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High-desert dairy farming: How the Van Dams do it

Melissa Hart for Progressive Dairy Published on 11 September 2019
The Van Dam Family

The high desert of Clovis, New Mexico, where rainfall is rare and wide-open spaces are plentiful, is also where Joel and Jaimie Van Dam call home on Route 77 Dairy.

Joel and Jaimie are in partnership with Joel’s parents, Dean and Sherri Van Dam.

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The Van Dams live in the “middle of nowhere and, if we get 12 to 15 inches of rain, we are really happy,” Joel says. Dean started the dairy in 2007 after he and his wife and three sons left the family farm in Lancaster, California, and settled in Clovis in 2002. After one year in college, Joel left his aspirations of becoming an orthopedic surgeon to come home and partner with his father on Route 77 Dairy. Today, they milk 3,800 cows and grow corn and wheat on their 1,300 acres of irrigated ground. Joel’s brothers each have their own local dairy farms.

The Van Dams milk in a double-42 parallel parlor, and the cows are kept in large dirt lots with 400 cows in each pen. They raise their own replacements and have 1,500 to 1,600 calves in hutches at any one time. Because of the environment, there is no need for freestall housing, and the cows are all fed at a bunk.

Joel does not register or genomic test his herd but keeps his eye on the bull proofs when making decisions. “We use COBA/Select Sires for all of our mating and breeding,” he says. “They genomic test all of their bulls, and we are using their genomic information to make our decisions.”

The average cow lasts three to four lactations at Route 77. “We breed for the same thing every dairyman breeds for; we all come out of the same cup or gallon of milk,” Joel says, chuckling. Health traits and high components are the priority for the Van Dams. “Our environment down here can be harsh, and we need hardy cows,” he says. “We don’t need the prettiest cows in the neighborhood.”

Herd health is paramount, and keeping a close eye on the herd is one of Joel’s day-to-day responsibilities. “Heat detection is all done by tail chalk, and every cow is walked every day,” Joel says. “Our voluntary wait period is 70 days, which is a little longer than most guys. But we think our cow health is better, our conception rates are higher, and milk production is better because of it.”

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Two years ago, Joel started breeding some of his cows to LimFlex bulls. “It’s another source of income and, instead of giving away day-old bull calves, we are getting a premium for the cattle,” Joel says. “We raise them until about 500 pounds and then we sell them on Superior Livestock Auction.” Joel and his brothers group all of their beef calves together and sell about two to four loads a month.

The environmental regulations are “pretty friendly” to dairy farming in New Mexico, Joel says. “Everyone has been playing pretty fair as far as the regulations.” The Van Dams have a flush system for their manure management in addition to a separator where the solids are separated out and spread onto their cropground. The liquid in their lagoon is also used for irrigation.

In order to save water, they recently installed a WHRL cooling system for their milk, which is heat recovery technology that recovers the heat energy being lost by industrial refrigeration systems. Joel says, “It’s a closed-loop system; we don’t use fresh water to cool any milk. The hot freon runs through a heat exchanger with cold water, which makes that cold water hot, and it will run that up to about 140 degrees without using propane or natural gas.” He says, “It saves us about 15,000 gallons a day in freshwater usage that we get to keep now for our cows and our crops.”

Another piece of technology used at Route 77 is FeedWatch, a feed management software designed to help dairy producers accurately and easily manage their feeding systems, monitoring feed usage, sales, purchasing, intake and costs, and can interface with DC305 herd management software for detailed information on pens and individual animals. Each year, they put up 30,000 to 40,000 tons of corn silage and 15,000 to 20,000 tons of wheat silage, while their alfalfa comes from local suppliers.

Each year the Van Dams put up corn and wheat silage

Route 77 milk is shipped to Southwest Cheese, owned by DFA. Currently, their milk price is $15.27 and has been as low as $12.05. Joel says, “It’s looking like it will go up; we may get $17 and change, and that will be the highest we’ve seen since 2015.” Comparing the Southwest to the northern climates, Joel says, “Guys in the North can’t operate as cheap as we do.” Joel went on to cite that they don’t have the cost of building maintenance, the heating and cooling costs, and their ground is much cheaper in New Mexico. He says, “When it’s good down here, there is nowhere in the country that can touch us, but when it’s bad down here, we are worse than anywhere else. It’s feast or famine.”

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With 30 employees, much of their labor force is from the Hispanic community. “The labor supply tightened up for a while but, in the last year, it has eased up with more Hispanics using the visa program,” Joel says. “We have to have them to make this economy work, but they need to come into this country the right way.”

Each employee signs a contract promising to treat all of the livestock responsibly, and Joel uses Zoetis for third-party training. He says, “They have employee management schools, maternity trainings and milker trainings. Also, Diamond V is really great at feeder trainings and audits. Those companies have so much to offer and so much knowledge of things that we don’t have time to do every day.”

While Joel is in charge of employees and the day-to-day running of the farm, his wife, Jaimie, is the office manager and takes care of all of the financial information. Jaimie did not grow up on a farm, but she enjoys life on the farm. “I met her at a fundraiser called The Milk Lovers Ball, which is a charity that raises money for the local children’s home,” Joel says. Jaimie is involved in the United Dairy Industry of New Mexico and, when she’s not pushing the pencil on the farm financials, she’s helping raise their three sons – Lane, Tate and Rhett.

The uniqueness of their farm comes from the family aspect. “We are truly family-owned-and-operated,” Joel says. “I enjoy the challenge of dairy farming, the pride of having the cows and doing what we do. I like knowing we have something to wake up to and it’s ours, and we’re actually doing something that only 1 percent of people do.”

The Van Dams’ off-farm fun comes in the form of truck racing. Joel and his family enjoy racing in the Trophy Truck Class in Best in the Desert and the Texas Desert Racing Association.  end mark

PHOTO 1: The youngest members of the family-owned-and-operated dairy Route 77 are Lane, Tate and Rhett. They’re pictured here with their parents, Joel and Jaimie Van Dam.

PHOTO 2: Each year, the Van Dams put up 30,000 to 40,000 tons of corn silage and 15,000 to 20,000 tons of wheat silage, while their alfalfa comes from local suppliers. Photos courtesy of Dairy Farmers of America.

Melissa Hart is a freelance writer based in North Adams, Michigan.

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