Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Tuesday 6 December 2016

The man who milks America

The big interview

Published 07/09/2016 | 02:30

Rodney Elliott has built a mega dairy in South Dakota since emigrating from Fermanagh 10 years ago
Rodney Elliott has built a mega dairy in South Dakota since emigrating from Fermanagh 10 years ago

Three years after selling up the home farm in Fermanagh, Rodney Elliott's dream 1,500 cow dairy farm was losing a million dollars.

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For most Irish farmers, it's the nightmare scenario. You've bet the farm - literally - on a new venture and it's going down the tubes, all because milk markets nose-dived for 11 months in 2009.

"I was dreading visiting the bank," admits the gregarious Northerner when he recalls that period.

"But when I got in there, they told me I was doing grand because I was only losing $400/cow, compared to the average of $650," he grins.

Elliott can afford to grin all the way to the bank these days. After weathering that short downturn, he entered a period when milk prices hit record highs. Milk price averaged about €0.47/l for about 11 months in 2014.

"We probably made the equivalent of 10 year's profit that year, and it allowed us to build the 2,300 cow extension that cost $4.5m out of cashflow," he says.

Such are the vaguries of modern day milk production in the US. Nobody starts small, with 1,000 cows the smallest start-up dairy units in states like South Dakota where the Elliotts emigrated in 2006.

At a present day cost of €5,500 per cow, that equates to an upfront investment of €5.5m. Then you need to be able to cope with the swings from massive losses to even bigger gains.

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"You need a war-chest - what we call an equity position - to work your way through the 8-10 month price troughs," says Rodney.

You must also have a lot of nerve. Elliott's jolly demeanor belies a steeliness that saw him eschew the safety net of locking in most of their milk at middle-of-the-road prices after the disaster of 2009.

"We were able to capitalise on the fact that the global dairy cupboard was empty in 2014 because traders had sold everything and left no reserves," recalls Rodney.

But he also played the game the other way too when in 2015 he locked in at basic price of $21/cwt - the equivalent of €0.42/l.

As a result of those two bumper years, the original 1,500 cow dairy has trebled in size to a 4,500 cow operation on a 300ac site.

The figures are boggling -the two cow sheds cover an area of over 10ac in shallow sloping roofs that allow the powdery snow to blow off easily, thus preventing them caving in under the weight of snow accumulation.

The silage pit that occupies the space between the two sheds holds 75,000t of maize and alfalfa silage.

The parlours hum day and night, with cows milked three times a day by a mix of Central and South American nationalities - mostly Mexican, Nicaraguan, and Porto Rican.

"Immigration is a very hot topic here, but most US citizens don't realise that there would be no food on the supermarket shelf within about three days if the 12 million illegal migrant workers were deported," remarks Rodney, who is quick to stress that all his 50 staff are fully legal.

"Once you get the cows right, it becomes all about managing people. Some people come just to get the next $50 together to get a tank of gas to get to the next city.

"Others are looking to save $50,000 to build a house back home. But most Americans aren't interested in doing this work. It's not because it's the lowest paying - the minimum wage is about $7.50/hr, and Walmart pays about €8/hr. We pay a minimum of $10.50, rising to $16/hr in the parlour. But it's not about the money - it's considered dirty work," says Elliott.

The situation is compounded in South Dakota where there is effectively full employment courtesy of the oil boom that came with fracking in the region.

Despite investing in psychological profiling for management, and culture profiling for the entire business, staff turnover remains one of the biggest challenges at close to 40pc annually.

That might explain why the next 850 cows that Rodney is already planning to add on is going to be milked by robots.

From 20 cows to 50 million litres

Rodney Elliott started milking 20 cows in 1982. He now sells more milk per day (135,000 litres) than he produced during that first year. He expects to sell 50m litres of milk this year.

He visited the US a number of times with his wife Dorothy when South Dakota was canvassing European farmers to set up new dairy units, partly to utilise the vast amounts of grain being grown in the region.

In 2006 Rodney sold his 200ac farm and 150 cow dairy herd in Fermanagh to his brother and moved with his wife and three children to Lake Norden, with a population of 471.

The couple were able to buy 300ac and build a unit for 1,500 cows within six months. They now own over 1,000ac and recently bought a further 160ac, which they flagged for the bank on the way to the auction. Over $20m has been invested in cow facilities, "but I don't own anything anymore - it's all in a family trust," says Elliott.

The current site is maxed out with 4,500 cows and 60 million gallons of slurry that has to be pumped up to six miles from the site. Despite close monitoring from the US EPA, the Elliotts are allowed to spread up to 32,000 gallons per acre, which supplies about 450 units of nitrogen for maize crops.

The cows are a mix of Friesian, Jersey and Norwegian Red, averaging 11,000 litres and a 385 day calving interval.

Rodney expects to end up with a net profit in 2016, despite lower milk prices.

Bull calves routinely make €150 at a week old, and almost double this during 2014. This includes Jersey crossbreds, which are fattened in feedlots in less than 20 months.

The most recently built cow shed that houses 2,300 cows covers 6.5ac, and measures 750ft long.

Irish students see US agriculture first-hand

 

Yvonne Mullens is one of the five Irish students that the Elliotts employ every year on their farm.

She is studying ag science in UCD, and came to the US on a J1 as part of her professional work experience.

“It has been a brilliant experience, because you encounter more issues in a week here than you might see during a whole year on a farm at home,” said the Laois woman.

Despite South Dakota being one of the least populated states in the US, she said that there was plenty to do and places to socialise as the weekends.

She was also very impressed with the immigrant labour on the farm.

“The guys from Guatamala and Mexico can spot a sick cow from a mile off, and they know how to operate on them as well. They’d be better than any vet in my opinion.”

With 5,300 calvings to deal with annually, Yvonne was busy every week taking tissue samples from all the female calves for BVD testing. In addition, calves’ bloods were analysed for protein levels after 24 hours to assess whether they had received enough colostrum.

All the fresh calvers are milked through a separate six-unit parlour until they test clear for antibiotics.

Hygiene is a big issue on the farm, with every cow being wiped with fresh cloths before every

 

 

 

 

 

milking. These cloths are used once and then sent for laundering.

The milkers do 12-hour shifts with a one hour break in the double 30 unit milking parlours.

Nine staff continue milking and cleaning cubicles throughout the night, with robots to push in the feed. Automated scrapers are not used due to problems with freezing during the winter.

However, it is the heat during the summer that is a bigger stressor on the cow.

For this reason, one side of each cow-barn consists of a row of heavy duty fans that pull a constant flow of air through the shed at 6mph.

Baffles stretching from the roof down to the level of the cow run the length of the shed perpendicular to the wind direction to force the air down to the level of the cow.

For more on Yvonne’s experiences, tune into the new season of Ear to the Ground starting on RTE1 in October.

Irish students see US agriculture first-hand

Yvonne Mullens is one of the five Irish students that the Elliotts employ every year on their farm.

She is studying ag science in UCD, and came to the US on a J1 as part of her professional work experience.

“It has been a brilliant experience, because you encounter more issues in a week here than you might see during a whole year on a farm at home,” said the Laois woman.

Despite South Dakota being one of the least populated states in the US, she said that there was plenty to do and places to socialise as the weekends.

She was also very impressed with the immigrant labour on the farm.

“The guys from Guatamala and Mexico can spot a sick cow from a mile off, and they know how to operate on them as well. They’d be better than any vet in my opinion.”

With 5,300 calvings to deal with annually, Yvonne was busy every week taking tissue samples from all the female calves for BVD testing. In addition, calves’ bloods were analysed for protein levels after 24 hours to assess whether they had received enough colostrum.

All the fresh calvers are milked through a separate six-unit parlour until they test clear for antibiotics.

Hygiene is a big issue on the farm, with every cow being wiped with fresh cloths before every

milking. These cloths are used once and then sent for laundering.

The milkers do 12-hour shifts with a one hour break in the double 30 unit milking parlours.

Nine staff continue milking and cleaning cubicles throughout the night, with robots to push in the feed. Automated scrapers are not used due to problems with freezing during the winter.

However, it is the heat during the summer that is a bigger stressor on the cow.

For this reason, one side of each cow-barn consists of a row of heavy duty fans that pull a constant flow of air through the shed at 6mph.

Baffles stretching from the roof down to the level of the cow run the length of the shed perpendicular to the wind direction to force the air down to the level of the cow.

For more on Yvonne’s experiences, tune into the new season of Ear to the Ground starting on RTE1 in October.

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