Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Sunday 24 June 2018

Milking 4,500 cows in the US with some help from Irish students

Rodney Elliott on his South Dakota farm where he milks 4,500 cows.
Rodney Elliott on his South Dakota farm where he milks 4,500 cows.

Elma Forde and Aine Murray

Irish dairy farmer Rodney Elliott was milking 140 cows in Fermanagh before he moved in 2006 to South Dakota.

Now, Rodney and his wife and three children run Drumgoon Dairy that has allowed Irish agriculture students the chance of a lifetime - to help milk the 4,500 cows on the farm.

Milking happens three times a day on the farm at Lake Norden in a milking parlour that operates 24 hours a day. 

Rodney moved to America because the state of South Dakota presented much more opportunities to grow a dairy business than Ireland, he says.

Elma Forde with some of the young calves.
Elma Forde with some of the young calves.

He was not limited by land ownership or availability, labour or rules and regulations from Europe, he says, while at the time South Dakota was looking for dairy farmers to start up a dairy enterprise.

Rodney sold his farm and borrowed the money to start up the new business. "The banks were very agreeable," he says and he bought vacant land in Lake Norden.

Elma Forde hard at work with the young calves.
Elma Forde hard at work with the young calves.

He also says the state was very helpful in helping Rodney start his new adventure, they had a pathway set up in helping Rodney finding land, introducing him to the banks and contractors he needed.

Today, he has a workforce of 50 people, with many coming from Mexico, Nicaragua and Puerto Rico as well as seasonal Irish agriculture students.

Also Read


Calf huts.
Calf huts.

From time to time, there can be a labour crisis, as Rodney is very dependent on legal immigrant workers. But, he's not worried about Trump as all the workers work on H2A, TN2 and J1 visas.

Today, Rodney owns 1,200 acres with about 1,000ac are used for cropping where he grows 770ac of maize and 300ac of alfalfa.

Two students in front of the huge silage pit that's used to feed the cows.
Two students in front of the huge silage pit that's used to feed the cows.

Approximately 150ac is taken up by buildings with 50ac used for pasture, while 300ac is rented for more maize. Contractors are brought in to manage the land. Manure from the dairy is spread on the maize at 20000gallons/acre. Maize is usually harvested the second week of September with alfalfa being harvested every 25 days as it grows very quick around 45 days.

Milking Cows

The parlour is in use 24/7 and cows are milked three times a day. Shifts last 12 hours with an hour break in which the machine washes itself out with the stalls and the pit being washed manually.

Each cow is yielding on average per year 12,000L of milk with a butterfat percentage of 4pc and protein of 3.25pc. All the milk on the farm goes to Valley Queen Creamery for cheese production with seven tanks of milk collected every day.

Elma Forde scanning cows.
Elma Forde scanning cows.

The farm is divided up into two parlours, Drumgoon and Norden. Drumgoon has a 24-unit rapid exit double up parlour and Norden has a 30-unit rapid exit double up parlour. All heifer calves are raised on the farm with all bull calves being sold at a day old.

At six months old the heifers are moved to Kansas where they are all synchronised and bred before moving back to South Dakota two months before calving.

Aine Murray and the young calves on the farm
Aine Murray and the young calves on the farm

Rodney as 1,000 acres of tillage consisting of maize and alfalfa. He is dependent on local tillage farmers to buy in more as he does not have enough land to be self-sufficient. On the farm Rodney has bred a three-way cross which he thinks is most suited to his farm; Holstein, Jersey and Swedish Red. He has picked this cross as he believes as the cows are hardy, have high solids, good fertility and at the same time giving a high milk yield.

Day-to-day

Workers on the farm start feeding the cows at 6am, and this job continues until 4pm. Cows are fed twice daily with feed being pushed in every 2-3 hours using the skid-steer.

It's hot in here - 33 degrees indoors
It's hot in here - 33 degrees indoors

Feed mainly consists of maize, soya, alfalfa and cotton seed. Specialist feeds are designed for each cow i.e. fresh cows, high yielding cows, mid yielders, in-calf heifer ration, lactating heifers, dry cows and weaned calves.

As each pen of cows goes to get milked the pens are scraped out, pens are cleaned three times a day. According to Rodney, the biggest problem regarding animal health is in the fresh pen. These cows are just after calving and are more stressed and more prone to calving.

To deal with this, a full time vet is employed to look after the fresh pen every day. It is his job to recognise and diagnose and problems with the main ones being metritis, ketosis, mastitis, pneumonia, fevers, retained placenta, displaced abomasum and rumen problems.

Aine Murray scanning cows on the farm.
Aine Murray scanning cows on the farm.

Breeding of cows’ takes place every day, drying off cows happens once a week, on average 15-25 cows will calve every day, vaccination of cows takes place most days, pregcheck takes place twice a week.

Irish Students

According to the Irish students who work on Rodney's farm, the experience is second to none. This year Rodney took seven students from UCD between February and August and the Ohio State University helped the students to organise their internship visas.

The major difference between the US and Ireland is the size of the unit and the way the farm is run. In the States each person has a special job and because of this they become more competent at their job, therefore the cows are managed better, according to Hugh Larkin from Corduff, Co. Monaghan.

"From the outset we knew we were here to work and learn as much as possible as we were given our own responsibilities and daily duties to attend to.

"Some of these include blood testing calves, hauling cattle in 24-foot goose neck trailers, blood testing cows before drying off, working alongside the vet in maternity and fresh cow pen and mowing alfalfa.

"From doing these we knew we had a great opportunity to learn skills we would never get the chance to learn on a regular Irish dairy farm.

"We learned to AI, preg check and scan cows, taking blood samples from both calves and cows, performing IV on cattle, identify various problems that occur post calving and knowing the correct treatment to administer from the protocols on the farm."


For Stories Like This and More
Download the FarmIreland App


Online Editors

Get the latest news from the FarmIreland team 3 times a week.





More in Dairy