Not Just Any Day on the Farm

I had the opportunity last week to participate in the 63rd annual Educational Farm Tour that is organized by our Agriculture Department at FVTC.  Over the years, I’ve participated in many of these programs, but this one wasn’t your typical “day on the farm.”  This year’s event featured several operations in Calumet County and I visited two of the three dairy farms…one with a herd of 140 and the other with a herd of 3,500 cows. No, that is not a typo.

The 63rd Annual Fox Valley Technical College Farm Tour highlighted agriculture technologies at three farms in Calumet County.
The 63rd Annual Fox Valley Technical College Farm Tour highlighted agriculture technologies at three farms in Calumet County.

Both of these dairies were very successful operations, even though vastly different in size.  Our first stop was the smaller farm with a dairy herd of 140, about the same number of cows my family farm had when I was growing up.  In fact, taking a look at the milking parlor on this farm, the set-up was almost identical to the one I had spent a fair amount of time in as a young person in the ‘60s and ‘70s.  What struck me about this operation, though, was the extensive testing and use of data to improve the milk quality (and ultimately price for that milk).  An on-farm pasteurizer was being used to take milk that would have simply been thrown away years ago, making it safe and better than milk replacer for feeding calves.  Very impressive.

Then it was on to the second farm.  No, this was a production manufacturing operation.  The carousel that milked 3,500 cows three times each day was something unlike I have ever seen or could even imagine.  This slow moving carousel was about 90 feet in diameter and held 80 cows, with one constantly stepping off while another one stepped on.  It took about 7-9 minutes for each cow to be milked, making the full circle on the carousel.  Visitors were able to watch this through an upper level glassed-in observatory.  It was a thing of beauty.  In talking with one of the operators, I learned that they had many of the same challenges as production manufacturing—on-going mechanical maintenance issues, hiring and scheduling their 40 full-time employees, managing their feed stock as raw material, testing and monitoring production by unit, and in their case, operating a bio-digester for manure management and producing all of their needed electricity, selling the excess back to the grid.  I’ve never seen cleaner, healthier cows than those found in this mega-operation.

It also struck me on the way home that the first farm was a family farm…people lived and worked there, likely for several generations.  No one lived on the second farm…only the cows.  Both were magnificent examples of how much agriculture continues to change, how technology is completely transforming this industry, and how in so many ways the challenges and opportunities are very similar to almost every other industry here in the region.  And yet, different size and scale operations and different approaches can be equally successful. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing first-hand how our agriculture programs are responding to this dynamic industry. It was a very memorable day on the farm.

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