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What's It Like to Work on a Dairy Farm?

In a special bonus episode, we meet fifth generation dairy farmer Tara Vander Dussen, who discusses the technology and innovation on her family's farm. 

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS,

ND: You’ve already talked about some of the challenges that farmers face, namely the relentless workload, day after day, but what are some of the challenges that dairy farmers are facing these days?

TVD: You know, we have a generation of consumers that is more removed from agriculture than ever before. And I think that farmers are at a point where they really need to be able to connect and engage with our consumers and share with them what modern agriculture looks like, so that they have a better understanding of the challenges that we're facing. I think it's important as we continue farming into generations that are more distant from agriculture.

ND: That's exactly why I'm so happy to have you on the podcast because you're exactly right. Most of us don't have an opportunity to see agriculture happening, even though we absolutely depend on it for our meals every day. I know I've had a chance to visit a lot of different kinds of farms, including dairy farms, and I'm always amazed at the technology and innovations I'm seeing on farms. I hadn't realized that so much has changed in the last few decades. Are there any new innovations or technology that you're particularly excited about, maybe things still coming down the pipeline?

TVD: Yeah, absolutely. So I think that what surprises people the most when they come out to a dairy farm is all the technology and innovation. As consumers, we have this nostalgic image of the red barn in our head from the 1940s and 1950s, but things have really changed and progressed in the last 75 years, and that's an amazing thing. We're using more technology than ever before. Our cow care is at the highest level that it's ever been in our history and cow care is the absolute priority on our farm.

I can't wait to see where we go with robotic milking machines. They're already widely used in Europe, but they're just making their way to the United States. The robotic feature would give the cow control of her milking schedule. I think it'll be incredible that the cow will be in charge of when she's milked and what time she's milked. And I think that that's something that's really neat and cool and I'm excited to see where it goes.

ND: Wow, that's an amazing development. I'm trying to picture those cows pushing a little button or ringing a little bell saying, okay! I'm ready now.

TVD: Yeah, so cows are very much creatures of habit. I actually just shared a picture on my Instagram Story yesterday of our cows lining up at their pen getting ready to go to the barn. So it is very natural for them to already know that it is time for them to go to the barn. If you're late, they are sitting there stomping their foot at you, saying “Where are you? What's happening?” And they know their way to the barn.

So with robotic milking, essentially, they would take themselves to the barn. Obviously there would be some care from our herdsmen in helping them, making sure everybody's getting there. But essentially, they would be able to take themselves to the barn. And then the robotic milking machine senses them there and is able to clean their udders, and prepare their udders, and milk them, and then finish with our post-milking procedures. And then they would be able to go back to the pen and enjoy the rest of their day.

ND: That's definitely something that I saw when I visited a dairy farm that surprised me—the cows seemed very eager to move towards the barn when it's milking time and do seem very content to take themselves over there and get their business done, and then take themselves back to their pens. I didn't expect to see that. I thought there'd be more herding going on, but not much is required.

TVD: No, not much is required at all. We do have one of our herdsmen that goes out and opens the gates and brings up the rear at the back of the pen to make sure everyone is heading in that direction. But really, that's why we keep our barn as such a calm place, we try to keep minimum noise and a very relaxed atmosphere in our barn so it’s an enjoyable place for our cows to go. A lot of times in the summer, they may get a bath to cool them off. So they like going in there and having their 15 minutes in the barn to get milked. And then they get to head back to their pens to their cud. And that's how you know that a cow is content and healthy.

ND: So, other than how relaxed the cows are, for people who never had a chance to visit a dairy farm, what might they be surprised to see, if they had a chance to visit your farm?

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