This story also appears in our University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources’ Agricultural Research Center Magazine. Stop by your local Research Center to pick up a copy!
A lot has changed in the dairy industry over the years, and John Denbigh has seen those changes first hand.
Denbigh has been with the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources’ Foremost Dairy Research Center for 30 years. Denbigh began his career at Foremost as a herdsman and eventually moved to farm manager, the position he currently holds.
There were eight commercial dairies in Boone County right around the time Denbigh started at Foremost Dairy. Denbigh now operates the lone commercial dairy in the county.
Foremost Dairy milks just more than 200 cows twice a day. The Research Center originally milked 140 to 150 cows before building a new facility that houses up to 180 cows. That building was constructed in 1991 and opened several doors for Foremost Dairy.
“The old facilities were essentially outside feed bunks,” Denbigh said. “Any nutrition work was affected by the sun, wind and rain. It was a little more difficult to do those kinds of projects, and it was much more labor intensive.
“When we built the facility in 1991, we wanted to do it in a commercial type of atmosphere, with research capabilities mixed in. We wanted something where dairymen could come in and see what would work in their system.”
The barn is split down the middle with calan feeding doors on one side, which allow for feeding trials. The other side has standard commercial dairy feeding lots for the cattle.
“Our main goal was to make sure the barn was well ventilated,” Denbigh said. “We built it to include a lot of natural ventilation. We quickly found out that there’s no such thing. That’s when we added more mechanical ventilation – which includes a lot of fans.
“It took us a few years to work out all of the kinks and bugs. It’s been a really good addition.”
The barn also has a sprinkler system that helps cool down the cattle in the warm weather. The perfect temperature range for cows is generally between 30 and 60 degrees.
“Heat is probably more aggravating for cattle than the cold,” Denbigh said. “The cold is more aggravating for the people working with the cattle. In July, the water lines aren’t going to freeze and the tractor is more than likely going to start.
“Our fans come on at 70 degrees. That’s really the beginning point of heat stress. It’s not so much the heat during the day that can be a hardship for the cattle, it’s the heat and humidity levels during the night. The cow can dissipate a lot of the heat during the night if it cools off. If the weather stays hot at night, she can’t dissipate that heat at night. Multiple nights of that similar weather can lead to much bigger problems.”
Heat stress is just one factor that can affect milk production in cows. Forage quality is another.
“There are 1,000 little things that can impede milk production but forage quality is probably the biggest,” Denbigh said. “If the cows aren’t eating well, they don’t have as much energy. That means they aren’t producing as much milk.”
There are also genetic factors when it comes to milk production. Denbigh said Foremost Dairy began genomic testing on their herd two years ago. Knowing that information can help Denbigh make the best possible decision when it comes to picking cattle for a feeding trial or grazing study.
The Holsteins at Foremost Dairy produce around 20,000 to 25,000 pounds of milk per cow per year. Denbigh said the average is right around 24,000 pounds. Holsteins are the most common cows at Foremost Dairy, but it also has 20 to 30 Guernsey cows, who produce around 16,000 to 17,000 pounds of milk per cow per year.
Foremost Dairy has a unique history in regards to Guernsey cows. James Cash Penney – better known as J.C. Penney – donated the money to purchase the 819 acres for the Research Center, as well as a herd of prize-winning Guernsey cows. Penney, most well-known for his department stores, had an extensive background in agriculture.
Penney’s gift came in 1952 and Foremost Dairy has continued to care for Guernseys as a part of that gift.
Students and several other partners play a key role in the care for the herd. The first milking each day takes places at 4:30 a.m. The second begins around 4:30 p.m. Those milkings take place every day.
“It’s all about routine and timing,” Denbigh said. “Those times can fluctuate every so often, we just do our best to make sure we milk in 12-hour intervals. Consistency is key with a dairy.”
Denbigh has two full-time workers who milk each day and a student assistant who helps. Students do several other jobs, generally starting their work with calves and feeding those younger cows. As their experience grows, the job responsibilities follow suit.
“I want the students to be familiar with the livestock and the terms we use with them,” Denbigh said. “To go along with that, I want them to understand how to use some of the equipment.”
Foremost Dairy also collaborates with the MU veterinary teaching school. They do reproductive work on Tuesdays and herd health work on Wednesdays. That work includes monitoring milk cultures, helping lame cows and working with digestive or respiratory problems.
“We become their laboratory,” Denbigh said.
The Foremost Dairy Research Center is part of the Dairy Farmers of the America Cooperative and works with them when selling milk.