Florida dairy diversifies

Gloria Hafemeister

MYAKKA CITY, FL - Cows on Dakin Dairy in Manatee County, Florida, enjoy a diet of fresh grasses rich in omegas and conjugated linoleic acids.  As a result of this diet that keeps the cows healthy and productive, the Dakin family is able to market their own bottled milk that has become popular with customers because of its rich taste and nutritional benefits.

The on-farm bottling plant is part of Dakin Dairy’s value-added approach to dairying. The family also makes cheese, markets compost, and operates a tourism ag-venture business.

Dakin Dairy Farms, owned and operated by Jerry and Karen Dakin, is a sophisticated, challenging undertaking of five integrated corporations: a dairy farm; a milk plant; a 700-acre dirt mining and compost operation; a realty division that handles property acquisitions; and a department that manages agritourism operations  

With 1,000 acres and 4,000 head of cattle, Dakin Dairy Farms is one of the survivors.

“In Florida, the cost to raise cows to milk is higher than any state except Hawaii,” said Scott Cagle, who helps manage the business after starting as a nutritionist for the farm. “It’s hard to be a small farmer down here, but this farm has added value to its production by bottling its own milk and now making cheese and butter.

“Milk is a commodity, not a niche product. You can lose on one end and gain on another. When milk prices were up for the farmer, it’s a challenge for the plant to make any respectable amount of money or even break even. When milk prices are down, the plant does better."

While fluctuating prices in the dairy business can be discouraging, the Dakin family has been looking at things in a different way. When some farmers see cheap milk, they see opportunities to bottle milk and then make cheese. While some farmers try to find ways to deal with manure from 4,000 animals, they look at manure as compost and another product to create some additional revenue.

Jerry and Karen started farming in another area of Florida with 250 cows that they bought from Jerry’s parents, who were ready to retire.

The manure solids at Dakin Dairy are mixed with landscape materials to create a compost that helps to enrich the soil on the Daikin Dairy Farm in Florida.The liquid portion is removed, diluted and used to water and feed nutrients to the special grasses the family raises for their cows.

After they located their current farm, they bought more cows and added more land. They traveled around the country, studying sustainable farming practices and brainstorming how to bring them to Florida.

The first step was to bottle their own milk. It took a while to get started, but now the product is in Whole Foods statewide, several Latin grocery stores in Miami, local restaurants and quite a few Winn Dixie stores. They credit interest in whole foods and locally produced foods for their success.

Grass advantage

The Dakins also learned how to turn disadvantages of Florida farming — heat and sandy soil — into advantages. Sloping, sanded barn floors help wash the cow’s manure into a settling basin, where it is composted and then used to fertilize their protein-rich grass.

“We plant Jiggs Bermuda grass that is rotated every three to four years," Cagle said. "We bale some, green chop some and put some in bags. We don’t raise any alfalfa.”

They believe the fresh grass diet of their cows is the key to the sweet, creamy flavor of Dakin Milk and provides added health benefits to the cows that pass through to the milk, such as omega 3s and CLAs (natural cancer inhibitors).

They spread urea on the grass seven days before cutting or right before green chopping.

“We do tissue testing, and if the grass is low in minerals, we add what is lacking," he said. "According to our CAFO permit, we need to prove the plant needs the fertilizer."

The grass is blended with hay in a formula created by a nutritionist to create an optimal, all-natural diet for the cows. The cow’s diet also includes corn, soybean meal, whole cotton seed and citrus peels with molasses included in the TMR mix. They raise a little corn for silage and buy six truckloads of grain a week from northern states.

The high group of cows, based on days in milk, gets a hotter ration. Cows average about 70 pounds a day with a butterfat average of right around 3.9.

Market compost

The sand is cleaned by the sun and reused for cow bedding in the farm.

“We lease a tomato farm, and the manure solids go there to get mixed with other vegetable materials," Cagle said. "We sell some of it to landscapers and orange groves through another Dakin enterprise, Dakin Natural Soils.”

The 1600 cows at Dakin Dairy in Florida pass through the D-35 rapid exit parallel parlor three times a day. The Dakins built the parlor in 2002 and moved on to bottle their own milk and now also make cheese.

Educational farm

Another of the family’s popular enterprises is the agritourism operation that includes tours; field trips; hosting birthday parties and events; and serving their popular grilled cheese sandwiches, milk and other treats in the on-farm café.

They see it as an opportunity to tell the agriculture story.

“Children should have the opportunity to learn that food, including milk, is produced on a farm,” the farm’s promotional brochure states.  “Our goal is to make sure that your family’s trip to our farm is a good learning experience where you will have fun and create memories that last a lifetime.”

Getting into agritourism is not inexpensive.

The Dakins have invested heavily in creating interesting and safe areas for visitors including a 5-acre courtyard, a sand mountain for children to climb, a playground area and a “fossil dig” area. Children also enjoy riding the “cow train.”

They also provide guided tours of the farm that are both interesting and educational to children and adults alike.

In order to attract visitors, they have invested heavily in promotion of their farm.

It took four years just to figure out the right mix of merchandise for the gift shop, and employees had to be hired to run the tours and staff the shop and café. The family saw it as a labor of love, allowing the public to come onto a farm for education.

They also saw it as an opportunity to promote their brand name. Their advertising boasts, "Come see who we are. Come see how we treat our cows, and how we feed our cows."

One of the 85 employees in the Dakin Dairy who works in the souvenir shop and restaurant said she has been buying milk at the farm since they started bottling their milk. Since she came to the farm so often to purchase products, they offered her a job.

The Dakin family has been milking cows in Manatee County, Florida, since 1973. Cameron, Farren and Jerry Dakin own the three remaining dairy farms in the County and are amongst the fewer than 150 dairies remaining in Florida.