The dairy industry can be a hard industry to be in at times. Milk prices fluctuate, and input prices can severely hinder a dairy’s ability to make ends meet. Sometimes, a dairy has to sell off the cows to avoid bankruptcy.
This is exactly what happened to the Cleland Dairy in Erie, Colo., in 2009. Milk prices were too low to sustain the dairy, and they had to sell all of their milk cows, and strictly raise replacement heifers.
However, that all changed when Josh Cleland, Herd Manager, returned home after finishing his animal science degree at Colorado State University in the spring of 2010. That fall, he and his family decided they wanted to get back into the milking part of the dairy business, and began purchasing cows.
“When I was at Colorado State, I was torn between studying animal sciences or pursuing something in the medical field. I finally decided to pursue a career in animal sciences and more specifically, the dairy industry. I ultimately came back home to my family’s dairy because I was given the opportunity to be the third generation to come in and continue the business. I’m privileged that I get to learn from both my grandparents, John and Shirley Cleland, my parents, Gary and Rhonda Cleland and our herdsman, Jason Weber who has been with the dairy since 1989,” said Cleland.
Originally, Cleland had wanted to come back to the dairy for a few years and then head to vet school. However, since that time he’s decided he really loves being on the dairy, and that he will make his career out of that.
“Dairy is in my blood, as I was raised on one my entire life. That being said, it’s been the only place that I have had a job. I remember that my dad and grandpa started paying me in loose change to water calves, pick up trash, bed calves, ect., when I was only about 8-years-old. I always admired the way I was raised and how I learned responsibility, the value of hard work at a very young age,” he said.
This hard working attitude has paid off, as the Cleland family is now milking 400 cows, and has 1,000 cows total including bulls, dry cows and replacement heifers along with the milkers.
The dairy didn’t start that big, when Josh’s grandfather, John Cleland, started the dairy in 1964. “I grew up on a farm in Illinois, and my FFA project and 4-H project was dairy. I had a longing to get into the industry,” said John Cleland.
He worked as a mechanical engineer for nine years, and then decided it was time to get in the dairy business. When the family started they had just 27 cows, and John’s wife, Shirley, worked in Denver so the dairy could get off the ground.
“I then bought heifers and kept my own and started to grow. For years we milked 600, and that seems to be about the capacity of the place. That’s about what we can raise feed for, and that’s why we never got bigger. We were just big enough we could make a good living. It’s been good to us,” he said.
Watching the passion that Josh has for the family business has been exciting for John, as well as Josh’s father Gary. “I’m so proud that he decided to do this. It’s a tough life. I used to be his old boss, and now I get to work with him. I’m glad he’s doing this,” Gary Cleland said.
He added, “It was rejuvenating to get a couple of years off. We got to start over with a whole new mindset and start things differently. We have a whole different vision of what we are doing.”
The new outlook on the dairy has allowed the family to focus on updating buildings, and finding ways to cut costs and remain profitable. “I’m faced with numerous challenges on a daily basis. I’m always scouring the area for better prices for feed, maintaining our outstanding breeding numbers, and keeping up with daily life on the farm,” said Josh Cleland.
He continued, “I would say that the biggest challenge is keeping up with the milking herd which incorporates everything from calving, choosing the right cows to be in our high/low milking pens, keeping feet quality at their best, maintaining healthy cows and feeding the best quality feeds and keeping the cows comfortable. Feed quality is extremely important to me. When the cow is milking, she must meet all her body maintenance requirements before her body will allow her to get pregnant.”
One of the major differences with this dairy compared to most dairies is that they only use natural service, instead of artificial insemination. “We aren’t an AI herd, so I need to always make sure I have some of the best quality bulls that I can get,” he said.
Reproduction is important to Cleland, and an area that some dairies struggle with. “The most important thing in my mind is for the uterus and the rest of the repro track to heal after they calve. I want my cows to get this done in about 45 days,” he said.
Another difference in the dairy is their treatment of the calves. Once the cows calf, the baby is kept with the mom for roughly 12 hours, and she cleans the calf and lets it nurse. Then the calf is moved to the calf pens, and they are given whole milk from the cows instead of replacer, as the family feels the calves do better this way.
Josh’s mother Rhonda takes care of the calves. “My mother has been doing an outstanding job with our calf program, and she currently maintains a death loss of just about one to two percent, which are outstanding numbers in this industry. So this is one area I don’t have to worry a lot about,” he said.
One of the advantages that this dairy has is their smaller herd size, because it allows the employees to have a more personal connection with each cow.
“Since we are a smaller herd, we have the special opportunity to really get to know our animals. Our herdsman, Jason Weber, knows cattle better than anyone I have met, and I’m happy that I get to learn a lot of what I know through his mentoring. Additionally, my mother has named a lot of the girls on the dairy so needless to say, we have a lot of tame animals on the place,” said Josh Cleland.
He continued, “I love the challenge of making these animals produce to their full potential. I have always been a nerd when it comes to science, and I love that I get to learn everything from reproduction, nutrition and maintaining the overall health of these animals.”
Even though he no longer plans to attend vet school, Cleland is still very interested in the veterinary medicine aspect of his dairy. “One of my favorite aspects of the dairy that I get to do is a lot of the diagnosing and treatment of sick animals. I love seeing the transition of a sick cow who has little or no milk to milking over 75 pounds in sometimes as little as a week. I have learned a lot of the veterinary work through my parents and Dr. Ray Sagehorn, who has been with our dairy since I was a little boy,” he said.
Even though Josh is young, he has vision for the dairy and where he wants to see it go. “I want to find more farm ground to grow more crops, and become more self efficient. I also want to increase our herd average by another 10-15 pounds, and update more of the facilities on the property,” he said.
John Cleland believes that Josh can accomplish these goals, and keep the dairy going. He said, “They are able to make a living and we’ve made a good living on it. It’s a good way of life. You get to work with your family, and there’s a lot of satisfaction in that.”
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