Dairy farm caters to consumer demand for local milk

Gloria Hafemeister


Twin Brook Creamery is nestled in the shadow of the Cascade Mountain Range in Lynden, Washington.

Two of the owners, Mark and Michelle Tolsma, were at World Dairy Expo to talk about their herd of purebred registered Jersey cows and how they bottle that milk and market it in the upscale community around them.

The milk is popular because Jersey milk has a higher protein and butterfat content, greatly enhancing the flavor.

“Our customers appreciate that we use no synthetic hormones (such as RBST), giving us happy, healthy cows and the most natural milk a cow can produce," Mark said.

During the summer months, they pasture the cows and put up extra fields of grass, which is used for the cow's feed during the winter months.

“We do not use commercial fertilizer or pesticides on our grass fields or pastures, so the feeds that they eat are as close to natural as we can provide them,” he said, noting that their milk is not, however, marketed as organic.

They started the creamery in 2007 to stabilize the price they got for their milk. Because of the area where they lived, they knew there would be the demand for their product. They serve 200 retail locations and have gone from 60 cows to 220 cows just to supply demand.

Robots help

Mark and Michelle get help with milking from three Lely Robots (Lely sponsored their presentation at World Dairy Expo).

They use three Lely Astronaut A4 milking systems to control labor cost and increase milk production.

When the Tolsmas did their expansion, they had difficulty getting a traditional loan from banks, but because their product was so popular locally and they were involved in their community offering tours and sponsoring events, some local investors decided to finance their expansion.

Describing the bottling process, Mark said, “We use the low temperature or vat pasteurization method, which is very slow but preserves the taste of the milk. We do not homogenize the milk, a process that alters the cream or butterfat portion of the milk, so it will not naturally float to the top. “

He said customers like glass bottles, so that’s how they chose to market their milk.

A bit of history

Twin Brook Creamery is fifth-generation farm, now owned and operated together with Michelle’s parents, Larry Stap and his wife, Debbie.  Her brother, Mike Stap, is the creamery manager on the farm.

Jacob Stap (Larry's great-grandfather), his wife Tryntje and their four children arrived in Lynden, Washington in 1910. Clearing the land themselves and framing their own house and barn, they established a homestead that over time produced hay, milk cows, nursery plants and row crops.

Their son, Charlie, was the first to go into farming, followed by his brother John (Larry's grandfather), who eventually bought the land from Jacob. Since Charlie had already used the Stap family name for his nursery business, John chose another for the farm: Twin Brook.

The farm not only produced feed and livestock, but all six of John and wife Alice's children as well. It was son Jake Stap who continued the family business by buying the farm in 1964. He and his wife, Jeannette, were blessed with five children, including Larry, the current farm owner.

“Our love for animals started at a very young age," Mark said. "Michelle and I both grew up with 4-H, cows and farm life. We wanted the same for our five children.

"My personal favorite thing on the farm is the maternity area and seeing the creation of life.”

Benefits of robots

They designed their robot facility in an L-shape. Cows immediately adapted to the new system, and within the first month, they were averaging more than three milkings a day for their cows, resulting in higher milk production.

He calculated that the farm saved $5,000 a month on labor, but their grain bill, because of the robot treat, went up $4,200 a month. Milk production increased, adding $15,500 more to their income.

Overall, he said their cost of production was down $1.62 per hundredweight for the first six months of robot use.

"A benefit with robots is the cows are not wasting time standing around in a holding area," Mark said. "It also addressed the labor issue, and the technology provided a lot of information about our cows, making it easier to manage things.”

That technology helps determine when cows are likely ready for breeding, according to their activity. They use all artificial insemination with no hormone or synchronization. Heifers and first lactation cows get sexed semen and then a young sire.

The AMS robots are responsible for delivering more than 60 percent of the daily feed to the herd. The rest of the ration is provided in a PMR or out on the pasture in summer.

They feed 13 pounds of grain in the robots (a mix of barley and protein), and the outside PMR is 10 pounds of grain mix of barley, protein and mineral along with forages.

“We feed barley instead of corn because it’s a selling point for our milk," Mark said. "Our customers don’t want us using GMO corn.”

Along with the robots, they also started using the Luna brush, something Mark said the cows love.  He’s hoping that as soon as Lely’s manure vacuum system is available, he will also be able to employ that technology.

They store their manure in an above-ground Slurrystore system. Local regulations require no spreading between October and May. They have had success with their manure management and cropping system, as evidenced by the proclamation by the local Trumpeter Swan Society that credits the dairy industry for the return of the swan population.

Mark and Michelle Tolsma of Twin Brook Creamery talked about their direct-market dairy in Washington, which provides the opportunity to create an additional revenue stream in their 180-cow dairy they run with Michelle’s parents.