Washington 10th in nation in dairy production

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldSeptember 25, 2012 

BASIN CITY -- The rhythm of the milking machines at Zurcher Dairy near Basin City creates a metronome of sound.

It’s a beat that continues for most of the day, seven days a week, to extract milk that may become cheese or powdered milk.

It takes 20 hours for the Zurcher family and their nine employees to milk about 1,000 cows twice a day, feed them and clean up after them.

The cows walk into the milking parlor and back themselves up so that their full udders can be reached from the center path. It takes about 10 minutes to milk the 36 cows that fit into the parlor at one time, said Ed Zurcher, who owns Zurcher Dairy with his wife, Heather.

They started working in the dairy industry while living in Enumclaw and moved their farm to Basin City about 15 years ago.

Milk is the state’s second-highest valued agriculture commodity after apples with a direct economic benefit of about $1.3 billion in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The total value of milk including indirect impacts is more than $2.3 billion.

The state ranks 10th nationwide in milk production, with about 734.5 million gallons of milk produced in 2012. Washington’s 460 dairies and their 263,000 dairy cows produce the second-most milk per cow in the nation. The average cow makes 2,753 gallons of milk a year.

The Yakima Valley region is one of the largest dairy producing areas in the nation, according to the Washington Dairy Products Commission. Benton, Franklin, Klickitat and Yakima counties have 91 dairies and more than 110,000 cows.

At Zurcher Dairy, the milking machine pulses like a calf sucking on a teat, and the milk is vacuumed out, said Ed Zurcher. One cow can produce 7 to 8 gallons of milk a day.

And the cows want to be milked. Olivia Zurcher, 17, the couple’s oldest daughter, said she’s seen cows line up for milking about 30 minutes before their time.

“If they don’t get milked, it hurts them,” said Olivia, the first Mid-Columbia Dairy ambassador.

The cows’ udders are sprayed with a 0.5 percent iodine solution and wiped down before milking, said Ed Zurcher. Afterward, they are dipped in a mixture that helps clean and protect them.

About 30 seconds after the milk leaves the cow, it’s cooled to 39 degrees from the cow’s body temperature of 101 to 102.5 degrees, Ed Zurcher said.

The milk goes into three tanks, where it is stored before being picked up by truck. The Zurchers’ milk may go to Sunnyside, Boardman, Spokane or Western Washington, depending on demand, Ed Zurcher said.

The farm has enough storage for about 15,000 gallons of milk, which is not quite enough to make it two days without a pickup, he said. The milk also is tested multiple times. “We get paid on our quality,” Ed Zurcher said.

Cows who have recently given birth or who are injured or ill are milked separately, Ed Zurcher said. That milk goes into a separate tank where is it pasteurized for the calves. Then the equipment is sterilized before any other cows are brought in to be milked, he said.

Zurcher Dairy belongs to the Northwest Dairy Association co-op. Its milk is sold under the Darigold brand, and some other brands also use Darigold milk, including Costco’s brand.

“Our milk is fresh, local,” Heather Zurcher said.

The Zurchers grow most of the feed that goes into the total mixed ration their cows eat. Heather Zurcher said that is one of the things that Eastern Washington dairies are able to do.

Growing about 70 percent of their feed helped Zurcher Dairy as other dairies struggled with high feed costs caused by the Midwest drought last year, Ed Zurcher said. Their crops include corn silage and triticale, a wheat and rye hybrid.

Heather Zurcher said the farm gets haylage from area farmers, sometimes using wet hay that can’t be exported. Cows also eat leftovers from other industries, such as cotton seed and canola meal, her husband said.

And they are able to use the manure from their cows as fertilizer for their 450 acres.

The heifers become milking cows when they are pregnant with their first baby. They continue as long as they remain good milkers, which for some can be age 15, Ed Zurcher said. In general, milk cows are 2 to 10 years old.

A breeder visits the farm daily, artificially inseminating cows in heat.

The pregnant cows within a few weeks of giving birth are kept in a corral close to the Zurchers’ home so they can be checked on regularly. Most cows do not need assistance, but every once in a while, one does, Ed Zurcher said.

The calves go into small calf huts the first day they are born, after they get milk from their mother, Ed Zurcher said. Heifers are raised to become milk cows. The bulls become choice beef at a feedlot, he said.

Adult dairy cows end up weighing up to 1,400 pounds if they are Holstein and closer to 1,100 pounds if they are Jerseys, Zurcher said. His herd is about half and half, with mixes between the two.

Daughters Olivia, Alena and Abby help with the heifers, especially during the summer.

That means feeding them milk and watering them, and on really hot days, spraying the calves down constantly, Olivia said. At any given time, there are about 100 to 125 heifercalves to take care of, she said.

Last summer, Olivia learned how to give the calves injections. Her goal was to learn how to milk so she can be an emergency milker.

“I love working with the cows,” she said.

-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com

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