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Rachel Gabel

Consumers want to know that agriculture producers are doing the right thing, be it on a ranch, hog operation, feedyard, grain farm or dairy. This has been demonstrated to producers through consumers’ use of their food dollars, though from this side of the supply chain it’s sometimes difficult to hear over the din of the noisy minority.

The majority of consumers, myself included, have come to enjoy the abundant and affordable food supply in this country. Efficiency on the farm or ranch is a vitally important piece of that price puzzle, but consumers also play a role in efficiency by rejecting activist-driven, anti-ag legislation.

Farmer feeders — farmers who operate a small on-farm feedyard to fatten cattle — once dominated the landscape, especially in northeastern Colorado and toward the Front Range. These farmers were putting to use the feedstuffs they grew to feed cattle, making locally raised beef easily accessible to their neighbors.

Farmers who kept a few milk cows were also commonplace, eliciting the idyllic scene of a farmer on a stool hand-milking a cow into a bucket, a cat at his feet.

As populations grew and efficiency was a necessity, the farmer feeders turned into feedyards and the dairy man began milking far more cows to make a living. The changes weren’t bad, it was an answer to the demands of consumers.

Dairies have been exceptionally adept at meeting the consumer curveballs. The most notable example is one misguided activists love to target artificial insemination. The vast majority of dairies use AI exclusively rather than keeping bulls on the property for a couple of reasons.

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Sexed semen can be utilized by dairies that keep replacement heifers to eventually enter their herd to ensure more heifers are born. Bull calves born on dairies have, in years past, been fed and have eventually entered the beef supply but their genetics and size require a longer time in the feedyard to reach their finished weight than their beef breed counterparts. A major driver in the industry currently is the use of beef-sire semen on dairy females to produce a black-hided calf that is more carcass-oriented than a straight dairy breed calf. A huge amount of the nation’s beef comes from the dairy side of the cattle industry and this efficiency benefits multiple stops along the supply chain.

AI also allows the highest quality, most desirable sires to be at a producer’s fingertips at all times for a much lower cost than maintaining an extensive bull battery on site. Additionally, bulls have one job, it’s seasonal work, and the remainder of the year they’re eating feed and oftentimes destroying fences and feeders and tanks and one another. Semen tanks don’t do any of those things.

The efficiencies of dairies have also been highlighted as a labor shortage in agriculture has changed the way many operations do business. Eldon and Hilary Marrs own Marrs’ Milky Way Dairy, located on the former site of the Tateyama Farm, a dairy farm that dates back to the 1920s. The Marrs family have been dairymen since the 1940s but have felt the squeeze of labor shortages. In 2018, they built a computerized robotic dairy barn and were able to fill a labor-intensive job with robotics. The rotary milking barn contains 60 stalls and 60 robots, allowing employees to supervise both robots and the cows while they’re being milked. It makes a previously labor-intensive, dirty and strenuous job into one that is safer and allows the family-owned dairy to milk more cows. It also allows an incredible amount of data to be collected about each cow — specifically data from each of her four udder quarters. Data can be used to compare her performance to historical data, to detect illness earlier, and the robots test the milk and isolate it for disposal if necessary. Even the water used to cool the milk is recycled to clean the barn and heat the barn floor in the wintertime.

Outside the milking parlor, another robot that bears some resemblance to R2-D2, pushes feed up to the bunks in the free stall barns ensuring the cows have a fresh, consistent supply of feed before them. Of course, dairies still rely upon well trained employees to complete other important jobs from cleaning stalls to providing treatment to cows to mixing and delivering feed to breeding cows and caring for baby calves.

Though the robots are manufactured by German company GEA, the majority of robotic dairies are installed and maintained by Dairy Specialists, a locally owned company. The employees who learn to supervise the automated system are not only valuable but are hopefully happier with their job all while gaining skills that are transferable to other areas inside and outside the agriculture industry.

All of these efficiencies are developed to produce a more abundant, safe and affordable food supply for consumers. As consumers, it is vitally important not to understand the exact workings of a dairy, for example, but to recognize that efficient doesn’t equal cruel or make an operation less family owned. The failed PAUSE Act would have made criminals of producers utilizing AI and would have ground to a halt many sectors of agriculture in the state, dairies included. Even though PAUSE was struck down by the state’s highest court, there will be another ballot initiative or activist-driven piece of legislation and the burden falls on the consumer to keep anti-ag agendas off their dinner table.

Rachel Gabel writes about agriculture and rural issues. She is assistant editor of The Fence Post Magazine, the region’s preeminent agriculture publication. Gabel is a daughter of the state’s oil and gas industry and a member of one of the state’s 12,000 cattle-raising families, and she has authored children’s books used in hundreds of classrooms to teach students about agriculture.