Kerry Nobis, Michigan Dairy Farmer
I made the long trek (I kid, it’s all of about 11 miles) out to Nobis Dairy Farm on a rainy Saturday at the beginning of this month, and what I learned is that Kerry Nobis is highly underrated.
Whip smart and incredibly funny, Kerry is one of those rare people who can really make me think about something in a different light than I ever have before. When I asked him what he wanted consumers to know most he said, “[farmers] are really smart. It’s the only industry I know of where you can go to a meeting and have the top thinkers in an industry conversing across the table with what is essentially the people who make up the bottom tier of the industry. And they’re all on the same level, they’re discussing concepts that take years to understand as peers.”
And of course, he’s right. It’s something I have witnessed a hundred times as well, but I’d never given it much of a second thought. Modern agriculture is not your Grandpa’s farming, and no where is this more evident than when you have an everyday dairy (or hog or poultry or beef or…) farmer sitting across the table from the highest regarded Ph.D’s in an industry and exchanging ideas with them on a level playing field. It’s an incredible accomplishment for the agriculture industry.
Let’s meet, Kerry:
Kerry, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your farm? How many cows do you milk? How long has your family been in dairy?
I manage the cow side of our farm (as opposed to the field crop side); along with my father (Ken), who works in a part-time capacity (he is the President of the Michigan Milk Producers Association, which is a full-time job, and then some). My Uncle (Larry) runs the crop side of the farm. My father and uncle own the farm in a partnership. We milk 1053 cows (as of 11-22-2013), and raise all of our heifer (female) calves (813 under 2 years of age, again as of 11-22-2013).
Cows in the main barn at Nobis Dairy. These ladies took a moment to gossip about me in-between bites.
So, Holsteins. I’ve seen estimates that the iconic black-and-white cows make up at least 90% of the U.S. dairy herd. Why is that?
In short, it is because they give more milk. They are also very efficient animals, in regard to the ratio of feed they eat to the amount of milk they produce. Also, they are bilingual, although they hate Tejano music.
And those Holsteins keep you pretty busy, right? Whenever I’m talking to someone about my own farm I always find myself downplaying the schedule and saying, “it’s not like we’re a dairy.” How long does it take to do milking chores? And how often do you have to do that?
Milking at our farm is done 3 times a day (i.e., each cow is milked three times daily), at around 6 hours per milking. The time in between is used to clean the milking/milk storage system and the milking parlor in general. And by daily, I mean 365 days a year. Cows cannot skip a day or even a milking, without suffering some discomfort and ultimately, damage to their bodies. I should also clarify your use of the word “you”, as in “how often do you do that?” The “you” in question is not me, we have a staff of 8 full or part time people that specialize in milking cows. I haven’t done it (regularly) in years, though rest assured, I spent many, many hours paying my dues in the milking parlor between the ages of 15 and 30. The job also requires another person to bring the cows in to the milking area, that person also cleans their habitat while they are being milked.
Employees milking cows in the parlor at Nobis Dairy. Kerry said they used to have a parlor that was set up so the cows stood broadside during milk. Now, with this newer parlor, they stand with their back to the aisle. This keeps workers safer during the milking as they’re less likely to get kicked or stepped on by a fidgety cow.
Of course, milking isn’t all there is to do. There are barns to clean, calves to welcome into the world, bookkeeping to be done… and cows have to eat. Let’s talk about that. What are your cows eating day-to-day?
The cows are fed a “ration” that consists of haylage (chopped and preserved alfalfa), corn silage (chopped and preserved corn, including the stalk,leaves and cob), soybean meal, ground corn, straw, dry hay, and a supplement that contains all of the necessary vitamins and minerals. Currently, they are also being fed a pelleted form of Canola. We utilize different feeds like the Canola as they become available/cost effective, as long as the cows like them. If the cows turn up their nose at something they are fed, well, that’s a deal-breaker. The cows are the ones doing the work, they have the final say over what they are fed (Figuratively. Very few of them actually talk).
Since you mentioned calves and bookkeeping, let me address those as well. We have a very specific and rigidly followed protocol for raising calves, one that we are heavily invested in. We make sure every heifer calf stays warm, dry, and is fed an amount of feed (in this case a milk replacer mix formulated by Purina) that will allow her to be as strong and healthy as she can possibly be. Their habitat is kept clean, dry and comfortable, and anything equipment that comes in contact with them is kept very clean. The calves begin a vaccination program (not terribly different than the way a human child is vaccinated. An American human child, anyway) on day one of their life.
Bookkeeping is a tremendous undertaking as well. The cost of producing high quality milk is tremendous, and causes traditionally tight margins at the farm level. But my father and uncle handle that part of the business (probably a wise decision not to put me in that position). When I talk about bookkeeping, I am talking about the amount of work it takes to compile data and keep the records necessary to keep a dairy safe, efficient, and insure that we are shipping the best possible product every day. We keep track of virtually every event in a cow’s life: birth, breeding, conception, feed (down to knowing how much each group of cows is eating, per cow, on a daily basis), birth again, vaccination throughout, medical issues throughout, and finally, leaving the herd (be it because she was sold or because she died, which cows sometimes do. Humans do it too, I’m told). This is all done via PC, and sometimes written record coupled with PC. This information is used for various pursuits, the most important of which is keeping the milk from cows that have been treated with an antibiotic (again, cows are sometimes treated with an antibiotic when they fall ill, much like humans. We are not Christian Scientists here at Nobis Dairy) separated from the milk that we ultimately sell.
Data is also used to evaluate the efficiency level we are achieving regarding breeding, feeding, and rates of occurrence of many different events in a cow’s life, and what that may mean relative to our management practices. This is an intense, ongoing and unending process.
This milk cow was waiting patiently in line for the milking parlor until she noticed someone she didn’t recognize prowling around with a camera. I know what curiosity does to cats. I’m not sure about cows.
Shifting gears a bit, you’re a fan of a certain level of accountability — whether it’s legislative or organization-administered. And as a dairy farmer you, of course, deal with quite a bit of it. If I understand correctly, much of that is at the state level. Can you tell us a little about what kind of accountability measures are in place for dairies in Michigan?
We are visited by a state inspector several times a year, and said visit is never, ever announced beforehand. We are subject to surprise federal inspection as well, although that occurs much less regularly. Milking equipment and structures are inspected, as well as water, waste removal systems, sanitation in general, and about a thousand other items. Milk being sold in any store in Michigan is tested several times (for composition, cleanliness, presence of agents such as antibiotics, etc.) before it reaches the consumer, it is possibly the most tested (and presumably, safest) food item sold in America.
And your farm is active with the Michigan Milk Producer’s Association which has its own set of rules and regulations, right? What are those like?
MMPA has a program that producers can voluntarily submit to that evaluates a dairy from top to bottom, focusing on animal welfare. NDF has undergone said inspection, and it was more detailed than I had anticipated. I was pleasantly surprised with the level of commitment to the animal the evaluation was built with, even though it was not all sunshine and lollipops for us (don’t get me wrong, we passed with flying colors, but they detected a few flaws for us to work on). I am not a fan of less regulation/less government. Rules are great; they have helped keep this country flush with the safest and most abundant food supply in the history of this planet. They need to be created and administered responsibly and sensibly, however, to be truly effective. That requires an attempt by the legislators and bureaucrats to understand how agriculture works before trying to regulate it. Prior to the Farm Bill disaster, I felt they had been consistently improving in that regard. Now? We’ll see, I suppose. Perhaps if our drones were dropping ice cream and bacon instead of bombs, we wouldn’t have to focus on perceived threat. We could spend a little more time (and money) talking about how we are going to utilize and regulate this country’s unparalleled agriculture industry so that it can be of the greatest benefit to all Americans. We’re a big fan of dairy products in our family, so I didn’t need a lot of convincing, but it sounds like dairy is probably some of the safest food you can find in a store — and packed with protein to boot.
Cow in the “hospital pen” at Nobis Dairy. Thick bedding gives cows with (generally minor) ailments a chance to recover away from the herd.
So last, but certainly not least, can you leave us with a little dairy deliciousness? What’s your favorite dairy-based dish?
I’ll give you my top three, as they relate to people named “Tom”:
- The chocolate milkshake. The Tom Petty of dairy treats, the milkshake is perennially excellent, yet never quite gets the acclaim it deserves.
- Yogurt (Greek or otherwise). Can’t beat yogurt for the combination of deliciousness and health benefit. This is the workhorse of the industry. Not a lot of flash, just day in and day out quality. Think Tom Hanks. Always good, sometimes great, never below average.
- ½% Fluid Milk. Refreshing when served as a cold drink? Check. Start you day off right when poured over your favorite breakfast cereal? Check. Add fluffiness to scrambled eggs? You bet. Healthy, Tasty, and of unparalleled versatility, regular old white milk is a staple in my household. The Tom Jones of the Dairy industry. Been there forever, can do it all, stays consistently sexy as it ages.
- Honorable Mention: Cheese-stuffed crust pizza. I’m ashamed that this even exists, but damned if I don’t love it. Can say the same of radio’s “Bob and Tom Show”.