Dairy strives to protect land

Gloria Hafemeister
Now Media Group


Northern Florida dairy producer, Don Bennink, knows that 4700 milk cows and 4000 head of young stock at various ages and 1100 bulls held for AI and for sale to other dairy farms, plus some beef animals can produce a challenge when it comes to manure management.

But this long-time dairy producer who moved to Bell, FL from New York in 1980 doesn't think of manure as a waste product. Instead he sees it as a nutrient that will help produce feed for all these animals on his 2500 acres of land.

Bennink has taken the science of nutrient recycling a step further.

The first step is to spread the mixture of water and manure in a thin layer over a large field by truck so that the nutrients can be absorbed as fertilizer by a variety of nitrogen absorbing plants like alfalfa and other grasses. In the second step, cow manure mixture is further diluted with water and sprayed over a large area by a center-pivot irrigation system.

Even with this system, he knows it isn't foolproof; so he has established some special crops that will do a better job absorbing nutrients. His system allows him to avoid the use of commercial fertilizers that can also add to the nutrient load.

For a long time Bennink has worked proactively with state universities, government agencies and scientists around the world to determine what varieties of grass provide the most efficient uptake of nutrients from the soil. In terms of reducing the overall amount of nitrates entering the aquifer from the farm, the discoveries have been more than surprising, he says.

Today, Bennink uses grasses like the Tifton-85 on most of his fields that are able to absorb nitrates from the soil through their roots much faster than those that only a few years ago were recommended to dairy farmers.

Bennink, who was an active member of the past Florida Springs Task Force, is interested in protecting the springs and is sharing his experiences and encouraging other dairy farmer to follow suit.

His farm manager, J.C. Hammond, told the Wisconsin State Farmer, 'This Bermuda grass is very digestible. We get eight to 10 cuttings a year and it has 24 percent crude protein with an NDFD of 60. We're able to yield eight ton of dry matter per acre.'

They 'sprig' the grass in and once it is established, it will last forever, he says. They also raise triticale under irrigation and harvest it in February. The rye crop is harvested in early March.

'We buy all of our corn silage from local farmers and we also feed citrus pulp, canola, soy hulls, cotton seed and trace minerals in the TMR,' he says.

Cows are fed in a one-group TMR and produce an average of 95 pounds a day, an impressive production record for the south.

Cow comfort, including keeping cows cool and clean, is stressed on this farm and that contributes to their production and high quality records.

In 2002, a tunnel ventilation facility was constructed. From the first attempt, a number of variations were initiated. Today the milking cows are mostly in tunnel ventilation with bunk sprinklers and evaporative cooling in the summer.

Before each cow is milked she spends about a half-hour in a cool shower known as 'the cow wash' where she is thoroughly cleaned. Once they are in the parlor the teats are cleaned with a mixture of chlorine and vinegar using an automated teat brush.

Farm history

When North Florida Holsteins started they immediately built a double 10 herringbone parlor for 125 cows.

The capacity of the double 10 was reached in 1985 as the herd approached 1000 cows. At that time a double 12 herringbone was added. Three times a day milking was initiated at this time. By 1990, the capacity of both parlors was reached and a double 40 parallel parlor was added.

Soon over 3000 cows were being milked in the double 40. The double 10 facility was converted to a parlor office allowing the cow records to be maintained away from the employee and accounting divisions. The double 12 became the hospital facility with ability to handle overflow from the double 40.

Calf program

Calves on the farm receive milk from a gravity fed pipeline leading from the dairy across the road. The milk flows into the calf barn and is warmed before the calves consume it through automatic feeders.

The farm worked with the University of Florida on the system and tests the milk regularly.

The calves continue to move through the barn in groups until they reach heifer stage and find their home on the grassy pastures.

Genomics important

Bennink has earned a reputation in the Registered Holstein business for his keen sense of genetic development. He is frequently a speaker at farm management and animal breeding symposiums, including World Dairy Expo, and he has spoken on herd management, genetics and genomics in over 20 countries.

He wants smaller cows with a focus on udders and strength. The herd includes many older cows with high lifetime production records.

When genomics and IVF became available for use as a tool for faster progress and more control of results, he quickly embraced it. The North Florida prefix shows up on many new bulls being sampled today.

Of the 117 employees on the farm, 10 are involved with herd health and seven are on the heifer crew. Six employees are trained to breed cows. If an animal doesn't get bred they are sent out to pasture with the bulls.

Cultural mix

The farm has a cultural mix of employees and interns.

Intern Victoria Rocha, Brazil, says the farm's international student program is set up to teach the basics of large herd management. She and other students receive hands on experience in every department and learn how each depends on the other. Interns are here on a J-1 Visa. This is limited by law to one year.

Ohio State University facilitates the program for most of the trainees. Most come with a 4-year degree or a veterinary degree. They also have interns from U.S. universities.

Rocha says, 'My favorite part of this job is working in the hospital barn. When I finish my internship I will return to Brazil to get my veterinary degree and then I want to return to the U.S. to work with dairy cows. I believe the U.S. is the best place in the world to live.'