Sunnyside dairy wins national awards

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldApril 28, 2013 

SUNNYSIDE -- Winning a national award hasn't halted Dan DeGroot's efforts to make his Sunnyside farm more comfortable for his 2,800 Holstein cows.

Instead, DeGroot is returning to Skyridge Farms with a whole list of new ideas after receiving a national Outstanding Dairy Farm Sustainability award in Washington, D.C.

Skyridge Farms, owned by DeGroot and his wife, Carolyn, was one of six dairies nationwide to be recognized by the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, and it was one of three dairies to receive the Outstanding Dairy Farm Sustainability award out of 50,000 dairies nationwide.

DeGroot's holistic approach in everything from better timing a soaker system to cool cows, to saving water and composting manure is what officials say earned him the recognition.

"I'm not unique," he said. "Some of my very best ideas are from other people."

DeGroot took a systematic, practical and pragmatic approach to increase sustainability while improving cow comfort, said Laura Mandell, vice president for sustainability communications for the innovation center, which was created by dairy producers.

Skyridge Farms helps exemplify how the dairy foods consumers love are produced responsibly, Mandell said.

"They are real leaders in their willingness not only to approach the management of their operation the way they do but to share the results," she said.

When DeGroot expanded his dairy in 2003, he said he decided it was time to push energy efficiency.

And he credits Dustin Taylor, owner of Yakima's Taylor Electric, with helping create customized programs to control farm operations such as soakers, fans, lights and pumps.

DeGroot said he has been able to save water by programming when the soakers go on to help cool the cows. DeGroot said he knows after they are milked, they will stand and eat for an hour, which is when the soakers need to run.

The soakers and energy-efficient high-volume, low-speed fans turn on once temperatures hit 70 degrees, and as it gets hotter, the system will automatically come on more often.

When the cows are laying in their stalls, the soakers won't run, since there is no need. This saves water, he said.

The evaporation of the water from cows' skin helps cools them, DeGroot said. Once a cow gets too warm, it starts to not feel well and stops eating. Not only does that decrease milk production, it means the animal is more susceptible to illness.

Keeping a cow from experiencing heat stress means the cow will maintain its regular feed intake of 57 to 58 pounds of dry matter per day, DeGroot said.

"We try to be very, very consistent with cows," said DeGroot, who is part of the Northwest Dairy Association, a co-operative that owns Darigold.

DeGroot said he's "absolutely" noticed an improvement in his cows' health and productivity with the various improvements.

Lights are programmed to turn on just before employees come into the barn at night for milking, DeGroot said. That is a signal to the cows that it is time to get ready to be milked and makes them easier to handle.

Anything that makes them easier to handle helps. His Holsteins weigh 1,600 to 1,700 pounds, while his 35 employees average 150 to 180, DeGroot said.

DeGroot also changed barn lighting to T5 florescent light. This has reduced energy consumption by more than 50 percent and created more even light to remove shadows, which made the cows more comfortable, he said.

After building a second milking facility, DeGroot said he remodeled his first one to incorporate energy saving technology.

His dairy also uses variable frequency drives to control well, milk and vacuum pumps. This has resulted in energy savings of up to 60 percent.

DeGroot, a Washington Dairy Products Commission board member, said he also decided to use a new mixer system to create a total mixed ration of hay, corn and cottonseed for his cows. He put the mixer on a stationary frame with an electrical motor, instead of using a truck, which saves diesel.

DeGroot said his farm also started composting manure which is then sold to nurseries or for plant soil mixes around the region.

The decision was based on environmental and smell reasons, but DeGroot said he noticed it also decreased the amount his trucks were driving, saving diesel fuel.

Some of the compost is used as bedding for the cows, which has been great because the compost process destroys pathogens, he said.

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