SIOUX CENTER—Husband and wife team John and Sharon Vander Waal have worked hard to start a new dairy operation — J&S Dairy — between Sioux Center and Maurice a year and a half ago, incorporating new technologies and a long-term plan to improve efficiency and milk production.
To celebrate National Dairy Month, dairy farmers across western Iowa are inviting the public to a family-friendly event at J&S Dairy.
The 12th annual Dairy Open House will include a dairy farm tour, free food and kids’ activities 4-8 p.m. Wednesday, June 12.
Parking is available at the Terrace View Event Center in Sioux Center with transportation provided to the farm.
John and Sharon have been married for 17 years. They have four children together, ranging in age from 2 years old to 16.
John was born in Sioux Center, but he moved around a few times in his childhood. His family moved to British Columbia when he was in first grade and then moved back to N’West Iowa when he was in seventh grade, eventually settling in the Hull area.
Sharon grew up in Hull and always loved dairy farming.
By comparison, John is a relative newcomer to dairy, getting his start when his father and brothers decided to start up a dairy operation in Hull in 1998.
His father was a big help in getting things started, but in the middle of their planning, he was diagnosed with cancer.
The Vander Waals started milking in August 1998, and he died in September 1998.
“It wasn’t easy starting from nothing and then Dad passing away,” John said.
But they did their best under those circumstances. They started out milking 400 cows, and they implemented some then-new technologies and methods such as the rotary parlor.
Those first few years were tough for the dairy industry as a whole, but they stuck to it, and now that dairy milks more than 1,100 cows.
John and Sharon moved to their home near Sioux Center a year and a half ago.
They have about 290 cows at their dairy and about 250 in young stock, and their kids raise some beef calves.
All the work is done by John and Sharon with some help from the kids. It is thanks to technology they have incorporated into their operation that makes the workload reasonable for the pair.
They use four automated milking machines that handle the milking without the need for human assistance. The machine is a Lely Astronaut robotic milking system, a product by agricultural manufacturing company Lely.
The milking machine is only half the equation, however. Each of the cows wears a collar with a chip in it that is read by the robotic milking machine whenever they walk through to be milked.
The computer scans in the information and if enough time has passed since it was last milked, the machine moves itself into position, sliding on rails and bending itself under the cow’s udder.
When it hooks itself up and the milking starts, the machine’s internal computer monitors and records data on that cow, such as how many gallons of milk was produced, how long it took to milk it or even some health issues such as mastitis.
By monitoring this information with every milking session, John is able to precisely establish averages and trends for each of the cows and keep an eye on individual productivity.
On average, a cow will spend seven minutes at the machine being milked, with more time necessary if the cow is not as efficient or productive.
The cows typically go to be milked of their own volition. There are always a few cows that do need to be fetched, but for the most part, the cows take care of the milking themselves.
“I would say for the cows, if they’re full, they can go in. They don’t have to wait for a certain time,” Sharon said.
She likes the calm out in the dairy barns. John said the cows usually are a calm, quiet bunch. The robots usually make more noise than the cows do.
That does change if one of the machines breaks down; then, the cows start to get impatient and begin to bellow as they line up waiting to be milked.
“It maximizes their production per cow just because the cow can get milked according to their production,” John said. “So, a cow giving lots of milk can get milked up to five times a day, and cows that are about ready to go dry, they might get milked one and a half times a day.”
According to his data, the cows at his dairy are each getting milked an average of 2.8 times a day.
“We’re shipping about 20,000 pounds a day,” John said.
One of the benefits they see in the machines is they can handle the work themselves without the need for additional employees.
They figure that without the machines, they would need to hire another two full-time workers. They also would have to cut milking down to only twice a day, cutting productivity down.
But the major benefit is the flexibility it provides them, since they are not tied down to milking more than 200 cows every day.
Automation aside, farming still keeps them busy, whether it is feeding calves, raising heifers or cleaning pens.
Since they only recently moved to their current farm, the Vander Waals have plans to put up some more buildings.
“This past winter, we put up our heifer shed, and this summer, we’d like to put some outside yards,” John said.
He already has the fencing ready, but due to the wet spring, he has not been able to start moving dirt yet.
In time, he would like to add a workshop, too.
As far as running the dairy goes, John said he wants to continue to optimize production, both from the robots and the cows.
“It’s rewarding to see your production grow and per cow grow and your herd expand,” John said. “That’s what I’m doing here, too. Just trying to get things more efficient. Especially with times like now, you have to be.”