- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Patty Leonard has got milk. As the owner of Al-Mara Farm Inc., a dairy farm in Midland, Va., Mrs. Leonard can store up to 4,000 gallons of milk on her farm.

Although people have milked cows for centuries, in more recent years, technology has made the process easier. After Mrs. Leonard’s cows are milked by machine, the liquid is pumped into a tank where it is cooled.

The Leonard farm, which has been in the family for three generations, hasn’t always been run by machines, Mrs. Leonard says.

“My father-in-law is amazed by the technology,” she says. “He never missed a day of milking until he had his hip replaced. He gives me a hard time about using a computer. I told him when he stops using his mule to plow the fields, I’ll stop using my computer.”

Science is at the heart of any dairy farm. From what cows eat to how the milk is packaged, the dairy industry relies heavily on current technology.

“If anyone thinks farmers are short on math and science, that’s a joke,” says Marty Potts, owner of Orchard Crest, a dairy farm in Purcellville, Va. Her relatives Nancy and Mike Potts run another dairy farm in Purcellville, Dogwood Farm.

“You can’t call a vet every time something goes wrong,” Nancy Potts says. “My husband delivers 40 to 50 cows a year.”

To make sure the animals receive all their vitamins and minerals, “cow casserole” is prepared for the animals by a nutritionist, Mrs. Leonard says. The recipe usually contains ingredients such as soybean meal, corn silage, hay and cottonseed.

Although some farmers give their dairy herd bovine somatrophin, a naturally occurring growth hormone, to stimulate the cows’ appetite and maintain milk production, Mrs. Leonard says their farm doesn’t use it. Antibiotics are only given to the cows if they are ill.

Feeding the cows a balanced diet helps them produce better milk, Mrs. Leonard says. Cows on the Leonard farm are artificially inseminated for the first time when they are 15 months old, so they begin producing milk when they deliver at age 2.

Sixty days after a cow delivers a calf, it is inseminated again. Therefore, cows are producing calves and milk year-round on the farm. On average, two calves are born each week.

In the milking parlor on the Leonard farm, 300 cows line up twice a day. Years ago, one person manually milked two cows in one hour, Mrs. Leonard says. Today, it just takes about 4 hours to milk the entire herd.

“You can milk 20 cows at once,” Mrs. Leonard says. “You used to need two or three people. The technology makes it more labor-efficient.”

The milking assistant wipes the cows’ udders with iodine and attaches the milking machine, which is like a gentle vacuum. Mrs. Leonard says the procedure doesn’t hurt the cows.

“I used to drink milk right out of the cow. It’s a richer, fuller flavor,” Mrs. Leonard says. “Since I had children, we bought pasteurized milk for the kids’ safety.”

Each cow wears a computerized orange ankle bracelet to identify the animal and record how much milk it produces. If a cow is being given antibiotics, the bracelet will trigger an alarm when the cow reaches the milking machine, and the animal’s milk will be discarded. A healthy cow produces 100 to 120 pounds of milk a day, about 12 to 14 gallons.

The bracelets also record the number of steps the cows take per hour. If the cows aren’t feeling well, they will be less active. If the cows are in heat, they likely are more active.

The computer also picks up the conductivity of the cow’s milk, based on the salt content. If an animal is fighting an infection, the salt content in its milk increases. The technology might detect an illness before a cow shows physical signs of infection.

If the computer detects something wrong with a cow’s milk, it will prevent the cow from leaving the milking parlor until the animal has been examined by the milking assistant.

Whether a cow produces good milk is not only influenced by the genes of its mother, but also by the bull, says Mary Novotny, manager at the Loudoun Heritage Farm Museum in Sterling, Va.

For instance, Elevation, a bull reared in 1965 at Round Oak Farm in Airmont, Va., fathered 70,000 offspring. His genes are represented in 10 percent of the Holstein cattle in the world. The bull produced daughters that have tremendous milk production and high-quality milk, and his sons also sired productive daughters.

“If you drink milk or eat ice cream, you have consumed dairy products that are a descendent of this bull,” Ms. Novotny says. “It’s amazing how he lives on.”

Although there have been many advances in the dairy industry because of technology, there is a downside, Ms. Novotny says. While science has made the production of milk more efficient, that efficiency is one factor contributing to the elimination of many viable farms as fewer farms are needed. In 1959, Loudoun County had 464 farms with dairy cows. Today, there are 13.

Also, as rural areas become more and more populated, waste management is a bigger concern. It is taught as part of the dairy science program at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.

The curriculum concentrates on the federal and state rules and regulations related to pollution control in dairy farming, says Charlie Stallings, professor of dairy science at Virginia Tech. He holds a doctorate in dairy science. This includes discussions about controlling manure so it doesn’t run into rivers and streams and proper treatment of waste.

Most people don’t realize all the details that go into dairy farming, he says.

“People just sort of expect dairy products to be on the shelves,” Mr. Stallings says. “We take it for granted that they’re going to be there.”

After trucks pick up the milk at the dairy farms, it is taken to independent processing and distribution centers for further treatment before being packaged for the public, says Richard Becker, manager at Shenandoah’s Pride in Springfield.

By law, raw milk can’t be used if it has been held on a farm for more than 72 hours, he says. After arriving at a processing and distribution center, the liquid is tested to see if it meets standards. If it isn’t acceptable, it might be sold to an ice cream, dog food or milk powder company.

If the milk is acceptable, it undergoes more cooling. Then it is run through a pasteurizer and homogenizer and goes into a storage tank. After being packaged into gallons, quarts and pints, the milk goes into a big cooler. Trucks come during the day to pick up the product for distribution.

“If you go back in the dairy industry 25 years, [farmers] used to own their own bottling companies,” Mr. Becker says. “They decided they were just better off farming, doing what they do best.”

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