkers, the tank, the cows.
And when it’s over, they simply want their guests to understand that farming is an honest, down-to-earth job.
“We want them to have a positive impression of farms when they leave here,” Al said.
Agritourism. The farm also includes a small bed and breakfast – Wester Farm B&B Cottages and Tours – with two cottages already up and two more in the planning stage. If bed and breakfast visitors want, they have the opportunity to take a tour, ask questions and gain knowledge they might not be able to get otherwise.
The Westers also use an old silo to give their farm a unique touch. Al is installing steps inside the empty silo so visitors can walk to the top for a bird’s-eye view of the land.
With so many guests, biosecurity is a top priority for the Westers. The tours are always guided and everyone who visits has to put on a pair of disposable, plastic boots before walking through the barns. Although Al and Betty have an open-door policy, they said it’s important to remember the farm is still a working dairy.
The farm. Al, a carpenter and retired teacher, designed the farm’s double-five herringbone milking parlor. Made to conserve time, energy and water, the parlor was constructed so one person can do the milking, and cleaning up afterward takes only about 10 minutes.
The animals are bedded in sand with 2 inches of Styrofoam underneath. Barn aisles are covered with sawdust twice a day to prevent cows from slipping and to help keep their feet dry.
Al takes the veterinarian’s role at the farm, while Betty manages the livestock. The herd totals about 210 animals, including some homegrown bulls used for clean up.
Early in their dairy career, the Westers found that expanding the herd externally could have bad consequences, like bringing diseases into a healthy herd. Now, most of their expansion comes from within.
Production. In 2006, the Westers’ herd averaged 18,000 pounds of milk and the most recent test showed three cows milked more than 100 pounds a day and 32 milked more than 70.
The Westers have been successful dairymen for several years, earning the distinction of Pennsylvania’s top herd in 1999. Today, about 10 percent of their cows are scored Excellent, according to Al.
Although the dairy is a business, it’s also personal to the Westers. The couple has little use for the animals’ identification numbers, preferring instead to call them by name. Every cow, calf and heifer has a yellow ear tag letting visitors know if she goes by Gwendolyn, Gardenia, Becky or one of the other hundreds of names the Westers have chosen.
Dumplins. When the couple bought their first Jersey in 1975, a career in the dairy industry wasn’t the first thing on their minds.
“We were just going to have a family cow,” Betty said.
The cow, Dumplins, lived in the Westers’ garage until Al built an 18-by-16 foot barn to house her.
Five years later, it looked like the Westers’ dairy days were all but over when they sold Dumplins and her calf before going to California on a six-week vacation.
But when they got home, they realized something was missing and quickly decided they wanted their cow back.
Not only did they buy Dumplins again, they also purchased five grade Jersey calves.
“Our herd came from essentially those five calves,” Al said.
The Westers decided to raise Jerseys because they are small, economical to keep and give rich milk. And those are the very same reasons they continue to raise Jerseys today, Al said.
Education. In the beginning, the Westers had little knowledge about dairy production, so they learned as they went.
They asked questions and tried to imitate successful operations. Even though they’re usually the ones answering questions now, they haven’t stopped looking to other dairymen for advice.
“We still can’t get out of that habit of saying, ‘how do you do that?'” Betty said.
But whether they’re asking or answering, it’s the learning that important to the Westers. It doesn’t matter if you’re learning to farm or learning how milk gets to the dairy case, it’s the understanding that brings farmers and consumers together.
(Reporter Janelle Skrinjar welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at jskrinjar@farmanddairy.com.)

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