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For Reuters, picking cows doesn’t mean picking problems

Karen Lee Published on 30 October 2009

Rick and Dan Reuter know a good cow when they see one. In a year when cows for sale have been plentiful, the Reuters agree that finding a good one – let alone 260 of them – was just as challenging as it’s always been.

In the past 34 years Rick has been on the farm in Peosta, Iowa, the herd has grown from 80 cows to more than 700. Having gone through three expansions since Dan joined the dairy, this father-son team has learned a few tricks along the way.

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“It’s easier to expand knowing there is somebody here that’s interested in it,” Rick says.

In 1997, they took the first big step, tripling their 80-cow herd and building a parlor and freestall facility. Seven years later they remodeled the parlor and added 100 more cows. This past year they added a second freestall barn to house their expanding herd and their new recruits.

Their herd averages 27,300 pounds, with 978 pounds of fat and 798 pounds of protein. Thanks in part to the sand-bedded freestalls they implemented five years ago, the herd’s somatic cell count is very low at a 68,000-to-69,000 five-year average. They milk twice a day and don’t use rBST, which enables them to collect a $0.40 premium on their milk checks.

Having built buildings before they knew what to expect in terms of permits and contractors during their recent project, when it came to finding the cows they had to be a bit more selective.

“That’s the hardest part – filling the barn,” Dan says.

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To bring their new facility up to capacity, the Reuters spent the better part of the year purchasing more cows.

“We looked at a couple thousand head to find 260,” Rick says about their search for the right cows. “There were a lot of cows for sale and a lot we didn’t want.”

They did not want springers because of the unknown risk to come. Only fresh cows were on the list.

“We had to pay more for them but we knew we were getting sound udders with low cell counts,” Dan says.

Approximately one-half of the purchased cows were registered, which helped them to know the animal’s history. They were also on test, which provided production and cell count records.

“We didn’t want to buy problems,” Dan adds, noting you get enough of those already in an expansion project.

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They paid an average of $2,100 per cow. Rick admits there were cows selling for a bargain at $1,100 like everyone had been talking about, but they were not the type of cow you used to grow your herd. Although they may have found faster results by widening their search, the Reuters only purchased cows from Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin because they didn’t want to truck them too far.

Back home, they also held tight to their own cows to grow from within. They sell genetics in the form of females, embryos and some bulls to A.I. Lately it’s just been embryos and bulls. Most of their heifers are housed right on the dairy. The other 25 percent are raised nearby because there isn’t enough housing at Reuters’. Seventy-five percent of their herd is registered, including 100 percent of their heifers.

“It helps for record keeping and breeding purposes,” Dan says. “The registered business is something we like. If you see a good animal you can look up her pedigree.”

They export embryos all over the world and have fun meeting their various customers. For instance, the other day Dan received a call from Germany of an interested buyer. They also learned that a daughter of one of their cows won a show in Japan.

“It makes that end of the business more interesting,” Rick says. Only 10 percent of their gross income comes from their genetic enterprise.

“The milk check has to pay the bills,” Dan comments. “Some guys make a living at it [the genetics], but for us it’s more of a hobby.”

“We like working with livestock,” Rick says, which is evident in their hands-on approach to managing the dairy.

Dan takes care of herd health, breeding and basically everything in the barn, while Rick feeds the cows and calves and manages the cropping.

“Both of us hate tractors,” Dan mentions.

The only reason they have the land base they do is to comply with their nutrient management plan. Manure from the freestalls is scraped into pits placed between the two barns. With the expansion they added two more lagoons to form a three-stage system for settling out the sand. The lagoons are then emptied according to their nutrient management plan.

They crop 535 acres of corn and 220 acres of alfalfa. The rotation is heavy on corn because of its ability to utilize more nutrients. Therefore they must buy a lot of hay from Kansas, North Dakota and Idaho through their local sale barn. With more than 700 cows and acres to match, the Reuters realize they couldn’t do it alone. They have eight employees, some full-time and some part-time.

“We’re pretty fortunate the people who work here are all really good,” says Rick.

Dan adds, “That’s more important than what a lot of people think it is.”

They rely on local help, citing unfortunate experiences with Hispanic labor in the past. Employees are trained in all aspects of the dairy.

“Everybody knows how to do everything,” Rick mentions. There is also no job too big or too small for anyone on the farm.

“Don’t ask them to do anything you won’t do yourself,” Rick says. “Both of us are here all the time and work alongside them.”

With good people and a new barn full of good cows, the only thing the Reuters are left hoping for is a good price for the milk they produce. PD

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