Exact dairy science
For more than 51 years, French Brothers Dairy in Woodstock has been a fixture of the dairy industry in the Northern Shenandoah Valley.
William “Billy” French noted that they have 140 cows in the herd and are milking 122 at the moment.
As he waited to begin the 4 p.m. evening milking, French said that running the operation and keeping it afloat have been no picnic for the family.
Doing so requires constant vigilance of not just the dairy cattle, but also their beef cattle and poultry houses, which carries with it taxing physical labor and contending with the ever-shifting agriculture markets.
One the biggest hurdles the French’s are now dealing with is labor. Milking the vast herd at the farm takes around eight hours out of the day, French said.
He explained, “We spend four hours a day moving the cows, attaching the milkers, putting on what we call post-dip … that’s four hours twice a day.”
The problem, French said, is that the job does not attract enough people who are willing to work the 4 a.m. and 4 p.m. milking, even at the wages — between $9 and $11 per hour — they are offering.
“It doesn’t smell good here,” French said. “It’s not an environment that a lot of people want to work in.”
To help ease some of the labor strains, French said they have been looking into making their dairy operations more of an exact science. New technology that’s becoming popular on dairy farms across the nation is an automated robotic milking system.
“We are in the due diligence stage of whether or not we can,” he said, adding that the robotic milking technology would spread the work that he would normally tackle into a 24-hour milking cycle.
“Right now, we can milk 20 at a time,” French said, noting that a robotic milking system can take two cows at a time and milk up to 60 cows a day per robot.
Even with a robotic milking system, French said he would still have to monitor the herd and be on-call 24 hours a day to prevent factors that would impact production.
On average, he said, the farm produces about 70 pounds of milk every day on a hundred-weight scale — which roughly translates to almost 9 gallons per pound a day.
He said the summertime heat — especially the humidity — could cause a 10 percent reduction due to the fact that cows tend to eat less in the heat. A reduction like that equates to nearly a gallon of milk.
Even still, factors like that do not account for the fluctuating price of milk, which French said can have peaks and valleys from year to year.
Recently, French said there was a 42 percent price drop from record prices of $27.42 per-hundred weight in September 2014 to $15.42 per-hundred weight this year.
“In 2014, we paid off a lot of bills and paid off as much debt as we could, because you knew it wasn’t going to last,” French said.
French explained they are able to make it through valleys like this because the farm is diversified — it has had beef and poultry operations for nearly three decades.
“Beef prices are really good,” French said, adding, “Right now, there’s nothing out there that looks like that’s gonna change.”
Another part of the French’s exact science approach has included carefully monitoring each individual cow’s activity — through the use of collars and computer software — to gauge when to breed through artificial insemination.
“You gotta catch the cow at the right time to inseminate them,” French said, adding that the collars can show him when the cows are more active, and therefore likely to breed.
Prior to the advent of applications like this, French said that someone would physically watch the herd for three hours to see which cows might be ready to breed.
“It all comes with a price tag, too,” French said. “All of this technology is very expensive, but so is labor.”
The milking technology the French’s are hoping to install is an especially costly investment, with each robot costing upward of $250,000.
Installing the system will not require too many changes to the facilities or barns that are in place already, French said.
“If we get it done the way I want to, it’ll have a nice observation window,” He said.
AT A GLANCE
This is a list of the number of dairy operations in Northern Shenandoah Valley counties, according to Bobby Clark, Virginia Cooperative Extension agent for agriculture and natural resources:
• Shenandoah: 12
• Page: 2
• Clarke: 5
• Frederick: 3
Contact staff writer Kevin Green at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or email@example.com