Ok, it was a calf. The big cows scared me.
There are a lot of things I don’t like. Dirt and smelly things are pretty high on that list. So I surprised even myself when I accepted an invitation to visit a dairy farm. I figured it would do myself and my kids a lot of good to step outside the box and experience something new.
So we got in the car and drove 115 miles away to Kooistra’s Dairy Farm.
But let me be honest here about my reasons for accepting this invitation, I had an alterior motive besides a simple new experience.
I wanted to learn more about milk. See where it comes from. How it is collected. How the cows are treated. What they eat. And how the cow’s milk gets from the cow to our store. As a mom, I want whats best for my family and dairy has always been an essential part of our diets. Very few other products by themselves offer as many nutrients as a serving of dairy, and when it comes to healthy snack options, dairy has got it going on.
We visited Kooistra Dairy Farm in Woodstock, Illinois and got a private tour from Linnea Kooistra and Midwest Dairy Association representative Karen Bohnert (Karen is also a diary farmer). Linnea owns the farm with her husband Joel and although she said she had other plans for her life than becoming a farmer, a fateful meeting with a handsome farmer at a basketball game changed all that. Both Linnea and her husband are 3rd generation farmers and the 800 acre farm they own now once belonged to Joel’s parents. Linnea and Joel have been a team working their farm since 1972 and recently Linnea was named the first woman Master Farmer in Illinois.
The Kooistra’s have 500 animals to care for on their farm, 250 full-grown milking cows (a number of them pregnant at any given time) and 250 calves at various stages of development. They also grow corn and soybeans on their land as well, some of which is used to help feed all those cows.
Upon arriving at the farm, we were greeted by Marley.
The dairy farm dog.
Who is afraid of cows.
During our visit, Linnea took us through the farm and explained the day to day workings of life on a dairy farm.
As she talked, there was one constant theme throughout – taking great care of the cows.
After meeting Marley, we got to meet some week-old calves. They were so sweet and the perfect size for the kids to interact with. We learned that the Kooistra’s keep all the females and sell the males. Males do not product milk, so they don’t have much use on a dairy farm. Especially because they use artificial insemination for breeding.
I was surprised at how timid and sweet the calves were. A couple were actually afraid of us.
Every calf born on the farm is tagged and assigned a number. This number identifies the cow by the year they were born and in which order they were born. This number is important because it is how they track everything about each cow on a detailed computer system.
The calves diets are very controlled by not only a vet but by a nutritionist who makes sure these babies get everything they need to grow big and strong. Linnea said that while the calves are given the colostrum from their mothers, the mothers do not nurse because of the risk of infection to the calves.
Despite having to tear us all away from the babies, we moved on to the big barn where the adult cows live. This barn was pretty amazing. Linnea described how it was designed to be easy to clean, make the food and water easily accessible and create an ideal atmosphere for the cows and keep them cool in the summer. It turns out cows don’t mind the cold weather, the big issue is keeping the wind out, and this barn was designed to do that too.
I love this series of pictures of my kids. There were fearless, walking right in and exploring on their own – with Jake clearly being protective of his little sister.
The adults cows were intimidating. They are HUGE. But I was surprised to learn that they are gentle giants. Linnea showed us what happens when she leans up against the bars of their pen. Her arm gets licked, and my kids, while a little cautious, had a great time holding their hands out and getting cow kisses.
In addition to learning about their environment, Linnea described the cow’s diets in great detail. As I mentioned, they employ a nutritionist to make sure the cows have an ideal, healthy diet that combines corn (they use the entire corn stalk not just the ears of corn because the cows like it), cottonseed, hay, protein and vitamins and minerals. It is an ideal diet for dairy cows that they actually enjoy eating.
The next stop on our trip was the milking room. The cows are milked twice a day and what’s interesting is that they want to be milked. I never really thought of it before, but as any woman who has breastfed knows, when milk builds up, it gets uncomfortable. So milking is something they enjoy because it offers relief. Linnea explained all of the sanitation procedures, and how the room was designed to keep everything clean and sterile. Upon entering the room, it slopes upwards which puts pressure on the cows bladders so they pee BEFORE they get up to the milking area.
We also learned that each cow produces about 9 gallons of milk a day, and that testing is done to ensure the milk meets the very stringent minimum standards of the dairy industry and does not contain any antibiotics. Milk containing antibiotics (if a cow had been sick and her milk was collected with the rest) is rejected and farms are penalized.
As the milk is pumped from the cows, it goes into a big giant holding tank that cools it to 39 degrees. The milk is picked up each day and delivered to the local Dean Foods facility for processing. From there is is sold to numerous different brands and ends up on store shelves within 24 hours.
After learning how they milk the cows, we got to visit the “teenager” cows who are kept in a separate area until they are 2 years old. Cows are full grown at 2 and they can then have their first calf and begin producing milk.
And then we got to see a newly born calf. I was intrigued that while they do monitor the cows during pregnancy very closely, the births pretty much happen without human interaction, unless they believe there will be a problem.
After our tour of the farm, and the great information we received from both Linnea and Karen about the inner-workings of a dairy farm, we sat down to have a snack. The perfect snack for a visit to a dairy farm – string cheese, yogurt and chocolate milk.
As we sat talking and enjoying our snacks and prepared to leave, Linnea reinforced the passion we had seen from her during our visit. She talked about the strict regulations on milk, told us how to identify the processing facility the milk came from by a set of numbers on the container, and she told us that it doesn’t matter what brand of milk you buy. She said milk is one of the safest foods you can buy and that all milk is subject to the same stringent, frequent, thorough testing and then is sold to the brand who puts their label on it.
She said the most important thing is to just buy milk!
As we were about to leave, Linnea succinctly described her life as a dairy farmer and I asked her to email that to me so I can quote her. I could not do justice to it myself.
From Linnea Kooistra:
Thanks so much for your interest in dairy farming and how milk is produced. I hope you can share with your followers the passion we have for what we do.
Dairy farming is hard work. We have to be here every day 365 days a week, milking cows twice per day and caring for our animals in all kinds of weather. You don’t do something like this unless you love it and love animals. Everything on our farm is geared to make our cows as comfortable and healthy as possible. That includes a healthy diet, good veterinary care, and a comfortable environment to live.
Comfortable happy healthy cows give more milk. It is as simple as that.
We are proud that our profession involves feeding the world a healthy, great tasting food while being good stewards of the land and the animals. It is a tradition in farm families and I was glad to be able to share it with you today.