An Oklahoma dairy family with a Dutch touch

The Van der Laan family of Frederick, Oklahoma, has built an 8,000-head dairy over the last 33 years, but it might not have been if not for a heartbreaking rejection and two Dutch dairy farmers immigrating to the United States where they met and built a family dairy empire.

In the 1980s, Anita, the Van der Laan family matriarch, was running her parents’ 100-head dairy in Steggerda, Netherlands, because her father had undergone back surgery and was unable to milk the cows. One day he took her aside and told her he wanted her brother to take over the farm because he saw no future for a woman on the family dairy. He gave her two options: find a husband or find another job.

Dejected, but perhaps more determined than ever, Anita began working for a real estate agent in Holland who sent her to Texas for work and while she was there, she met her future husband, Pieter, who is also from Holland. Even though Anita and Pieter only grew up 30 miles apart and they are both fifth generation dairy farmers, they had never met while growing up in the Netherlands and it took both of them moving to a different country to find each other.

“Pieter and I got married 31 years ago, started a small dairy in east Texas, then we moved to central Texas and we built a dairy over there,” Anita said. “We were milking about 800 cows and wanted to expand more, but we couldn’t because of environmental issues and we weren’t able to get a new permit for a bigger dairy. We already had our heifers in Frederick, Oklahoma, plus we had bought a bunch of alfalfa hay from this area, and we liked it over here, so we made the decision to bring the whole herd over here.”

After purchasing property in the Frederick area, they began transporting the milk herd in 2002 and both the cows and the Van der Laans became Okies.

Families make a farm stronger

Family is at the center of the Van der Laans dairy. They have three children: Eric, Wilma and Liza. Eric, the oldest, manages the Van der Laan dairy facilities. When he graduated high school in 2009, he was unsure what profession he would pursue. He attended Oklahoma State University and began pursuing an animal science degree while working at the OSU dairy center part-time during his freshman year. Eventually he realized he might as well be spending his time working at his family dairy instead.

“I started learning more about herd health, breeding and managing a large herd of dairy cows and I started enjoying working around the cattle more and more,” he said.

After completing his bachelor’s, Eric was interested in coming back to his home dairy, but he felt he had a little more to learn before returning to Frederick, so he began taking courses to earn his master’s of business administration, which taught him about accounting, how to plan out finances and how to manage people.

“I got a general idea of how people think, how to motivate them and when I finished that I felt like I could come back home and have something big to contribute to the family business,” he said. “I’ve been back full-time for five years now and I’ve really enjoyed it. I think there is a fair number that do want to come back to their family dairies, but I’m fortunate enough to come back to a family that wants me to come back the operation. I know of families that would rather their kids not return to the farm because there aren’t enough cows to support another family.”

However, Eric is not the only family member to return to the operation. Wilma works with Anita to raise the heifers at the dairy. Additionally, Pieter and Wilma’s husband, Adam McKay, work together to put up crops to feed the cows. Liza is also involved with the dairy business as she owns the Milking Shorthorn at Van der Laan Dairy.

“We’ve all got our own part to play and I think that’s a strength in a family dairy,” Anita said.

Anita also expressed thankfulness that she is able to work with her children every day and that the dairy they built will live on with the next generation of Van der Laans.

“You hope for it, especially coming from Europe, where it’s normal to hand over a dairy to your kids,” she said. “And especially since my dad was so dead set against me being a female in the dairy business, I love it that I get to work with Eric and Wilma every day. It’s priceless in my eyes.”

For the Van der Laans, dairying is in their blood and even though it is hard work, the dairy industry provides them with the ultimate sense of satisfaction.

“I’ve always been exposed to it and I personally think it’s a great way to live life,” Eric said. “I don’t do it very often these days, but whenever you deliver a newborn calf, there’s always a rewarding feeling behind it.”

Anita agreed with Eric’s sentiment.

“A newborn calf still takes my breath away and it doesn’t matter how many we’ve delivered,” she said. “I always say the minute that it stops taking my breath away, then I have to quit this business.”

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A breakdown of the Van der Laan dairies

The Van der Laans have two dairies, Van der Laan Dairy and Sunshine Dairy, both located in Tillman County, Oklahoma. Between the two facilities and the farming operation, they have about 60 employees. Eric said about 3,600 head are milked twice a day at the main dairy and another 1,600 head are milked twice a day at Sunshine Dairy. Additionally, the Van der Laans raise around 3,800 heifers each year. The dairy herd is 95% Holstein and the remaining 5% is a mixture of Brown Swiss and Milking Shorthorn. Anita said it is unique to have Milking Shorthorns on dairies because they are lower in average milk production in comparison to other breeds. However, Liza loves the breed, so they utilize them on the dairy.

“Depending on the time of the year, we’re sending anywhere from seven to eight and a half tanker loads of milk off the dairy each day,” Eric said. “Every tanker load is about 6,000 gallons, so that’s around 42,000 gallons of milk a day.

Most of the milk stays in Oklahoma and is sent to the Hiland Dairy plants in Norman and Chandler, Oklahoma. Occasionally they send loads of milk to the Blue Bell Creameries plant in Oklahoma City to be made into ice cream.  

The Van der Laans try to be as self-sufficient as possible on their dairies, so they raise most of the feed crops needed for the rations and all the farming is done in-house without any custom farming. Alfalfa hay and corn silage are two of the primary ingredients for the dairy rations on the milking side of operation. Eric estimated the farm grows about 1,200 acres of alfalfa and 3,000 acres of corn silage. He said they grow about 98% of the corn silage they feed to the cows and the remaining 2% comes from local farmers. The Van der Laans grow about 60% of the alfalfa they use in Tillman County, but they also own land in the San Luis Valley in Colorado where another 10 to 15% of their alfalfa is grown. The other 25% is purchased from various alfalfa growers across Oklahoma and Colorado. An additional 1,000 acres of farmland near Frederick is used for raising triticale, which is turned into silage and is fed in dry cow and heifer rations.

Challenges never end for dairymen

Although the Van der Laans are nothing short of devoted to their dairy, they have had their share of challenges they have had to overcome. Anita said the dairy has persevered through droughts, extreme heat and even an EF 4 tornado that barreled through their dairy in 2011, killing over half of their calf crop and injuring many other animals. Their most recent hurdle was the sudden drop in milk prices when COVID-19 hit last year. Anita said 2020 was predicted to be a great year for milk prices until the pandemic started and processing plants were not able to process milk fast enough.

“They really pulled the rug from under us and it went from a very nice milk price in our eyes to losing money every single day,” she explained. “We had to pay for every truck load to leave our dairy. We work so hard every day keeping the animals and the people happy, and we love our jobs and the cows are everything to us, so to see that wonderful, wholesome product that can feed so many people costing us money every single day, it hurts.”

Eric said while consumers were panicking and milk was flying off the shelves early on, both fluid processing plants in Oklahoma were running at 158% capacity to keep up and put milk on the shelves. After about three weeks consumers decided they had enough milk in their refrigerators and freezers and did not need to buy any milk for a while.

“Then we got hit with restaurants being shut down,” he continued. “A large portion of dairy products go to restaurants to be used in the food service industry and the processing plants are not able to easily shift from making 10-pound blocks of butter to 1-pound sticks. There was a backlog of milk showing up at the plants and for the retail side, things were still moving off the shelves pretty quickly, but they couldn’t run any faster and they couldn’t convert anything for the restaurant business into retail. It had a major negative effect on our milk prices that we are still kind of working through today.”

According to Eric, the pandemic really spotlighted the milk price issue and he believes it is one of the major concerns in the dairy industry today.

“We get paid a month to six weeks after we ship our milk, so our milk leaves today but we never know exactly how much it will bring until the check comes,” Anita added.

Eric said dairymen and women need to have more influence on how they are paid for milk and how milk is marketed.

“I really think moving forward dairy farms need to find better ways to market our milk, whether its new products or self-bottling,” he said. “In the beef industry there has been a big push for cattlemen to start processing their own beef so they have more control over the price they are getting for their products and I think the dairy industry should follow that lead.”

Lacey Newlin can be reached at 620-227-1871 or [email protected].