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0607 PD: Fair Oaks Dairy is a 21st century family farm

Published on 06 June 2007

Peering down from metal amphitheater seats to the glass encasing below, Rita Moenck’s small class of third-grade students shushed each other as they watched the highlight of their field trip unfold. For most of the students, it was the first time they had seen an animal give birth. After watching for more than a half hour, the class members’ whispered “eeewhs” turned to “ahhhs” and clapping when the Holstein cow they were watching finally calved her baby.

“Sitting here they’ve been surprised at watching the birthing process,” says Moenck, a school teacher and dairy farmer with 30 cows. Moenck had recently taught her class about dairying in the classroom, but she brought the students to Fair Oaks Dairy in Fair Oaks, Indiana, to see the real thing.

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“I wanted them to see the contrast between a small farm and a large farm. It seemed natural for them to come see a big operation,” Moenck says.

Moenck’s class couldn’t have seen one much bigger. Fair Oaks Dairy milks about 32,000 cows on 10 contiguous satellite farms. The family-owned operations also farm 24,000-plus acres of corn silage, haylage and ryelage. And on all but three days of the year, they let visitors tour their facility.

“These are all family-owned farms, and the families are all very actively involved in the day-to-day running of the farms. This is a redefinition of what the family farm is. It’s a 21st century family farm,” says Gary Corbett, CEO of Fair Oaks Farms.

In the early 1990s, the owners of the dairy began thinking about ways to create more exposure and direct interaction between the public and agriculture producers.

“We were of the opinion that the general person really didn’t have a feel for what agriculture is about. Or if they had an opinion it was probably based on what they had heard or seen in the media rather than from personal experience,” Corbett says.

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After years of planning, in January 2004 the dairy began giving daily bus tours of the dairy. A year later, the dairy added its birthing barn, a 4-D movie theater and interactive educational tours with animatronics. The same year a new interchange opened directly off I-65 in northwestern Indiana where the dairy is located, bringing in more visitors. This year the dairy expects to have more than 400,000 people tour the dairy, including domestic and international visitors.

Corbett says guests’ favorite two parts of the tour are the birthing center and the bus tour. In the birthing center, visitors sit and watch two cows in the calving process.

“We have 50-year-old ladies that will say this is the first opportunity they have had to see a baby calf be born,” Corbett says. “I think it’s so intriguing for people to see a mammal of that size give birth. It’s a big deal.”

Throughout each day, more than 60 visitor center employees shuffle guests through the interactive tours. Animatronics and a 4-D movie tell how manure is used to grow crops, which are then measured and mixed into a total mixed ration and fed to the cows that produce the milk. After the educational tour, buses carry guests around what is known within the farm as Dairy 2. The dairy houses more than 2,800 cows in freestall barns.

The bus stops at multiple points throughout the tour, and a pre-recorded tour guide describes how electricity produced from the dairy’s digester is used to power operations on the dairy, how long baby calves are kept on the dairy before being sent to a heifer ranch, how often the cows are fed and more.

The bus tour concludes with an overhead tour of the dairy’s parlor and milking equipment. Visitors then watch the dairy’s 72-cow rotary and 3X milking procedures in operation. At the conclusion of the tour, visitors are allowed to ask questions to their tour guides. Corbett says the dairy has prepared and constantly updates a list of more than 400 frequently asked questions that guides must review and understand.

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Among the common questions visitors ask are: How big is the farm, how big is the circumference of the rotary or how do you tell a boy cow from a girl cow? But guides have also received questions about industry topics such as, “Do you use bST?” Corbett says their guests are not challenging the dairy’s management decisions with the question, but rather truly have an interest in learning why the hormone is used on some dairies.

“On the farm the tour goes on, we’ve taken it one step further. Not only do we not use bST, we don’t use any hormones nor are those cows receiving antibiotics,” Corbett says.

Yet other than the use of rbST and antibiotics, which are selectively used on some of the other satellite dairies, the same management practices on Dairy 2 are used on the other dairies.

“We don’t do anything on the tour farm that we don’t do on any of the other units,” Corbett says. “We really wanted to remain true to what we were doing. A normal operating dairy farm – we wanted people to see that.”

Milk from Dairy 2 is used to produce cheese and other dairy products sold at a gift shop on site. The gift shop also has windows that permit visitors to watch the farm’s processes for cheese production.

“Most of them had no concept of what a large dairy farm is like. They are struck by the enormity of it, the cleanliness of it and the orderliness of it,” Corbett says.

Dairy producer Todd Roth, who owns and operates an 8,000-cow dairy in Jerome, Idaho, said after visiting the facility he was impressed with the dairy’s cleanliness.

“Everywhere we went it was gorgeous and beautiful. It gives insight into the dairy industry and how dairying can be. Most of the progressive dairies are like this one,” Roth says.

Corbett says the owners of the dairy have tried to present a positive “picture window of agriculture.” He said other farms, not necessarily as large as Fair Oaks, could do similar community outreach and education, if dairy producers are totally committed to running a dairy that is ready for public inspection at any time.

“You’ve got to be on top of your game every single moment of every single day,” Corbett says. “You have to try every day to minimize everything that could go wrong. That’s hard a lot of days. Cows die. Cows get sick. Things break down. That’s just a normal dairy operation, yet you’re allowing the public to come in and see that. We enjoy the work and think it has tremendous returns to the industry and dairymen. But don’t go into it half-heartedly.”

Among the returns Corbett and other owners itemize as benefits of the open-door dairy is the emotional bond with dairying that visitors form.

“There’s an emotional connection you can make with a visitor when you allow them to come through a facility such as ours,” Corbett says. “We’ve been impressed with the emotional connection that, we believe, people now have with dairy and dairy products by virtue of their visit here.”

Visitors and dairy producers say they agree.

“They sure paint a pretty picture for the dairy industry,” Roth says.

After the field trip, Mrs. Moenck planned to discuss what the class saw during their visit at Fair Oaks Dairy. She is sure the students will have learned something and have more questions.

“This trip is fantastic. There are so many hands-on things for the students. That is what they like at this age,” Moenck says. “[Fair Oaks Dairy] takes care of everything.” PD

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