The True family has been dairying in Perry, New York, since 1979, when Blair True moved his 50-head dairy herd from Spencerport, New York – about one hour north of the current farm – as they needed room to grow. True Farms, now operated by Blair’s sons Jeff and Brian, has 1,075 cows in the milking herd and cultivates 1,250 acres of cropland.
The dairy is a family affair, with Brian’s sons Chris and Bradley helping to run the operation. Chris works with his uncle on the dairy side and serves as the calf care and bunk crew manager. Bradley works alongside his father to keep the crops harvested to provide much of the herd’s feed.
There are two milking herds at True Farms, one at “Farm 2,” a few miles down the road from the primary farm’s location. This second farm houses 300 pregnant milking cows. Milking is done in a double-10 parallel parlor. The remainder of the milking herd, along with calves and heifers, is housed at the primary farm. This herd is milked in a double-11 herringbone parlor. The farm sends its milk to Dairy Farmers of America for processing.
The general ration consists of a heavy corn silage diet, haylage and a protein mix. The farm grows most of its own feed, including corn silage, brown midrib corn silage and alfalfa. Feed is pushed up frequently throughout the day to promote maximum intake.
The herd is a mix of Holsteins – the primary breed, along with Jerseys and Brown Swiss. The colored breeds add to the butterfat and protein content in the bulk tank. To best capture the value of these components, the colored breeds are housed in pens separately from the Holsteins, and they receive a specialized feeding ration. The dairy’s overall somatic cell count runs about 170,000. The butterfat content of the bulk tank is about 4 percent and milk protein levels are at 3.25 percent.
“Farm 2” was one of six platinum level recipients of the National Dairy Quality Awards in 2012, the goal of which is “to honor dairy producers from across the U.S. who have successfully placed top priority on producing milk of the highest quality,” according to the National Mastitis Council, which sponsors the annual competition.
True Farms’ emphasis is placed on following written milking protocols, including pre- and post-teat dipping, monitoring the vacuum line, paying careful attention to signs of mastitis and promptly treating and separating sick cows. The cows are milked three times per day. Labor for milking over 1,000 cows involves about 15 employees.
“Our cows are housed in free stall barns,” Chris True said. “They are six-row barns, and we have three of them.”
The stalls have been retrofitted for use with sand bedding. They’ve added landscape timbers on the back of the stalls to keep the sand in place, and retain a bedding depth of 4 to 5 inches of sand. Stalls are bedded and groomed twice per week, using a skid steer loader. At each milking, alleys are scraped and the backs of the stalls are cleaned.
The sand bedding requires a daily haul out to the lagoon. The family does have future plans to install a sand separation system “to capture the benefits of reclaimed sand and money savings,” Chris said.
The farm has recently installed solar panels, and the energy generated is used to heat the water for the dairy. They noted the energy savings and are hoping to add more panels in the near future. But their priorities have led to recent investments in other parts of the operation.
“The calves were raised off-farm and we wanted to have better eyes on them, so we decided it would be best to put a calf barn at the top of the list,” Chris said.
The farm raises all of its own replacement calves, requiring about 450 per year. Breeding is done via timed AI breeding. As they are not currently growing the size of the milking herd, they are now breeding fourth or fifth lactation animals to beef.
To better focus on calf care, the family opted to build new calf housing and change how the calves were managed. In their old system, 170 calves were housed in individual stalls, and they were gain feeding. Today, they are group housing the majority of their calves and have added automated calf feeders.
“We wanted to do a better job and reduce some labor in the process,” Jeff True said. The data from automated feeders would allow better individual monitoring and oversight.
The farm has seen a reduction in cost per calf of about $50 since switching to the new group housing and automated feeding management system. A renewed focus on culling calves prior to weaning is expected to keep the cost of raising replacement heifers down even further.
The new calf housing facility, just about three years old, is a Seneca Iron Works design. The flat ceiling, post-frame building offers mechanically-assisted natural ventilation. Power chimneys in the roof, along with supplemental side fans, work to move the air in and out of the barn. Sidewall curtains allow for more control, and are kept up at least 4 inches even in the winter to promote better air exchange.
The new facility has improved calf respiratory health, although in retrospect there are some changes – such as having the floor on a greater slope and narrowing the width of the building down from 52 feet – that they feel may have helped in improving ventilation. The calf pens are lined up along one wall to provide the best ventilation for the calves.
The group housing and automated feeding has saved on labor. Calves are housed by age, with a 10-day age window, in pens holding 20 calves. The barn features six pens, and three DeLaval CF1000 automated calf feeders. Pens have drainage grates built in, and are covered with straw, then wood shavings. Originally, they tried to bed with the straw on top, but it caused maintenance problems, and deep straw caused ammonia concerns. Bedding with straw alone for the initial two weeks allows newborns to nest in the winter, but the shavings are added after that.
Pen walls are washed weekly, year-round. Both walls and floors are washed each week in the summer. Pens are thoroughly disinfected between calf groups. Even the floor grates are sanitized, and pens are freshly bedded, before a new group of calves arrives.
Feeding can be programmed for the individual calf, or for the group. They are currently using a milk replacer, as the powder was the easiest to implement initially, but hope to change to pasteurized waste milk from the milking herd. They feed a 26:18 milk replacer formula, foregoing a higher fat content option, as they’ve found it decreases the number of trips calves will make to the automated feeder.
On average, calves visit the feeders eight times per day, receiving 2 quarts of milk replacer, every two hours. They are allowed to feed up to 12 times per day, with some carryover, Chris said. More than this amount per day has caused some loose stools, with no increase in daily gain, so they reduced the maximum number of feedings allowed.
Nipple issues include some challenges with the amount of solids in the milk replacer, which they now keep at about 13 percent. With the mixed breeds in the herd, they’ve found that the Jerseys suck differently than the other breeds, and could benefit from a smaller nipple, if one was available. The Brown Swiss perform best at the nipple, and also tend to push over the Jerseys and consume milk not meant for them!
Another concern is sucking in the group pens. Adding balls and other play objects to eliminate the sucking behavior has had mixed results, but increasing the weaning time has eliminated most of the problem, Chris said. Calves are fed for 60 days, and they’ve experienced less weaning concerns with the automated feeders than they had previously.
Automated feeders are cleaned thoroughly and maintained routinely. Daily tasks include disinfecting nipples, hoses, mix jars and the heating elements with a bleach-based cleaner. Stall feeding areas are also disinfected daily to prevent any pathogen growth.
Water is another issue on the dairy, as the lake water they use now – though it is filtered – can cause some illness in the calves, particularly after heavy rains. Water hardness can also damage the automated feeders. The farm will be hooking up to the village’s treated water system to avoid future issues.
Stacia True, who works for Natural Biologics, said the farm is interested in using natural feed additives, which can be fed through the automated feeders. Additives are designed to bind pathogens and toxins, promoting better calf health.
One issue impacting True Farms, and most other dairy farms today, is labor concerns. Fair wages, combined with dairy pricing fluctuations and the overall cost of production, often means that remaining profitable can be the biggest chore on the farm.
“The biggest challenge in dairy today would be maintaining a stable work force and keeping the cost of production lower than the milk price,” Chris said. “Changes we’ve made towards these challenges are being the employer of choice in the area, paying a competitive wage and offering housing to employees.”
The farm also works with a local agency that places mentally handicapped adults in positive employment situations. The arrangement enriches the farm’s community connection, provides job skills and employment to an alternative work force and brings a fresh perspective to all involved.
“It gives them an opportunity to experience the work force and to introduce them to agriculture,” Chris said. “This has been a very satisfying experience all around.”
Despite the many issues that today’s family dairy farms face, the True family has found that the benefits outweigh the negatives. They plan to carry on, remaining true to their roots.
“Being a family farm is great, but at the same time can be challenging,” Jeff said. “But I would not have it any other way.”