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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,

TVD: So we have lots of tours and people who want to come out to our dairy. People are very eager to see where their food comes from. Something that we see time and time again is how surprised people are at the amount of detail that goes into every decision we make on our farm. There's just so much more planning than people expect. We have a nutritionist that plans our cows' diets, and depending on what stage of life a cow is in, she has a different diet that's planned to meet the exact nutrients the cow needs. We have a vet that comes on site to care for our adult cows. She comes out once a week. We have a vet that cares specifically for our baby cows and helps set up protocols for caring for them.

And each pen on the dairy farm can tell you a lot about the cows that are in there. If we have older cows, they tend to be in pens that are closer to the barn so they don't have as far to walk. Our younger cows can walk for longer distances. For cows that are far along in pregnancy, we move them to what we call a "close-up" pen so we can keep a really close eye on them in their last few weeks. So there is just a lot of detail that goes into these dairies.

We have a computer program that keeps track of every single cow on our dairy and it keeps her entire record of her whole life. So if she's moved pens, you know it. If she has ever received a medicine, the record is there with the prescription from the vet. There's just a ton of detail and time that goes into all the different areas on our farm and people are amazed by it. They usually can't stop asking questions once they get to a dairy. I feel like every tour lasts twice as long as it's supposed to because people are so excited to be here.

ND: Yeah, and another thing that surprised me whenever I visit farms is the level of education and training that's involved. Farms usually have a lot more PhD's running around than you'd imagine.

TVD: Absolutely! Our vet is a Cornell graduate vet student. Our nutritionist has a PhD. My husband has a degree in agriculture business. My degree is in environmental science. And then from there, you're talking about years of experience working on dairies. For our employees, we have lots of great training programs and safety trainings that they're able to attend. We work with our local university and our extension specialist that trains our employees in animal handlings and giving medicine properly according to the vet’s instructions. The training can go on for a long time. I think that's one of the big things that's changed over the last decades, is the amount of education on the dairy and what people are really studying to become dairy farmers.

ND: It’s a science and an art. Tara, before I let you go, I have to say, farming is obviously not an easy way to make a living. At the beginning of the century, something like 25% of the US population was involved in agriculture and now it’s down to about 2%. So what keeps you in that 2%? What keeps you in this challenging profession?

TVD: So, as we talked about earlier a little bit, it is a part of my family heritage. I'd like to think that my great-great-great-grandfather would be extremely proud of what we've done with our farm and where we've taken it. But at the same time, we talked a lot about technology and innovation today and it can be a really challenging career, but it can be extremely exciting. And the new technology is exciting. When we talk about self-driving cars, we already have self-driving tractors. That can be very exciting for a young person that's looking for a new career. I think getting kids back to the farm is by encouraging them through technology and innovation.

And I think another thing is what's great about the dairy farm is there's tons of different areas. So, my husband has a passion for cows—he loves caring for cows—and so he works directly with the cows and the herdsmen. For me, I've always loved our natural resources and caring for our land and our water, and so environmental science was an extremely natural fit. Both of us work on a dairy, but we rarely overlap unless I'm asking my husband about cow manure. And so I think it’s really cool that there are all these different areas you can specialize in and make a difference in.

ND: Absolutely. Well Tara, I want to thank you so much for taking time out of what I'm sure is a very busy day, just to help us understand a little bit more about who's producing the food that we enjoy and count on every day. It's been such a pleasure to have you on the show.

TVD: Well, thank you so much for inviting me today. I had a great time talking with you and I appreciate it.

ND: Well, I know my listeners will be very interested to hear this little slice of diary life. And to you listeners, thank you so much for listening to this special bonus episode of the Nutrition Diva podcast.

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