Many cows, many new perennial crops, and many hours on the road!
by Huilin Hong, Derek Hyde, Elaine Jeffs, Emily Robins, Kyle Rutherford
After having a hearty, complimentary breakfast at the hotel in Kansas City, we made our way to our first stop at 7:30. At Royal Farms Dairy, we met Kyle AverHoff, the managing partner and stood outside their main building where we talked about the facility, their management, milking practices, and employees. We then walked through the parlor, milk house, and the milk truck loading zone and lab room. After the tour through the main barn, we loaded onto the bus and drove around the dryland pens with Kyle on board. While driving, Kyle spoke about the organization of the pens. We left the farm at 9:30 to make our way to our next destination.
Before stopping at our next tour stop, we had a four-hour drive to Salina, Kansas, where we stopped for lunch at the world’s slowest McDonalds. We then made our way to the Land Institute where we met David Van Tassel and Lee DeHaan. Both men are plant breeders. They spoke to us about the history of the institute and the reason for breeding perennial plants, and showed us their prairie grassland. After, we walked over to their facility where we learned about the perennial wheat crop, Kernza, and toured in the greenhouse with sorghum and Sillphium trials. Upon leaving the institute, we settled in for a long drive and arrived at the hotel in Joplin, Missouri around 9:00pm.
Stop 1: Royal Farms Dairy
Royal Farms Dairy LLC is an operation that has two farm locations, both within a 15-minute range of Garden City which consists of six family shareholders. This farm is home to 14,000 cows of which, 6500 cows are milked two to three times daily to maximize efficiency. In order for a farm of such large scale to operate smoothly, it requires 65 highly skilled and dedicated employees to share the vision of making Royal Farms an efficient, profitable and safe farm. Royal Farms Dairy is working every day to achieve goals and better their operation by finding new ways to improve. In the United States the dairy industry is a free market, which is different from Canada’s supply managed dairy industry. A free market allows access to many trade markets, but often leaves farmers with volatile milk prices. The past 5 years of dairy prices have been low, but manageable. In order to survive times of small margins, Royal Farms Dairy must find operational efficiencies and reduce unnecessary expenses. This farm has done an excellent job staying positive and optimistic about the future of the dairy industry.
A key theme that was very apparent at this stop was the importance of empowering the employees. With this labour force, 75 of 80 employee’s first language is Spanish, which makes language a barrier. At Royal Farms Dairy, they understand that they must be accommodating to their employees’ culture. In order to achieve this, the signs around the farm are both in English and Spanish, and training is provided in Spanish via translators. Kyle also mentioned that issues with immigrants having a difficult time receiving visas has also had an impact on the labour market, causing it to be tight over the past two years. In order to retain their employees, the farm provides the workforce with competitive wages, paid vacation, bonuses, retirement plans, health insurance, 1.5-hour breaks, and 12 hour shifts so employees can make as much money as possible. This theme has been seen throughout the 2019 Midwest tour as farmers and employers have explained that they want to take good care of their employees, provide incentives and genuine respect to receive quality work in return. At Royal Farms, the employees are given the opportunity to experience personal development and build their skillset by completing training courses such as worker safety, animal care and nutrition. On average, each employee completes 15 courses in one year. We learned that every employee is empowered to do their best and are given responsibilities that help them feel that they are making a difference on the farm. The employees are extremely specialized having the ability to perform ultrasounds, palpations, C-sections, and calf deliveries which are jobs often left for vets on Canadian dairy farms. The mentality to ensure the workers feel valued and respected has led to most of the workers serving the farm for 7-10 years.
Another important theme is the mindset to be constantly improving. When this farm stopped using rBST, a naturally occurring hormone that promotes milk production, they initially had a production drop. However, they have since passed the peak production hit while on the hormone, and are still improving. Many of these production gains can be attributed to their genetic improvement. This farm maintains a complex breeding program consisting of both natural heat detection and synchronized heats. They use Genomically tested bulls to make their replacement heifers more productive. Some of the traits selected lead to high productivity and longevity, increased pounds solids, combined fat and protein, improved health, sound legs, productive life, and high fertility. By improving fertility, there is faster genetic improvement by quickly introducing new genetics to the herd, and there is more productivity by shortening periods of low producing open cows. This is because as more time passes after birthing a calf, the cow’s production decreases. The group of investors still maintain the mindset to be constantly improving and by being open to acquire more cows and expanding their herd. However, they are very strategic and know that it is important to obtain a secure contract first and that currently expansion is not a top priority due to the national oversupply of milk.
Another theme that we found to be prevalent was the operational efficiency. This is something that is extremely important to Royal Farms Dairy, since they are among the lowest paying price regions in the country. However, it was stressed that although they are lowest paying, it does not mean lowest profit. Kyle explained that 40% of the milk is used for cheese production, 30% is processed as fluid milk, and 30% is used for other products (powders, butters, etc.). They are fortunate to have marketing agreements with a local powder plant located 5 hours from cheese processing plants.
The third theme was developing operational efficiencies in order to remain profitable during times of low milk prices. One key aspect of operational efficiency on this farm can be credited to the large scale that they milk of 6500 cows which gives them a large capital base, the ability to fill processor contracts that would typically take multiple farms to fill and a stronger buying power when purchasing products such as feed supplements. Of the 3800 licenced dairy farms in the USA, the average number of cows milked is 250. Another operational efficiency that we observed was maximizing the use of equipment and facilities. This farm operates in a 6-million-dollar facility that milks 6500 cows and is currently at its capacity, reducing the inefficiencies of unused space. In the double 60 parallel parlour the operators successfully fill in any time that would be left over if they milked all of the cows two times a day by milking a select group of high producing cows three times a day leaving the parlor in operation 24 hours a day maximizing use of the equipment. Each cow produces about 80-90lbs of milk. The more the cow is milked per day also increases the amount of milk she produces. The parlour is in operation 24 hours a day; 11.5 hours of milking, followed by a 30 minute clean out, and so on. Royal Farms Dairy also maximizes efficiency by producing such a large quantity of milk that it fills an entire truck. This is more efficient than the truck stopping at several different farms to collect enough milk for a full load. Each truck can carry 6000 gallons of milk.
Stop 2: Land Institute
The Land Institute is a non-profit organization founded in 1976 by Wes Jackson, who had both an environmental and genetics background. The institute aims to develop and integrate perennial grains into current intensive agriculture systems in order to reduce the negative impacts on the environment. The major structure of the institute consists of five breeders, five technicians, three ecologists and some part-time internships. In the main building, Lee talked about his primary work, which was domesticating intermediate wheatgrass into a perennial grain crop, known as Kernza, into the market. He introduced the initiate of the Kernza domestication program and gave us details regarding selection methods, germplasm source, as well as current challenges and marketing situation of Kernza. He showed us the Kernza grain and multiple Kernza products currently existing in the market, such as beer and cereal. Then, David gave us a tour of the greenhouse, where we had a chance to see the crops he is working with. He is focusing on the domestication of a perennial oilseed crop, Sillphium, which belongs to the sunflower family. He has also worked on developing perennial sorghum varieties by crossing Johnson grass and grain sorghum. Their work provided us with a new perspective of potential environmentally-friendly crops in the future.
A key leaning point at the institute is innovation, as Lee created Kernza. Kernza is a perennial intermediate wheat grass based off natural selection. Although the Kernza grain yield is lower than annual wheat, it allows for a forage harvest within the same year. In a typical year, Kernza can be harvested as a grain, and then left to grow as forage for the rest of the season. By growing Kernza, it would be beneficial to the ecosystem through minimizing nitrogen leaching into waterways. An example used was in corn production, where nitrogen is applied throughout the season, but only 50% is taken up by the plant, and the other 50% enters waterways. We learned that in this geographic location, this has caused issues as the nitrogen runoff goes into the Mississippi river, then into the Gulf of Mexico, which is referred to as the “dead zone”. Using perennial crops reduces the amount of water and nitrogen that needs to be applied, therefore reducing runoff. This can be related to some experiences observed back in Ontario. In this scenario, phosphorus runoff is one of the main contributors to the algae blooms in Lake Erie which will increase and affect drinking water if the excess amount of phosphorus is not controlled. Through the development of perennial crops, and their introduction into Ontario creates an opportunity to help decrease this growing concern.
Another theme that was seen at the Land Institute is the groundbreaking future outlooks and global perspectives. Kernza was developed to help the environment through better soil structure and less nutrient and pesticide leaching as it can grow in the same field for 2-3 years before yields start to decrease. The institute has global locations, where trials of perennial crops are being grown. An example of this is annual sorghum in Africa, but other crops that are being domesticated and intended to be grown all over the world. With annual rice being grown in Asia, the development of perennial rice can reduce the labour demands that are required in steps like seedling transplant. This is a potential solution for aging and labour shortage problems existing in agriculture industry, especially in developing countries where the young generations are not encouraged to come back for farming. This is not the only case how the development of new varieties can simplify and contribute to agriculture and other society issues such as famine. There are some examples from the past including semi-dwarf wheat and high-yielding rice hybrid. Although feeding the booming population is the goal for the agriculture industry, comparing with the past, people are looking to find a more sustainable way to ensure global food security. The land institute has demonstrated this to us through their development of perennial grains and their international collaboration with other countries.
The third theme observed at the Land Institute was the importance of protecting the soil in order to have a sustainable future. Dave and Lee were both very passionate about land conservation. They believe that through perennial crops and minimal management soil health will improve. Some of the benefits include, more nutrients, higher organic matter, and improved soil structure. Many of these improvements would be driven by the perennials’ deep roots that will break down adding to the soil organic matter, hold the soil together and eliminate tillage that may be used in order to plant a crop for the preceding year. At the patches of Prairie grassland at the back of the property, the grasses and crops growing there had been left without mechanical or chemical management for multiple years. A connection was made to the Wagonhammer ranch where the land is non-intensively managed and provided nutritious feed for the cattle. The Wagonhammer ranch claims that the main reason why their soil is staying in place in an area extremely susceptible to erosion is due to the long roots of the grasses growing in the pastureland. The connection was also made that Kernza may be an excellent fit for the Wagonhammer ranch, since it is a perennial grass which has deep roots to hold the soil. The Kernza growing in the pasture would also serve as a forage feed source for the cattle. The rotational grazing implemented on the ranch would prevent the Kernza from being terminated from over grazing.