Colorado dairies stay local
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Colorado is the 15th largest dairy-producing state in the nation, according to 2014 data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Weld County is first in dairy production in Colorado as of the 2012 Census of Agriculture.
With 5,500 Holstein cows, Longs Peak Dairy in Pierce, Colo., operates one of the largest feedlots in Weld County. On any given day, the family-owned operation will truck out 420,000 pounds of milk, representing a day’s work for about 4,800 cows.
With major milk processors like Leprino and Meadow Gold driving demand in northern Colorado, dairies like Longs Peak have secured a steady stream of commerce, leading straight to Colorado grocery stores, explained Longs Peak Dairy co-owner Rick Podtburg.
“Most of the milk the co-op (Dairy Farmers of America) buys from me, they pick up and deliver to a plant. Most likely this milk will go to the Leprino plant in Greeley or the Meadow Gold plant in Greeley,” said Podtburg, who also serves as chairman of Western Dairy Association’s board of directors.
Cindy Haren, Western Dairy CEO and president, said that as locally produced food grows in demand, consumers may not immediately think of large-scale feedlots and dairy processors as part of the farm-to-table movement.
At grocery stores like King Soopers and Safeway, however, Haren said when it comes to milk, shoppers can expect to pick up a gallon recently produced close to home at an operation like Longs Peak Dairy.
“If people are drinking fluid milk that they’ve purchased from Safeway or King Soopers, it’s probably Colorado milk that has reached the shelf from the farm within 48 hours. It’s probably more within 24 hours,” she said.
Podtburg, who runs the operation with his family and business partner Eldon Marrs, walked the grounds of the Pierce feedlot on a sunny December day, explaining how his milk flows through the local supply chain.
Four recently born calves, testing out their legs for the first time in one of the dairy’s holding barns, represent the very beginning of the process.
An average of 25 calves will be born at Longs Peak Dairy in a day, meaning trained staff must be available to assist with births at any time.
These calves, born within the last 12 hours, have already been removed from their mothers and fed colostrum, the first milk produced by mother cows after birth.
The antibodies will help keep the calves healthy when they move into their new homes in individual hutches placed alongside other recently born calves.
Here they are fed pasteurized milk three times a day and eventually grain, until they are old enough to join the general population.
The bulls, castrated to become steers, will also live at the dairy for the first six months of their lives, until they are sold to an Eaton beef feedlot, Purcell Cattle.
At any given time, Podtburg said half of the mature cows, older than two years in age, are carrying a calf. These cows will be milked until 60 days before giving birth, after which the “fresh” cow will reach peak milk production.
After feeding and milking is done, trained workers will artificially inseminate the cows until they successfully become pregnant.
“You can set a lever so that when they come in to eat, they get locked. The guys will come in here and artificially breed them. They’ll do that and then turn them lose and they’ll go lay down,” Podtburg said, pointing to the bedding made from composted manure. “About 40 percent will get pregnant the first time they are bred and the second time another 40 percent. Some never do because they have reproductive problems.”
Those that cannot produce calves will be sent to slaughter.
Haren said that while cows used to be held in special chutes for breeding, the headlocks provide greater comfort.
“The way a dairy is designed is with the comfort of the cow in mind. It’s the little things like the type of bedding and how they continue to keep this alleyway clean. It’s using the headlocks so they can do reproductive management,” she said.
When not being milked or bred, the cows will either rest indoors or out on the dirt lot. With Colorado’s arid climate, Podtburg said dairies cannot logistically or financially maintain enough pastureland to raise a grass-fed herd. He also argued that despite the visual appeal of cows feeding on green pastures, feedlots come with their own benefits.
“The perception is that cows are happier on grass. Well, they’re not in bad weather. When it’s 100 degrees out or 10 below and it’s snowing, they’re not very comfortable. When it’s 10 below zero here, these cows are lying down, eating and they’re comfortable,” Podtburg said.
Haren said, in general, cows benefit from Colorado’s dry climate and abundance of feed, a claim supported by statistics.
Of the top 23 milk-producing states, Colorado ranks first in production per cow, with 2,030 pounds produced per cow in November, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
The 23-state average is 1,806 pounds.
At Longs Peak Dairy, the cows produce about 10 gallons a day over a two- to three-year period. In some circumstances, cows can produce milk for up to many more years, he said.
His cows visit the milking parlor three times a day, taking eight-hour breaks in between.
When the cows visit the parlor, they are assisted by a worker like Alvaro Galvez, who learned how to work at a large-scale dairy after moving to Colorado from Puebla, Mexico.
“We check them to see if they have anything wrong, we clean them and then we get them ready for milking,” he said, in between prepping his line of 33 cows.
Galvez said each cow will be milked for five to eight minutes at a time.
Once Galvez finishes with the cows, their milk will go directly for chilling, first by flowing tap water and then by refrigeration. Although milk straight from the cow has a temperature of around 100 degrees, it must be maintained at below 40 degrees throughout the supply chain to avoid bacterial growth.
“Milk is the most regulated and tested food in the United States,” Haren said. “Dairy farmers are very concerned and very proud of the fact of how high quality their milk is.”
Podtburg added that his milk, like the rest of the milk available on the U.S. market, does not contain antibiotics. When a cow is treated for illness, her milk is held from the public until testing shows that it no longer holds traces of medicine.
Once ready for shipping, a temperature-controlled truck will pick up the load and transport it to the Dairy Farmers of America terminal before it is sent to Leprino or Meadow Gold for processing.
With around 48,000 gallons trucked out a day, Longs Peak produces over 17 million gallons of milk for Colorado consumers a year.
While the dairy has grown substantially since Virgil Podtburg first began milking 40 cows in Johnstown in 1968, so has agriculture, Podtburg said: “It’s the way of agriculture. Mostly everybody in agriculture has grown significantly in time.” ❖
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