A Shift In The Winds
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There’s an interesting scent in the air of southwest Kansas, and it’s more than manure. For years, a lifetime for many, Garden City and the surrounding areas have been a beef growing hub of the United States with over a million head of cattle in a 100-mile radius. We have been known to eat, sleep, and dream beef in this part of the world. But, in the last 10 years or so there has been a shift in the winds, dairy operations are popping up everywhere.
Why are so many dairies making a move to southwest Kansas you ask? For very similar reasons that beef cattle did. As land prices continue to soar and cities keep taking over the landscape in states back east it only makes sense for the dairyman to expand or start their operation this direction. We offer plenty of land, smaller towns that are progressive when it comes to modern agriculture, a mild weather pattern, and feed as far as the eyes can see. With the merging of many beef companies into larger conglomerates, several empty feedyards can easily be made into milking facilities.
But let’s back up a little bit, every story has a beginning, so how did these dairymen get a taste for the riches we offer in this part of the world anyway? It all began with heifer development. In the early 2000’s we had so many volatile days in the markets that led to financial collapse and recession, there were beef growers that went under with that wave. Some moved on and found another career, others tapped into their innovative spirit.
After talking with Wes Whitaker, a partner at Circle Heifer Development, LLC, about why he decided to go from raising beef to dairy animals he told me, “We were looking around at all of these empty pens, and we had to figure out what to do with them. After hearing how tight the land market was and how hard it was for dairies to get permits to expand or build new facilities back in the Upper Midwest, we knew we found our market.” Necessity is the mother of invention after all. “With a few modifications to our feedyard, including stantions, trainers, and back rails, we were all set to raise dairy heifers for the larger dairyman in the Upper Midwest. We turned a decade's old tradition of backgrounding beef cattle on its head and started using the same thought process with dairy animals. There are obviously differences between the two species, but the general idea is the same: we take in young calves and raise them to their owner's specs, then send them on their next leg of their journey. With a dairy heifer, her next leg is the milking parlor.”
Think of a heifer grower as a school. Circle Heifer Development, LLC receives the heifers at six months of age when they are ready to enter elementary after they have already spent time at a calf ranch – preschool. From there they make several transitions through the feedyard based on their age. When they are ready to move up to middle school they enter the trainer's section of the feedyard where they can get used to sticking their heads through the v bars commonly found in dairies. This also prepares them for the stantions, or highschool. The stantions allow the grower to lock the heads of the animal while they happily munch on some fresh feed. “Having them locked allows us to safely and effectively check their health and make sure they are on schedule for breeding.”
As the heifers move through this two-year process, it is imperative that they associate human presence with a positive atmosphere because they will be spending their life side by side. For this reason, Circle Heifer Development walks their pens and doctor animals on foot. “We want our heifers to be calm when they see us and know there isn’t any reason for them to startle or worry.”
When the heifers reach about eight months pregnant and are on the verge of graduating to motherhood, they board a truck and head back home to the dairy. There she will calve and enter her herd as a milking cow.
While beef still reigns supreme in this neck of the prairie, whether they are being raised for beef or raised to milk, dairy animals are here to stay. No matter the type, we always welcome progressive agriculture into our growing community.