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0409 PD: Larson Dairy: Almost 70 years in the making in south Florida

Karen Lee Published on 25 February 2009

The dairy industry in south Florida has seen its share of changes in the last 70 years, and producer Red Larson has witnessed all of them from his start as a hand milker to the large dairy operations he manages today.

Louis E. “Red” Larson was born near Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on a small dairy. He recalled how his parents went broke during the Dust Bowl and the family moved to Florida to live with his grandparents who operated a machine shop. His grandfather’s friend had a dairy, so Larson took a job there hand milking for $2 a day. He then went on to serve the country in World War II and attended the University of Miami after the war.

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Larson soon became a partner with a friend who owned a dairy and shortly thereafter married his wife, Reda. They made a living on her income and used his farm profits to purchase more cows.

The dairy was successful in supplying the city of Key West with all its milk. As the home of a Navy base, they were ensured a strong customer.

Larson later sold this farm and moved to Palm Beach County. He also invested in property in Okeechobee County.

Over the years, he merged 37 different dairies into the 10,000 acres and three dairies that he and a pair of grandsons own and operate today in the Okeechobee area. They milk 6,000 cows, with average cow production at 21,000 pounds. Larson Dairy has approximately 90 employees with 30 at each farm.

Larson’s two sons, Woody and John, each have farms of their own and in total the family has in excess of 10,000 cows.

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Larson opened up one of his dairies to the Managers Academy tour group in late January. At this dairy, they were milking 2,100 cows that averaged 75 pounds a day.

“That’s pretty good for Florida,” he said.

Cows here are milked three times a day in a double-34 parlor. Three milkers and one pusher can move 300 cows per hour.

The freestalls hold 550 to 600 cows each and are scraped clean each day with skidloaders.

This dairy raises its replacement heifers, and bull calves are grown to 300-400 pounds and then sold to feedlots.

Most of the calving occurs in early fall due to natural conception delays caused by late summer heat and humidity. All calves are treated for prevention of coccidiosis and respiratory problems that occur with temperature changes. Calves are housed in hutches and then group pens of 20 to 30 per pen until they reach four months of age. At that point they are fed a TMR blend.

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Cows at Larson Dairy Inc. are bred for a good udder, good feet and legs and longevity with less concern about pounds per lactation.

Larson selects the bulls to be used and the breeder then chooses from that pool for each mating. Some of the dairies are utilizing the mating program from ABS of which they’ve been a customer for over 50 years.

A few years ago they started using Jersey semen and then Holstein/Jersey cross. Now they use sexed semen on their heifers.

In the cooler part of the year, especially December and January, synch programs are used heavily on the herd. Summer breeding typically results in single-digit pregnancy and conception rates, reported Jim Umphrey, district sales manager and technical service consultant for ABS Global, Inc.

“If they’re not bred by May 15, it’s not going to happen until November,” Umphrey said.

Environmental challenges
In 1986, environmental restrictions were placed on the dairies as the state and federal governments stepped in to protect Lake Okeechobee. Located north of the Everglades and south of the dairies, it is the second largest freshwater lake in the U.S. and the backup drinking water supply for the state of Florida, Larson said.

“The problem was phosphorus,” Larson said. “Nitrogen is not a problem. It’s one of concern, but not a major problem.”

In addition, there is a bedrock pan six to eight feet under the soil that stops water absorption at a shallow level.

To handle Florida’s Dairy Rule and the restrictions it placed on the farms, Larson appointed Jim Green, who had previously been in charge of cutting the grass for the dairies.

Green explained that each of the dairies have a three-stage lagoon. At the dairy visited by those at Managers Academy, manure is captured in the first-stage lagoon after a gravity flow sand separator captures and recycles 80 to 90 percent of the sand. Gravity moves the liquids from one stage to the next, and liquid from the final lagoon is recycled to flush the barns or irrigated on the fields with a center point pivot.

One of the farm’s spray fields is fed with a freshwater pond. A tile system under the field returns the water to the pond.

As a part of the Dairy Rule, all rainwater on the farm must be captured. Throughout much of the dairy a ditch system is used to collect any seepage and pump it back to the farm. At another farm there is pipe placed throughout the field system that pumps the water back to the farm.

“A tributary runs between two of the farms so we have to be very careful on that high-intensity land,” Green said.

Larson explained how the cost to implement these environmental measures was quite high. One issue was pulling cattle off pasture and into confinement housing in order to contain and manage the manure. “We received cost-sharing from the state government which helped us accomplish this,” he said.

However, in 2004 several hurricanes struck the area and damaged the barns. The farm was out of power for 21 days.

“We burned up several generators,” Larson said. They had just enough generators to power the farm, but soon found that they were not built to run wide open for an extended amount of time. They’ve since learned to double the kilowatt-hours of their capacity.

The Larsons and their employees worked through the hurricanes. In order to keep compliance with regulations, they notified the Department of Environmental Protection as extremely heavy rains resulted in overflow from the lagoons.

The dairies’ acreage is used to grow warm weather grasses that are cut every 28 to 36 days. The harvested grasses are kept in bags.

The Larsons also feed corn silage that is grown on muck land away from the dairies. The corn is planted in the middle to end of February. Harvest of 24 to 26 tons per acre begins in May and is usually complete by the Fourth of July.

The Larson family has established a stakehold for themselves in the Florida dairy industry and over time one thing has remained constant – Larson’s cows continue to provide fresh fluid milk for residents in south Florida. PD

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