Once-a-day milking opens doors

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SALEM, Ohio – As farmers across the country are milking later into the night, a handful of farmers are slipping into bed earlier than ever.

As the late-night farmers pack a first, second and third milking into their already-hectic day, the other batch of farmers is taking on a second job, taking up a new hobby or doing the unthinkable: relaxing.

For decades, the farmer has been regarded as a work horse: in the barn before dawn, in dusty fields and dank parlors for hours, in from the barn long after the rest of the house is asleep.

But a new wave of farmers challenges this stereotype by milking once a day.

Yes, production will suffer. Yes, the milk check will be smaller.

But, according to Ohio State’s David Zartman, it may be worth it if farmers finally have a chance to pursue interests off the farm.

‘Robbing our life.’ “There was no family farm, no family money and no big lottery wins,” Richard Hendriks said about the New Zealand dairy he and his wife started nine years ago.

“We have worked our butts off and felt twice-a-day milking was robbing us of our life.”

Two years ago, the couple switched its grass-fed dairy herd to once-a-day milking.

“We have lower costs, a fabulous lifestyle, and we are producing almost as much per hectare as our district,” Hendriks said.

“Psychologically, every season feels like a record year. We will never milk twice a day again.”

The couple milked 150 cows on a twice-a-day program but increased the herd by 25 head when they shifted to once-a-day milking.

The Hendriks are so pleased with their switch that they started a Web site at www.oadmilking.co.nz.

Spare time. Once-a-day milking fits an operation that wants fewer employees, less economic inputs and a less stressful lifestyle, said Zartman, animal scientist.

Also an advocate of combining once-a-day milking with seasonal dairying, Zartman said economic feasibility is the biggest uncertainty.

Although production likely suffers, he said what farmers do in their new spare time will determine success.

For example, pursuing a hobby they’ve always wanted to do; or supplementing their income with a second, less stressful job; or going to school part time to either perfect their dairy skills or learn a new trade.

Not only would it open the doors for farmers wanting a life beyond farming, it would also make the agricultural lifestyle more appealing to the next generation, Zartman said.

Learning the ropes. The drop in production isn’t always permanent.

In the Hendriks’ second season of once-a-day milking, they had their second highest production in nine years.

Although the Hendriks have had good luck with their herd, Zartman said it’s hard to gauge a cow’s reaction to fewer trips to the parlor.

Some cows may continue milking 60 pounds a day with once-a-day milking, but others “might drop like a rock,” he said.

It would take five years to “shake out the genetics” and have a herd accustomed to once-a-day milking, he predicted.

California experience. Mark McAfee of Fresno, Calif., is a newcomer to the once-a-day milking world.

He first looked into it several months ago. Now, a month later, his 280-head herd is already settled into the new milking method.

For McAfee, it wasn’t just a decision based on time. He liked the idea of a calmer dairy environment.

With twice-a-day milking, the cows at McAfee’s organic dairy produced 45 pounds a day on average. Although he suffered a 30 percent to 35 percent production loss, he thinks he can get back up to 45-48 pounds with ration changes.

Not only does McAfee like that his cows are less stressed and their body condition increased, but his expenses also diminished.

He reduced his overhead related to manpower by 50 percent, he uses half as much teat dip and towels and sees fewer cases of mastitis.

Word to the wise. Although some farmers successfully transition to once-a-day milking, Zartman cautions it isn’t for everyone.

Most farmers with large herds and hired help cannot sustain a 30 percent drop in production.

Zartman also said the majority of farmers who switch to once-a-day milking are grass-based dairies. Few are confinement operations, he said.

(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at khebert@farmanddairy.com.)

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