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Relocating a dairy: The management has to be grass first

Progressive Dairyman Editor Lynn Jaynes Published on 11 June 2015

If dairying is what you love, then you find a way to do it better every day. And that’s what Stewart Bruinsma does.

In the 1970s, Bruinsma operated a grazing dairy with his family in the Netherlands. In the late 70s, he saw a shift in the European dairy market and didn’t like the direction it was heading.

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(In 1984, the European Union implemented a milk quota, placing further financial burden on dairymen, who had to pay for the right to produce milk. It also prevented Dutch dairies from profiting from the growing global demand.) So Bruinsma relocated to Michigan.

Bruinsma was initially surprised to learn how backward the dairies in the Midwest were at that time compared to Europe. Bruinsma says, “In the 1970s, the big dairies were in California and were progressive, but the Wisconsin dairies were small and didn’t wake up until the ’90s.

“You’d think in the same country, the people in Wisconsin would read about the dairies in California and make some improvements, but they hung onto the old ways. They didn’t see the future. Then milk prices dropped, so they had to change things.

“And change they did; today, Midwestern dairies are some of the most efficient and well-managed dairies in the country, with herd averages approaching 30,000 pounds.”

holstein cow

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Relocating a dairy

But Michigan was cold. And over time Bruinsma was not content with a confinement dairy model, which was very labor-intensive with a large capital investment in facilities. “In confinement dairies, you have to be out of the facilities in 10 years because the cows are hard on facilities and equipment,” Bruinsma says.

So he went looking for a place with three goals in mind: He wanted a place where cows needed no housing in the winter, a dairy that had year-round grass and a dairy that used irrigation, as he was frustrated waiting for nature to decide when the crops needed watering.

In 2010, he located 700 acres via Google Earth near Cordele, Georgia, among surrounding cotton and peanut fields. He bought it and began developing Southern Comfort Dairy, Inc. with his son, Andre.

Grass comes first

It took two years to develop the grass base of Tifton 85 under three pivots and establish an open-air milking facility designed to feed 1,200 cows, milked in groups of 400. With a smile, Bruinsma says, “It’s like the Communists – we do everything on a five-year plan.”

Bruinsma has consulted regularly with Dennis Hancock, agronomy specialist with the University of Georgia, as the grasses were established. Hancock says, “This is a rare case where the dairy focused on getting good grass before bringing in the cows, which is the right way to do it.” Bruinsma adds, “The management has to be grass first.”

In 2012, they start milking a mixed herd of Holstein, Holstein-Jersey cross and a few Montbeliarde and Brown Swiss crosses. The start-up herd was generated from gender-select semen from their Michigan dairy. The calves then went to Amish farms in Indiana until they were 400 pounds, before they were shipped to Georgia.

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Still early in its development, Southern Comfort Dairy is currently milking 350 cows, with another 800 to freshen this season. Their goal is to milk 1,200 cows, with a stocking rate of two cows per acre. Cows rotate through pastures for two milkings, which is equal to about 15 pounds dry matter on grass.

open air dairy facility

Southern challenges

While cold is something all northern dairies face, heat is something all southern dairies face. Bruinsma uses a misting system attached to the irrigation pivots to cool the cows. A 3-inch mainline runs the length of the pivot with a 1-inch T-off line.

Sections of the mister can be isolated with a valve system. Bruinsma admits the system needs improvement, as by 10 a.m. the cows come to the pivot, demanding that he turn on the mister. And if the cows are standing, then they’re not grazing.

Bruinsma is trying to come up with a different system that will cool the air first, possibly under a high-pressure system. They’ve also had to modify the pivot by electrifying the area in front of the tires so the cows aren’t caught under the tires.

In the Netherlands, Bruinsma grazed six months out of the year on ryegrass. Without grain supplementation, cows would average 50 pounds of milk. In Georgia, grass doesn’t have enough energy, so this past summer they planted corn silage as supplement.

Hancock says it’s been a paradigm shift for grazing dairies to grow silage, with its requirement for more inputs and production costs, but more dairymen are embracing corn silage. Corn silage has enabled them to stabilize feed costs, manage risk and control more variables in feed cost.

silage pile

Labor philosophy

A stable labor force has always been the bane of dairy management. Bruinsma wanted to create a dairy that minimized labor resources. He says confinement dairies are very labor-intensive.

Today, non-revenue-producing workers, whether directly employed by the dairy or subcontractors, can outnumber the revenue-producing workers (milkers) on a confinement dairy. Because labor is the second-highest expense on the farm, this is a development that needs to be closely watched. On occasion, the system needs to be recalibrated.

In Bruinsma’s model, any other services are outsourced through custom harvesting or, for instance, by having the semen supplier “install his product,” as Bruinsma says. While the number of people who service the dairy are not necessarily reduced, fewer of them are employees requiring direct management and year-round employment.

Bruinsma says, “Education is a prime example of what happens when an institution is not reformed periodically. A schoolhouse used to have three rooms and six grades. One teacher taught grades one and two, one taught three and four, and another taught grades five and six.

“Three people ran the whole school – they supervised the playground, taught art and music, and even swept the floor. Schools today have lots of workers that don’t teach – assistants, aids, supervisors, nurses, social workers, librarians, administrators. History teaches us that such models eventually will collapse under their own weight.”

Bruinsma says the confinement dairy system is on the same path: It just grew bigger and bigger, and now dairies employ an army of people who are not revenue-producing – people for breeding, for calving, for feeding calves and others for cropping, besides the parlor crews. It is very labor-intensive.

Bruinsma continues, “We are trying to create a revenue model where labor is minimal. Due to labor issues, the labor-intensive dairies are not sustainable for the future. We’ve pushed so hard for kids to go to college that we don’t value manual work anymore – but somebody has to do it. Americans won’t.”

cows in a pasture

Reducing equipmentand balancing the TMR

The Bruinsmas have blueprints to build a commodity barn and mixing barn that will get away from the TMR mixer wagon, which requires a lot of maintenance. The blueprint calls for a mixing bay with sidewalls that allow a loader with a 4-yard bucket to pile commodities into it.

Then the bucket loader rolls the feed forward and backward between the two walls to mix the batch – four times up and four times back. Then an 8-yard bucket with scales in the cab is used to load and discharge the feed in the barn.

The 8-yard bucket will deliver 6,000 pounds at a time. He says they’ve tested the feed that has been mixed this way and have found it to be more uniform. Besides that, he doesn’t like having to repair the mixer wagon.

Bruinsma admits he doesn’t have the grazing-dairy system perfected yet. “What concerns me with grazing,” he says, “is that no two people do the same thing, and that should concern us. That tells me if there was a good way to do it, then everybody would do it.”

Ed Meadows, nutritionist for Southern Comfort Dairy, says, “Some graziers wave the grass flag as a philosophic statement, and some wave the dollar flag as an economically driven statement.” With different goals and management approaches, there may never be conformity in the grazing dairy world.

Bruinsma’s open-air milking facility in Cordele has a beautiful backdrop of hardwoods, pines and green pastures that enviably grow 365 days a year. It’s a far piece from the Netherlands and Michigan. Will Georgia be Bruinsma’s last stop? Well, as Bruinsma constantly looks for ways to improve his dairy, let’s just say no major moves are currently “on the five-year plan.”  PD

PHOTOS
PHOTO 2: Establishing a good grass base of Tifton 85 bermudagrass took two years before a cow ever stepped foot on Southern Comfort Dairy.

PHOTO 3: Bruinsma based the open-air facility on models from his homeland in the Netherlands.

PHOTO 4: Silage production is becoming more popular among grazing dairies, as a way to stabilize feed costs.

PHOTO 5: Today, a mixed herd of Holstein-Jersey cross with Montebeliarde-Brown Swiss cross cows require a stocking rate of two cows per acre in Cordele, Georgia. Photos by Lynn Jaynes.

Lynn Jaynes
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