Garden City & Salina Kansas; Joplin Missouri

Department of Plant Agriculture

Day 10 - Tuesday

Royal Farms Dairy and Kansas Land Institute

September 5, 2017

By Mia Manfredi, Eric Prelaz,Peter Buys and Andrew VanderSpek

Royal Farms Dairy buildingRoyal Farms Dairy
We started today with an early departure from the hotel and headed to Royal Farms Dairy located in Garden City, Kansas.  This was the first and only dairy operation we will be visiting on this trip, so we were all very eager to ask questions and understand how a large scale dairy is run in the United States.  Kyle AverHoff, part owner in the Royal Farms corporation, lead the tour for us today.  This facility has a total of 6600 milking cows, and this company also has 2600 milking cows at another facility. Within this blog we hope to cover topics surrounding the production aspects of the operation, the economic side of the operation, and both the social implications and environmental impact of the facility.

Inside the Royal Farms Dairy barnProduction of Royal Farms
Royal Farms Dairy is located on a 300 acre dry lot facility. Once calves on this farm are born the bull calves are sold to a veal farm and heifer calves are sent to a heifer raising ranch. After 125 days at this ranch the calves return to a heifer raising dry lot facility across the road from the milking cow facility, and are raised there until they have their first calf. The average age of first calving is 23 months. Once cows calve and begin milk production they are housed in a dry lot facility surrounding the double 60 rapid exit parallel parlour that they are milked in. The farm has 12 pens that hold an average of 550 cows each. These dry lot pens provide each cow with about 600 square feet of space.

 

Dry lot with cowsDry lots are a low cost style of animal housing that are not seen in Ontario; therefore, it was very eye opening to see. Dry lots are essentially a large open dirt area where dairy cows are free to walk around and lay down. The dry climate and daily grooming ensure that the pens stay dry and soft giving the cows a clean and comfortable environment and also allows the farmer to avoid the cost of building an expensive covered barn.

The number one disease issue on farm is mastitis. Mastitis is an infection that occurs is the udder of a cow when exposed to bacteria. In order to combat this disease cows are closely monitored and checked 3 times per week for any signs of infection. Once an infection is identified the cow is treated with antibiotics and moved to the hospital on site to ensure she can return to health as fast as possible. The farm keeps close records of which cows are treated for mastitis, and if a cow has repeated infections they are culled from the herd with the goal of developing a herd of cows with higher resistance to mastitis.

The farm also pays close attention to genetics. They use genomic tested bulls to increase the rate of genetic gain in their herd. This ensures that they are always using the best and most current bulls in their herd. The goals of their breeding program are to improve production and health traits while maintaining solid conformational traits. Using these strategies they have built a herd that is currently averaging 76 pounds of milk at 3.7% butter fat and 3.1% protein.

Economics of Royal Farms
Unlike Canada, the United States dairy industry operates without supply management. As a result margins are tighter, and markets fluctuate more frequently. Royal Farms Dairy helps combat thin margins by taking advantage of economies of scale. One thing Royal Farms does to take advantage of economies of scale is they send their calves to a “calf ranch”. They do this because they believe there is huge economies of scale to raising calves. Allowing the calf ranch to raise calves at a cheaper level allows the operation to save money as a whole. Royal Farms Dairy is able to produce milk at a price of $13/hundredweight. Currently they are receiving approximately $15.5/hundred weight so they are still able to be profitable in an open milk market.

With volatile milk prices risk has to be mitigated. According to Kyle, Royal Farms needs to mitigate risk throughout their operation by paying attention to details and taking proper care of their cows. Doing the little things right is what Kyle believes allows Royal Farms to be profitable.  Royal Farms Dairy also hedge 60-70% of their milk. They do this by purchasing put options which allows them to set a price floor, while still being able to take advantage of the milk prices if they where to improve. The farm protects their crops through the U.S farm bill giving them protection in low yield scenarios. Feed costs are about $8/ hundredweight on this particular farm, so making sure this cost doesn’t substantially increase is essential. The United States dairy industry is tough, but by taking care of their cows and mitigating risk Royal Farms Dairy is able to thrive.

Social Issues at Royal Farms
During our stop at Royal Farms Dairy we discussed social and moral decisions on farm and within the community. Royal Farms Dairy has many migrant workers as their employees; meaning they become apart of the community as well. Out of their 85 employees approximately 80 of these employees are Latino or Hispanic labourers. The community of Garden City itself is made up of immigrants, 52% of the 40,000 person town are immigrant families. The area is very multicultural, but when saying this the state and country as a whole have a lot of protectionism. This means that Americans are worried about jobs and job security. These jobs that the migrant workers are filling in are very labour intensive, and Kyle mentioned that filling these positions with non-migrate workers can be very challenging.

Royal Farms Dairy is a corporate farm made up of 6 partners. The Irsik family owns half of the Dairy Farm and also owns a large portion of farmland. Although the Irsik family is a 50 percent shareholder they are retired from the farm and are silent partners in the business. Kyle and the other farm manager are allowed to make day-to-day decisions regarding the farm. Kyle, his wife and another partner also own 20 percent of the Dairy Farm. Decisions for the farm are not made in a boardroom and the corporate partners only meet together about twice a year. Kyle oversees both Dairy Farms owned by Royal but depends largely on organizational skills to work with all of the managers. The structure of the farm is made up of 10 or 12 departments with a manager on each team.  The farm has a total of 3-4 herdsmen and Kyle oversees the operations.

Overall, Royal Farms Dairy and Kyle personally believe in supporting and being active in the community. The farm gives back to the community due to their success. Projects that the farm has supported include $25,000 to the YMCA, the local hospital, Kanas State Feedlot and several other projects. Kyle gives a lot of tours on farm to educate people and the community about the farm. The farm ethically shows many leadership skills and supports leadership programs throughout the community.

Environmental Issues of Royal Farms
During the tour at Royal Dairy Farms we learned that this facility is determined to maintain the environmental sustainability of the operation.  They put a lot of thought into how to design the facility in order to be efficient. Manure management is a large concern surrounding livestock operations, and especially operations of this scale.  Kyle stated that this facility has no run off; they are proud to say that they have 100% containment within the facility.  The pens are slightly sloped toward a runoff drain that enters a lagoon on the facility to contain any manure runoff situations.  This system is able to hold enough water up to the 25-year flood rate, in which they have not reached this capacity in the 18 years the facility has been in operation. Manure is spread using a solid spreader or through the farms pivot irrigation systems.

Ditches that are at the end of each pen to collect any manure runoff, and these ditches lead into the lagoon
The above picture outlines the ditches that are at the end of each pen to collect any manure runoff, and these ditches lead into the lagoon.

Another current environmental concern with large-scale livestock operations is dust control. We found it interesting to learn that Royal Farms Dairy has no dust problems due to the day-to-day management they incorporate to keep the dust down.  Kyle mentioned that they groom the pens daily, and if they find too much dust is being produced they will slow production for that day.  He said that this rarely happens, and on those days you can see a cloud of dust within the atmosphere.  Another interesting aspect we learned is that they have no problems with air quality.  Being an outdoor facility we were curious as to whether they would notice respiratory illness due to the uncontrolled air environment.  Climate is the largest challenge for an outdoor facility.  On average Garden City receives 19 inches of rain per year. In the winter the mud is not able to drain from the pens.  During cold conditions, the pens are bedded to provide more warmth to the cows, and the teats are dipped with a different solution pre and post milking in order to prevent frostbite. 
Kyle outlined that as a state they need to be careful with the amount of water use they undergo due to the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer.  He stated that the amount of water pumped out of the aquifer in one year would take 50 years to recharge.  That is a huge number that he takes into consideration while making decisions on water use and consumption.   

Kansas Land Institute
Our second stop of the day was at the Kansas Land Institute where they are focusing on producing perennial grains.  We visited this stop to learn the ideas going behind producing a perennial grain, and how this would potentially benefit our agricultural industry. In theory, the research farm is hoping that perennials will be able to compete with annual crop yields. There is a lot of catching up to do since there has been research for annual crops such as corn for hundreds of years.

Advantages of Perennials
The reason they are focusing on the production of perennials is due to the efficiency and decreased planting labour they would entail. The biggest advantage that perennials have over traditional annual crops is that they are able to take advantage of a longer growing season as they are already established when the season begins. Perennial crop would have a deeper root system, therefore, in a dry year their roots will be able to penetrate the soil deep enough to reach moisture. A major focus for the Kanas Land Institute is soil health and conservation. Concerning this we talked about nutrient management especially compared to an annual crop. Nutrient management would be very crop specific. One of the main goals would be to reduce the amount of nitrogen application by half. A longer growing season should in theory lead to higher yields and an increase in organic matter levels in the soil.

Kansas Land Institute Researches
The Kansas Land Institute is determined to produce a sustainable perennial grain in order to improve the agricultural industry by decreasing soil erosion and leaching of chemicals into ground water. Today one of the grains we got to see was sorghum that was crossed with Johnson grass. .This plant was very tall due to the hybrid vigor of this cross.  They are working to decrease height and branching to create more uniform grain placement in order to allow easier mechanical harvest.  The future for perennial sorghum is looking bright in countries like Africa.  Some environments that use hand harvesting may not mind the indeterminate form of the crop.  The productive lifespan of the crop is unknown.  Another potential perennial crop that was being developed was Silphium.  Silphium is related to sunflowers, but have a longer root system to reach moisture to allow the crop to be more drought tolerant.

Silphium on the left and Sorghum X Johnston Grass on the right
Pictured above: Silphium on the left and Sorghum X Johnson Grass on the right.

Vision
The Kansas Land Institute envisions a future in which agricultural production is a collection of self sustaining polycultures similar to those found in native grass lands. Researchers believe it is possible to provide staple foods without the need to compromise the ecological systems that we rely upon. We learned about the domestication of a perennial wheat grass, which is the most advanced perennial crop so far at the facility.  The progress of the wheat grass was a lot quicker then what was anticipated due to the grass being easy to grow. The grass has made its debut into food production markets, known as Kernza. The harvested de-hauled seed is being used to produce beer in the west coast and is being used to make a Kernza noodle product.  These products are expensive to buy due to the low yields of the product, but in the future they are hoping to increase yields and have more farmers grow this grass to decrease the end product costs.

Left: Kernza grass, Middle: De-hauled Kernza seeds, Right: Can of beer made from Kernza

In conclusion we were able to visit two extremely different agricultural facilities today. These two operations shared a contagious passion for agriculture, innovation and environmental sustainability. We learned that innovation is needed to continue to improve agriculture as we know it today. It was also made clear that while focusing on progression we need to use and allocate our resources such as soil, water, and nutrients in a sustainable manor in order to maintain these resources for future generations. We hope after reading this blog you are able to understand some of the production, economical, social and environmental aspects that go into both a dairy operation and research center in the United States.