Intently waiting calves moved about in a sea of perfectly aligned white hutches on a crisp January afternoon near Deerfield, Kansas.
Mealtime was approaching and a nutritious offering was quickly on its way to satisfy their appetites.
Tractors passed by towing trailers clustered with plastic bottles affixed with red rubber nipples. Welcome voices silenced the four-legged souls as each was presented liquid nourishment.
“Bebés, toma tu leche (Babies, drink your milk),” Myrna Roche, 57, beckoned to the Holsteins wrapped in fabric coats to shield them from the colder seasonal temperatures that can be present on the semi-arid Plains.
Until the next scheduled feeding, calm returned to Kansas Dairy Development as the calves rapidly sucked the bottles dry, loading their stomachs with satisfaction. Included was a side dish of calf manna: a mixture of grains and roughage.
Roche and others on her team cast smiles as their furry clients settled in, some relaxing on deep beds of straw in their shelters.
“I like my job,” said the tiny lady dressed in layers, alongside co-workers from Deerfield, Lakin, Garden City, Ulysses, and other dots on the map.
“I feel good with the care of the babies. I think they recognize my voice. Sometimes I hug them,” Roche said.
She reports at 6 a.m. most mornings and helps nurture a fraction of the 37,000 calves kept at the Kansas Dairy Development feed yard. It overlooks the tiny town of Deerfield in a valley less than a mile to the west.
“We work until we’re finished. It just depends,” she said of daily quitting time.
KDD is a temporary home to 65,000 head of cattle; the other 28,000 are older than six months and have progressed from the hutches into a heifer development program. Their living quarters are designed to provide an ideal setting for the older, larger animals, with pens, shades, windbreaks, and transition barns, said Jason Shamburg said, CEO of KDD.
Most of the bovines are destined to return to the dairies where they were born at roughly 20 months of age, seven months pregnant from artificial insemination and weighing roughly 1,300 pounds.
“It is neat that those heifers will themselves have a calf at home and after proper maternal care and delivery of nutrient rich colostrum milk, that calf will get on a truck to southwest Kansas, and we will effectively start the process all over again,” Shamburg said.
Nearly five years ago, a group of partners purchased what was formerly Deerfield Feeders and have since specifically developed it to raise replacement heifers for the dairy industry.
“Dairies are outstanding at making milk. That is their bread and butter, putting milk in the tank,” he said. “As many businesses have, dairies have become more specialized and have begun to outsource raising their young stock. This allows them to really concentrate on the business of reproduction and making milk, as well as better utilization of their labor, management, feed resources and even permitting and facility licensing, which potentially allows them to milk more cows.”
Collaborating with companies like KDD to handle the task of raising replacement heifers is a great partnership in the utilization of each region’s most advantageous resources, Shamburg said.
KDD can raise the animals in a dry climate with consistent Kansas breezes and air quality, on healthy sandy loam soil.
“We send home animals that are very structurally sound, very healthy, and ready to perform at a high level,” he said.
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The company with 155 dedicated team members takes the burden of raising replacement stock off the dairies, “who already have an incredibly busy load with everything that they do,” Shamburg said.
KDD serves clients who produce milk in Kansas and other states, among them New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, South Dakota, Iowa, Florida, Georgia, and Minnesota.
The vast majority of calves in KDD care come from outside of Kansas, Shamburg said.
Optimal climate that’s less conducive to disease, quality care, and proximity to feed produced nearby or trucked in from the region—thanks in large part to irrigation from the Ogallala Aquifer—are among the reasons Kansas Dairy Development has been successful at providing value, the CEO said.
The operation is expanding up to 75,000 head on KDD’s 1,600-acre footprint.
“Southwest Kansas is just a great place to raise cattle,” Shamburg said. “I do feel like we have taken a higher end approach for the dairyman who is very committed to their animals and really recognizes the value and return on investment in receiving excellent heifers back home to their operations.”
But like every area, there are issues at times, he said.
“All things considered, we are in a great environment, without many of the repetitive challenges other areas have,” Shamburg said. “Humidity is huge in other areas. It’s a big reason we moved out here. With drier air and an arid climate, the cold is not as cold and the hot is not as hot. When we get moisture, we dry out quickly.”
Dedicated staff tackle the elements with innovation when they exist, such as providing individual shelters with the hutches. Huge square bales of hay and stubble, which are ground into feed and used to bed down the dairy animals, are stored in the form of huge windbreaks.
“Stalks and straw are a big part of our diets, particularly in the older animals,” Shamburg said. “Everything you see as a windbreak will eventually be fed through our mill.”
The calf coats, or calf jackets, are essential gear for the young calves, he said.
The most important ingredient to the success is people with pride in what they do, Shamburg said.
“It’s their career,” he said. “We do believe we have a very strong family-oriented culture, with a strong team. It shows in the performance of the animals, through the care we provide.”
All are proud of their performance, Shamburg said, from the head office to every aspect of the operation.
“There’s a reason we have been blessed with the opportunity to grow,” he said. “We feel like we’re doing a good job for our clients. A huge part of that is dedicated to our team. We’ve got our stars, our leaders. You see them in the mornings, all bright-eyed and smiling. That’s huge.
“In addition, we have a phenomenal group of dairies and clients to work with. It is truly a successful partnership with the dairies, toward raising the best animals we can for them, that makes this all work.”
He added praise for “our great group of partners who have been very dedicated to making sure our business has the proper resources and infrastructure for us to perform well for our clients and their animals,” Shamburg said.
He specifically mentioned co-founder Nic Schoenberger, of Wisconsin.
“Nic is very instrumental and involved in our success,” Shamburg said.
KDD has been welcomed to the Deerfield and Garden City areas, and the business has reciprocated by buying local as much as possible.
Manure cleaned from the pens is spread onto cropland in a sort of “nutrient exchange,” Shamburg said, providing sustainable, affordable fertilizer. Farmers pay only for the spreading and freight.
“Surrounding farmers have been very supportive and, to a large extent, that has certainly helped our success and ability to grow into a more viable part of the area,” he said.
In a sense, KDD has joined a big family, where pride comes in big and small packages.
Herself a proud mother and grandmother, Roche also enjoys her work family, coworkers, and animals that “moo” and perk up when humans are in their midst.
She is in her fifth year with KDD on a team of colleagues who feed and watch over a revolving roster of offspring trucked regularly from dairies up to more than 1,000 miles away.
“I have a lot of kids right here, one-thousand, five-hundred,” Roche said proudly of those beautiful “bebés.”
Tim Unruh can be reached at [email protected].
Saving water important to KDD
Kansas Dairy Development is committed to the overall sustainability and conservation of resources for its operation and surrounding region.
The business has invested in 462 energy free and overflow free water tanks. Through these efforts, water consumption has dropped more than 2 gallons per head, per day across the facility for an estimated savings of 120,000 gallons per day, 43.8 million gallons per year, or the equivalent of 134-acre feet of water annually.