One of the big reasons beef grain finishing and harvest was consolidated to the more remote regions of the American West was that many non-agriculture related people, living in heavier populated areas, did not like the odors associated with such enterprises. The “Beef-Belt” (Nebraska, West Kansas, Texas Panhandle & East Colorado) is a windy place so odors can often be rapidly diluted throughout the lower atmosphere. Still, I have been to harvest plants there on days when the combined smells from feedlots, harvest plants and rendering plants were nearly overwhelming. Out there, the beef industry is a major economic driver (a lot of people’s bread & butter) so those that want to stay there get used to the smell. I have heard it said that, “that’s the smell of money.”
When I first learned of a 36,000 cow mega dairy, about 7,000 sow hog operation and grain farm just southeast of Chicago, my first impression was why are influential urban and suburban people putting up with all that foul smell? Little did I know that Fair Oaks Farms had successfully overcome that major objection of large-scale animal agriculture co-existing near food product needing population centers. Odor control there is accomplished by sending fresh animal waste through manure digesters as quickly as possible. Further, a highly useful by-product of fresh manure processing is captured gases that are used as energy. When my wife and I recently visited Fair Oaks Farms, I can honestly say that I was surprised how odor free it and the surrounding area was. Pulling off odor control was a major financial feat because being close to large dairy processors saves tons of money in transport costs. The occasional downsides of replacing around 200 conventional U.S. family dairy farms include: having to dump milk when winter weather stops or significantly slows tanker trucks and I presume being unable to milk during times when 72 cow milking carousels experience mechanical breakdowns. There could also be a rise in mastitis after prolonged milking stoppages.
Another thing that initially perplexed me was why mega dairies such as this one, and those in California’s San Joaquin Valley, are economically feasible, because I remember the government whole-herd dairy buy-outs of the mid 1980’s and more dairy buy-outs in the mid 2000’s. After pondering, I guessed that economies of scale, division of labor, being able to employ scientific professionals and undercutting the competition with volume pricing were all sound reasons for moneyed people to invest in the Mega-Dairy model.
Our tour group was told that Fair Oaks was initially able to buy a 10,000 acre block of land then later acquired an abutting 9,000 acres. I speculate that those land blocks were put together decades ago by a few rich Chicago residents. Some articles on the internet put Fair Oaks Farm’s at 27,000 acres. The additional 8,000 reported acres could be nearby rented crop land. The soil fertility and moist climate of the mid-west are another big economic plus for the location of Fair Oaks.
Non-dry milk cows and laying hens both produce 365 days a year. The hens can relieve themselves; while the cows cannot. Further, cows must be fed & watered every day, even an average size dairy farm can expect to have a new calf about every day and a half, cows must be monitored for heat & artificially inseminated and be daily watched for mastitis Also, cows are dry for the last 2 months of their yearly pregnancy and need to be separated out from milking milk cows. Artificial insemination is practiced to control the spread of disease, increase genetic improvement and to avoid the dangers associated with having big bulls on site. Cows are marked with crayon like markers on their tail heads to keep track of where they are at in their 21 day heat cycle. These constant labor demands are another good reason to move to the corporate dairy model; where around the clock labor is divided among many people. Further, by milking three times a day cows get more exercise while walking to and from the milking parlor plus produce more milk.
Silage is a big part of a dairy cow ration formulation. Up-right silos are expensive, are comparatively prone to mechanical breakdown and gas accumulations inside of them can suffocate people working to repair the silo’s unloading mechanisms. Trench and bunk concrete silos are less expensive, but can be harder to make good silage in. Fair Oaks has opted to compact mounds of green silage, using heavy equipment, then cover the mounds tightly with tarps that are weighed down with a multitude of large rubber tire sidewalls. Cutting down the tires prevents stagnant water from accumulating in tires; where it can become a mosquito breeding ground. Silage and most other ration components are conveniently scooped up with front loaders in what they call their commodities area of each group farm.
In Fair Oaks Farms herd’s, the reported incidence of twin calving is 6%. 36,000 X .06 = 2,160. 36,000 + 2,160 = about 38,160 calves per year. 38,160 divided by 365 = about 104 calves being born each day. Judging from the number of calf huts outside the barns we visited, calves are only kept long enough to feed them colostrum milk; that has been gathered from newly freshened cows then frozen. Most heifers go to distant development farms for 2 years, then for bio-security reasons return to the same farm group that they came from when they are 7 months pregnant. I believe bull calves are sold to feeders that quickly steer them, unless they go into the very small veal market. There are moderate size dairy steer kill plants in Green Bay , WI and Plainwell, MI that have both been in existence for a very long time. One on-line article stated that Fair Oaks is implementing technology that will produce approximately an 80% heifer calf crop. Over hundreds of years dairy cattle have undergone selective breeding so that todays cows are basically big uddered bags of bones that produce far more milk than a calf or two could possibly consume. Steaks from dairy steers tend to marble well (the better a cattle breed milks, the better it tends to marble), rib-eyes are more elongated (less plump) than those from beef breeds and moderately young retail market dairy lean tends to be slightly darker colored than normal lean from similar aged beef breeds.
Due to bio-security concerns, I assume that Fair Oaks only brings cows from just one of their farm groups into the birthing auditorium; for paying public viewing. 104 calves a day divided by 11 farm groups still give about 9 chances for visitors to catch calf births during visiting hours. However, first calf heifers are likely remain back with their farm group due to often needing more help and being new to calving. The day we were there we were lucky enough to see two birthing cows and both needed assistance. I say that we were lucky because the incidence of both those calf positions is relatively low. First we saw twins born. A heifer came out first then a bull calf was breach and had to be pulled. The freemartin phenomenon in cattle dictates that the heifer will likely be sterile and of no use for milk production. Freemartinism is another good reason to try and select for more heifer calves. Next we saw a single birth where the front feet presented normally, but the calf’s head was turned back and needed to be worked back into a smooth exiting position. Ideally calving should be unassisted, but Fair Oaks is large enough to have technicians on hand around the clock. When I was able to catch up with the birthing tech at the auditorium, to ask her about the incidence of twinning, she was rather stand-offish. I’m guessing that she may have had encounters with never gone hungry PETA heads in the past.
At Fair Oaks they continuously milk for 7 hours then clean up the parlor for 1 hour in a never ending cycle. Teats are dipped in an antibacterial lotion after each milking; then cows have free-choice single animal stalls to lay in back at their barn. Each stall is regularly refilled with clean sand (while cows are out being milked) and head-in stalls are just the right length so that cows poop and pee into the concrete walk way, where it can easily be skid-loader pushed into a lagoon that feeds the manure digester. There are two center rows of feed on the ground in each barn. The feed used in the milking parlor may be a little more appealing in order to coax cows there. Or, maybe they just get uncomfortable and want to be milked. Fair Oaks has their own sand quarry and a lot of kicked out sand is separated from manure, sterilized then recycled back into stalls. Digested/composted manure is stockpiled to be spread on crop fields during the off season.
Each cow carries a chip that is read during each milking to record each cow’s milk output. So if a cow consistently kicks off the milkers she might get prematurely culled from the herd. The average productive milk producing age of the cows is 5 to 7 years; then they are salvaged to make good ground beef products. Cows are treated pretty darn good their entire lives and never suffer from old age. The chips are implanted in ear tags so that they won’t ever end up in further processed ground beef products. Related thought: Free-range beef brood cows are sometimes hit with shotguns by goofy hunters and the resulting buckshot later shows up at processing plant metal detectors. Meat from closely held dairy cows should never cause a buckshot contamination issue.
Fair Oak’s milk most often goes to processors in Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee; with the Kroger company currently being their biggest customer. Fair Oaks processes approximately 1% of their milk into company labeled ice cream and cheese products.
Current cost of the Dairy tour is $20 per person. $29 if you also want to learn about Fair Oaks hog enterprises.
Corrections to and additional input to this post are encouraged.