America's Dairy Farmers: Working to Help Feed America

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A Day in the Life of a Dairy Farmer

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When it comes to the milk America drinks, cows shouldn’t get all the credit. Dairy farmers like Dave and Laurie Kyle of Elkhorn, Wis., put in just as much hard work as their bovine counterparts.

Morning for these dairy producers starts early. By 4:30, the Kyles and their farmhands are up for the first of two rounds of milking their 110 registered Holstein cows. While the cows are in the milking parlor, Dave is busy cleaning the barn, replenishing bedding and filling watering units with fresh water. Next, it’s time to feed the girls a nutritious breakfast of farm-grown hay, corn and silage (a high-moisture feed that is often made from grass crops that provides many of the nutrients present in plants) mixed with soybean meal and Milwaukee malted rye. (During the warmer months, the cows also graze on fresh pasture.) Dave meets with a local nutritionist weekly, and feed blends are customized to meet each cow’s current dietary needs, based on her weight and milk production level. Afternoons are more varied, yet still just as busy. In the summer, it’s often the time to hop on the tractor and harvest feed crops. When the Kyles aren’t harvesting, they’ll often tend to other tasks, such as any variety of farm-related repairs.

“When you’re a farmer, you have to be good at being an electrician, plumber and mechanic, because you can’t really afford to pay outside vendors,” Laurie admits.

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There’s also checking in with veterinarians and testing milk for quality and safety. This includes testing for antibiotic residues — a process that takes place up to eight times before the milk is sent to the local processing plant. Setting aside time each day to simply observe the cows’ behavior is also essential to ensure that they’re healthy. On some days, the Kyles give farm tours, too. “It’s cool to see kids’ faces light up when they pet the calves that were born a week ago, because most families don’t know where their food comes from,” says Laurie.

While Dave spends much of his day on the farm, Laurie, a nutrition educator, can usually be found at Perkup Elkhorn, the coffee shop she opened in 2012 to forge deeper community connections and earn additional income. “Because I’m passionate about agriculture and healthy eating, it seemed like a perfect fit. The message that I have is that American agriculture is alive and well, and farmers are still some of the most trustworthy individuals that are providing wholesome products for all,” she says. When she isn’t chatting with customers about milk’s vast nutritional benefits, she’s tackling bookwork for the farm in the back office.

Dave might stop in for a bit to discuss bills, but it’s back to the farm by 4:30 p.m. for the day’s second round of milking, cleaning and feeding. After working as long as 17 hours, he finally arrives back home. Like most families, long days and busy schedules—including working around 16-year-old daughter Mackenzie’s travel softball games and practices and 20-year-old son Hayden’s college course load—mean the Kyles don’t get to eat dinner together as often as they might like. But it’s a small sacrifice to make in exchange for a truly rewarding outcome. “Knowing you’re producing wholesome products for people and doing it by rolling up your sleeves and working hard, there’s a real pride involved in that,” says Laurie.

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