Day-by-Day on a Virginia Dairy Farm
Ingleside has been in the family since the mid-1700s. In 1967 my grandparents, Charles B. Leech III and Mary Leech, started the dairy farm. I was fortunate to be born and raised on this farm. I grew up along side my brother (Charles V “Beau”), my parents (Charlie and Linda), and my grandparents.
The dairy grew from around 35 cows in the startup years to the current herd size of 340 milking cows (working moms) and 50 dry cows (pregnant vacationers). 240 cows are milked by robotic milking machines. The remainder of the cows are milked in the conventional milking parlor. All of the milking cows are housed in freestall barns. The robotic technology is fairly new to Virginia. We were the second Virginia dairy farm to adopt the technology. There are now four Virginia dairies with robots. We also raise our own replacement heifers (girls without babies and boobies), so that’s another 400 mouths to feed if you are keeping count. Most of the male babies are sold after a few days old to another farmer.
Even today, my family still works together. I am the herdsperson and bookkeeper. Beau works with the equipment and crops. My mom raises the baby calves and my dad manages and oversees everything. Richard and Mike are our full time employees. Richard feeds the milking herd and dry cows, which takes several hours a day. Mike milks the parlor cows with Jen T. (part-time) and feeds calves and helps with the “projects of the day”. Part-time employees include Jen T., Kathleen, Skylar, and Cindy. The part-time employees help different days of the week with the parlor milking, cleaning stalls, and monitoring the robot milking herd.
Oh boy it’s the weekend! That means our work force gets slim. The parlor cows have to be milked twice a day every day. We don’t get weekends or holidays off, but we try to be understanding and give a little flexibility to our employees. Mike and I milked this morning. He got all his work done by 11 and he was able to leave.
My brother and his girlfriend went to the Maple Festival today. They had planned to go to an auction in Pennsylvania to look at a tractor, but then decided it was too far to ride not knowing if they would be able to buy anything or not. They even brought back maple doughnuts from the festival… cheaper than a tractor!
Kathleen and I are milking this afternoon. A prospective employee that I talked to on the phone is coming by to see what all a job on a dairy would involve. She is a high school student and is looking for after school and summer work. We didn’t scare her off and she will be back Thursday to start work. We have been needing someone that we can rely on for the weekends.
My Saturday night fun involved decorating a wreath… gosh I’m fun!
Beau milked the parlor cows this morning. I worked in the robot barn with those cows. After Beau finished milking and feeding the calves he hauled one of our tractors to the John Deere dealership for service. For some reason the tractor is stuck in four wheel drive.
I hung the wreath that I made for my grandma last night. She lives right here at the dairy. We have an office and kitchen area in the barn… but it’s always better to go to grandma’s house for lunch.
Kathleen and I did all the cow work this afternoon. Kathleen is going to community college now with plans of going to Virginia Tech. I support her all the way! My parents, brother and I all studied dairy science at Virginia Tech.
Before I go to bed every night I go back to the barn and change the milk filter. I also ride by the calving barn and make sure nobody is having difficulty calving.
Today the hoof trimmer came. He comes every other month and shapes up the cows hooves. It creates a little extra work for us because we have to sort the cows out that need his attention, but it’s always worth it because it keeps the cows’ feet healthy. An added bonus is all the great stories that the hoof trimmer tells. Today he told us a dramatic story about the birth of his second daughter that was born since the last time he was here.
I had four cows to breed today. The computer gives me a list of the cows that are in heat based on her activity. Her activity is monitored by a collar she wears around her neck. When she moves more than her normal trend, there is a good chance she needs to be bred. We use frozen bulls. Most dairies do. By frozen bulls I mean the bulls don’t live on our farm, but their semen is collected off site and delivered to us in liquid nitrogen. That means we can have the top genetics without the danger and expense of owning a really good bull. I learned how to breed cows using artificial insemination when I was in high school.
Our nutritionist and extension agent came this morning. The nutritionist comes every other week and looks at the cows, takes feed samples to send to the lab, and sees if any of the cows diets need to be adjusted. The extension agent is new to our area. He used to work on a robot dairy in Pennsylvania, so his input is really appreciated.
The milk inspector also dropped in this morning. Dairies must have permits to sell milk. The inspector’s job is to make sure everything is clean and that you are producing high quality milk. He took a quick look around and then was on his way.
After lunch I got a bunch of bookwork done. The bills had gotten stacked up pretty high and I was glad to get caught up.
Mike and Richard helped deliver a calf today. Normally calves are born without our assistance but today they could tell that a first time mom was struggling to get the calf pushed out. If the delivery takes too long it can be bad for the mom and the baby. With their help the calf was born. It’s a girl! Mom and baby are doing fine. I will milk her in the morning.
Tonight one of my parents’ friends came in from West Virginia. We met her at one of our favorite restaurants in Lexington. In the morning my parents and their friend are flying to New Orleans for a meeting.
Last night the robots gave an alarm. It was 3:30ish. I pulled my clothes on and went to the barn. When something goes wrong the computer calls our cell phones and house phones until we enter the reset code. There was no major problem and I was back to bed by 4:00.
When my “real” day started I got the heifer that Mike and Richard helped calve yesterday in the robot system. One other cow calved last night too and I put her back in the robot barn. The cows calve in a special barn designed just for pregnant cows due to birth. The calves are born in a deep straw bedded pack. Then the calves are moved to individual pens. You could compare them to cribs. They are fed twice a day with a bottle and we keep a close eye on the health of the newborns. After a week or two the babies are moved into group pens and they are fed by an automatic calf feeder. The calves can drink whenever they want, up to 12 times a day. Of course, the machine doesn’t let the calves drink too much either because they are identified with an electronic ear tag.
As far as getting the new cows onto the robot system, it’s pretty simple. Each cow needs a unique transponder on a collar and to be put into the robot the first time. To attach the cow the very first time you use the robot’s computer screen and direct the milking arm up to the cows udder. Once you get the arm close the lasers take over and find the teats.
The machines that milk the robot herd are pretty amazing. They work 24 hours a day without a person having to be there… except last night at 3:30. The cows are identified, cleaned, milked and post sprayed with iodine. The most fascinating part is that the cows go to the machine at their own leisure. Some cows will go to the milking machine six times a day.
Since my parents are gone today I have to go to their farm 7 miles down the road and take care of the heifers there. My mom makes sure the babies on the milk feeder are well and that the feeders are full of milk replacer powder. Today there was one baby that the computer said hadn’t drank all of her milk. I went out in the pen and got her up and made her go drink her milk. She looked like she was breathing a little hard so I gave her some medicine. Mom also feeds the heifers that don’t drink milk anymore. They get hay and grain. And when I say she feeds grain, I mean a lot of grain. Over 20 5 gallon buckets of grain a day!
I had to leave the barn early today to go with my brother to a farm equipment meeting in Harrisonburg. I don’t like to leave early because I like to stay and know that everything got done, but Skylar and Cindy are working this afternoon, so I’m sure everything will go fine.
Thursday- Training Day
No babies were born last night, so that was one less thing I had to do this morning. I bred a cow and cleaned up the barn. I had to make a run to town today. I dropped some stuff off at the accountant’s office and went by the Rockbridge Farmer’s Coop to buy some rubber boots for the new girl. On my way home I stopped at my parents’ farm to take care of things there. The calf that was sick yesterday was feeling much better and had drank all of her servings. Always a relief!
Mike and Richard fixed fence today. This winter had been hard on the fences. We have a lot of fence that runs through woods and all the snow that we have had breaks tree limbs which breaks the fence.
My brother has been getting all the equipment ready for the spring field work. It won’t be long before it’s time to plant corn. They will also have to reseed about 150 acres of alfalfa this spring. Most of the time a planting of alfalfa will last a few years, but this winter was just more than the plants could take. Right now we are in the calm before the storm. When field work starts there are days when I don’t see my dad or brother. The busy season runs all the way to December or next January when the last corn is combined.
I milked with Skylar and the new girl this afternoon. It always takes longer when you are training someone new. Everything has to be explained and done slow. She seems to be a fast learner, but the cows weren’t cooperating this afternoon. Cows can tell when there is a new person around.
Two old cows had calves last night. I put them both back into the robot system. I bred a cow and then headed to my parents’. Luckily the mud is drying out. Yesterday was pretty windy and that made a huge difference.
We are in the process of building a calf barn for weaned calves. Today some construction workers were back on the job after the bad weather. They had to wait for a good day to put the trusses up. The way the farm is set up now, after calves are weaned and taken out of the pen with the milk feeders they go into one of two indoor pens, then when we need more room, they are moved outside. This barn will help us to keep them inside longer. It sure would have been nice to have it this past winter with all the snow and super cold temperatures.
This afternoon was the second day of training the new girl. Kathleen was there to help too. The second day always goes much better than the first day. Everyone’s nerves are calmed and the cows are calmer too.
My parents came back tonight so I met them in town for dinner. The last thing on my list before bed is to change the milk filter one last time for the day and check the pregnant cows again.
Farming is a lifestyle but it is also a business. We have very tight margins. Every day is a challenge, but our ultimate goal is to provide for our animals and care for the environment and they will provide for us.