In the 20 years since a fire destroyed the barn which was then the home of a herd of 80 milking cows, John and Karen Ruedinger; their daughter Jamie and son-in-law David Zappa; and 19 employees have fashioned a dairy farm with 1,400 cows in northern Fond du Lac County.
It's a “working, living, breathing dairy farm” that shares in feeding the world's population, protects the natural resources, and is a business that contributes to the well-being of people and the community, John Ruedinger said.
Starting with the building of a free-stall facility for 200 cows after the 1996 fire, a series of expansions accommodates the milking herd, calves, and heifers up to 7 months of age today. “The business is all about people — getting them to work as a cohesive unit,” Ruedinger said. “Size is just a number.”
ACE meeting tour
In four groups, more than 100 attendees toured the facilities at the start of the recent Agricultural Community Education program sponsored by the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin counties and towns associations with support from the PDPW Foundation and the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.
One of the tours was led by Dan Hein, who has been the dairy nutritionist at Ruedinger Farms for 14 years. He noted that he consults with about 15 other farms in the area.
Hein commented on the important of the weekly management team meetings which rely on “a pooling of talent and knowledge” to set the stage for smooth and successful operations at Ruedinger Farms. On a related point, Ruedinger said he has “pages of vendors” who provide supplies and services to the farm.
Starting with the calves
The success of the operation starts with taking good care of the calves, Hein emphasized. He pointed out that 110 to 120 calves are born in a typical month with 70 to 80 of them being females.
That ratio is due to the use of sexed semen for the artificial breeding of all the heifers and with about 50 percent of the milking cows, Hein explained. Based on DNA genomic tests, the bottom one-third of the cows are bred to beef bulls.
The young calves are housed in the nearly 200 Calf-tel huts that are placed on concrete pads. In three feedings per day, they consume about 2,000 pounds of pasteurized whole milk obtained from the milking herd. Those practices are limiting the mortality rate to between 1 and 2 percent, he said.
As they approach their weaning from milk, calves are provided with grain at 3 to 4 weeks of age. After weaning, they are placed in groups of about 15 each until they reach an age of about 7 months.
During the group rotations for approximately five months after weaning, the calves are also fed baled hay which contains a significant percentage of grass species. Because of the difficulty of harvesting dry hay in the local area (10 days of rain during June of this year, for example), the large rectangular bales for the calves are obtained in Illinois, dry alfalfa hay is trucked in from Wyoming and straw is imported from Canada, Hein stated.
At about 7 months, the heifers go to a custom grower (O'Brien Farms in southeast Fond du Lac County) until they return to Ruedinger Farms as springers. Hein said the goal is to have the heifers calve at an age of 22.5 months — earlier than the previous standard of 24 months.
The heifers and cows about to give birth are accommodated with two designated birthing areas at Ruedinger Farms, Hein said. Those mat covered areas are prepared with a straw bed on a part of the surface.
Hein continues to be amazed with the expression of “a behavioral instinct” that prompts the cows about to give birth to lay on the straw pile rather than on the matted surface.
Once the cows and heifers have calved, they are placed in a fresh milking group for special observation for the next 7 to 10 days, Hein indicated. During that time, they also are fed one of the five rations that are prepared for the mature cattle. There are also rations for dry cows, the steam-up group about to give birth and the very high and medium level milking groups.
The 1,200 to 1,250 cows which are milked three times per day average about 100 pounds of milk each day. That milk — about 125,000 pounds or two and one-half tanker loads per day — is sold to Saputo for making cheese at the Alto plant in southwest Fond du Lac County.
Cows are milked in a double 11 DeLaval parlor with rear attachment of the milking units. The system cools the milk to 38 degrees before it enters the milk tanker.
Commenting on the dairy market, Ruedinger said “the world market has changed the dynamics of the dairy industry.” In general, “be open-minded and go outside the box,” he advised.
Despite the recent run of low milk prices, Ruedinger prefers to look for opportunities provided by science and technology that can be applied to cattle genetics, crop production (alfalfa haylage and corn are grown on Ruedinger Farms), farm equipment, and manure management.
Regarding manure management, Ruedinger is interested in dewatering technology that would separate the basic nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium for field application. At the moment, he's pleased to be able to apply liquid manure through 8-inch pipes at distances of up to 5 miles, thereby greatly reducing trucking costs and wear on area roadways.
During the question and answer session at the ACE program, Ruedinger was asked if he engages in growing late season cover crops in conjunction with manure management and application of the nearly 15 million gallons, including waste waters, that are generated on the farm every year.
Growing designated cover crops is not taking place on the farm for a couple of reasons, Ruedinger stated. He considers the four-year rotation of 600 acres of alfalfa to be “a cover crop” for protecting the soil and explained that the timetable for the harvesting of corn silage and the subsequent application of liquid manure does not allow enough time in the growing season to obtain worthwhile benefits from the most popular cover crop species.
Ruedinger Farms does not grow the small grains whose earlier harvest would be more suited for cover crop acres. It harvests alfalfa haylage and corn from the majority of its 600 owned and 900 rented acres.
When asked what he envisions for the next 20 to 25 years for the dairy operation, Ruedinger said it will be essential to remain competitive by keeping pace with or being ahead of the marketplace changes and using new technologies as they become available.
One thing that hasn't changed in the past 35 years is the base price that dairy farmers are paid for milk, 6th district Cong. Glenn Grothman told the crowd at the ACE meeting. From being an accountant with farmer clients in the early 1980s, he recalled that they were receiving a mailbox milk price of close to $14 per hundred.
That was almost the same as the payments dairy farmers received for the milk they shipped during the first 6 months of 2016, Grothman said. “So there's been no pay raise for farmers since 1981. That's a fact not appreciated by the public.”