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To bring in a new generation, Meadow Vista Dairy expanded

PD Editor Emily Caldwell Published on 31 October 2010

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So few young people are willing or able to return to the family farm these days, and those who do are often bogged down with family dynamics and power struggles.

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The Risser family of Bainbridge, Pennsylvania, was able to avoid these problems when welcoming in the next generation by growing the operation.

Justin Risser returned to his family’s farm, Meadow Vista Dairy, in 2006 after graduating from Delaware Valley College. The operation is a three-way partnership owned by his father, Gerald; uncle, Don; and cousin, Eric. The farm also employs Justin’s brothers Jason, Jordan and Jared as well as herd manager Tanya Baldwin and six milkers.

Features of the new facilities
When Justin joined the operation full-time, the Rissers expanded, increasing their then-300-cow herd to 750. The expansion included a new freestall barn, designed for sand bedding and installed with tunnel ventilation.

“Some of the biggest benefits we’ve seen, going from the old facility to this new barn, are animal cleanliness and milk quality. Our somatic cell count has come way down,” Justin says. “We’ve also seen better cow footing and overall mobility.”

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Don Risser credits the Pennsylvania Center for Dairy Excellence ’s Dairy Profit Team program for encouraging the family to consider sand bedding.

“Before beginning construction, we discussed our goals of milk quality, high milk production and reproduction,” Don says. “They told us it would be very difficult – if not impossible – to reach those goals without sand bedding.”

The flush lanes in the barn and the installation of a sand settling lane allowed the Rissers to minimize equipment and additional labor costs. Each pen is flushed three times per day – each time the cows are taken to the parlor.

The new parlor, completed in January 2007, is a double-16 herringbone. The new facility allows three workers to milk about 140 cows per hour. The Rissers took special care to have the milking process complement the udder health benefits they established with sand bedding.

“Our somatic cell count is something we intensively manage by culturing, putting cows on cull lists that are repeat offenders and doing teat scoring,” Justin says. “We’ve also worked with our equipment dealer to establish milking protocols and train our Hispanic milkers.”

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To stay on track with these milk quality objectives, the Rissers offer a bonus program to the workers, based on the somatic cell count, the plate count, the preliminary incubation (PI) count and the quarter infection rate each month.

The building design just outside the parlor includes a palpation rail, as well as four pens that correspond with the grouping in the freestall barn. Justin says the pens are used more for breeding and herd checks rather than the palpation rail, which is used to administer vaccinations and treatments.

An automatic footbath, just outside the exit of the parlor, is operated by workers during the evening milking hours. It empties and refills every 45 minutes with a new chemical, providing a fresher bath to hooves. Justin believes the footbath is one of the largest contributors to hoof health and high mobility scoring. The building also has a hoof trimming table, used by a trimmer every two weeks.

Even the calf and heifer facilities are designed with optimal comfort and health and minimal labor. The Rissers would eventually like to raise all of their own youngstock. For the time being, a little over 100 of their heifers are being raised by a custom grower from age five months to 12 months.

Making it work
The expansion enabled the younger Rissers to not only become involved with managing the farm but also to carve out their own area of specialty.

“We each have our own interests and job skills,” Don explains. “Gerald has always been interested in managing the cows, and since Justin has been here, he’s turned a majority of the responsibilities to him. And Tanya, who’s been here more than 12 years, does a major portion of the recordkeeping. Her attention to detail there is just second to none.”

Eric, Don’s son, bought into the partnership in 2000 and manages the crops and fieldwork. After graduating from Delaware Valley College with an agronomy degree in 2008, Jordan started taking on responsibilities with the crops in addition to his role of raising the heifers. Don has been transitioning his duties of feeding the cows over to Eric and Jordan.

Justin’s oldest brother Jason focuses on the sand settling lane and the bedding of both the cows and calves. Jared, the youngest of the Rissers, is currently a student at Penn State University and hopes to become a veterinarian.

Justin believes the reason he, his brothers and cousin have returned to the farm is because their family works well together and holds each other accountable, in addition to the support from Don and Gerald.

“Part of the philosophy from Gerald and me is that we’ve extended the opportunity but not the expectation,” Don says. “They’ve always had free choice, and we’re certainly happy that this is what they have chosen.” PD

PHOTOS:
TOP RIGHT: The staff and supporting family members at Meadow Vista Dairy includes from left to right (back row): Jared Risser, Jason Risser, Justin Risser, Jordan Risser, Gerald Risser and Don Risser; (front row): Tanya Baldwin, Eric Risser holding son Austin, Heidi Risser and son Luke, Melissa Risser with son Gideon, Joyce Risser and Mim Risser.

MIDDLE RIGHT AND LEFT: Starting in 2006, the Meadow Vista Dairy herd grew to 750 cows. The expansion included a new freestall barn and milking parlor. Photos by Emily Caldwell.

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