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Treat ‘em like a lady

By Staff | Mar 14, 2009

The secret to keeping Mark Sahr’s ladies happy is a comfortable ‘home’ and attentive men.

The ladies, 1,000 milking cows, live at the Sahrside Dairy northeast of Bricelyn. They are attended by Sahr’s 22 male employees.

One of just 12 dairy farms remaining in Faribault County, Sahrside Dairy has been in the family since it was first purchased by Herman Sahr in 1887. Succeeding generations were Arthur Sahr who purchased the family farm in 1936, followed by Keith Sahr in 1967. The current owners, Mark and Julie Sahr, purchased the farm in 1994.

Since 1887, the farm has continued to grow and remain productive, increasing from 18 cows milked by hand in 1930 to the 1,000 cows milked in the parlor at present.

During this time, the farm also saw changes from bucket milkers added in 1950 to a barn addition and installation of pipeline milkers in 1978, and finally the efficient freestall and parlor facility which has been in place since December 1995.

Dairy farmers, such as the Sahrs, have learned expansion is necessary if a profit is to be made. More cows means increasing milk per hundred weight and thus a greater return in one’s investment.

Sahr is able to control his dairy cost by feeding the cattle a base ration of ethanol by-products consisting of corn silage, dry hay and corn. Most of the forages and grains for feeding are grown on the 1,100 acres, owned and leased by Sahrside Dairy. Of this, annually 800 acres are planted in corn and 300 acres in alfalfa.

Forty acres is set aside for the dairy operation itself, which houses the total herd of approximately 1,200 animals.

To keep his ladies happy, Sahr says he added a cooling unit to the newest barn as well as having it insulated so it stays above freezing in the wintertime.

“The more comfortable the atmosphere, the healthier the animals are,” says Sahr. They also live longer and produce more milk when they are content he adds.

With the improvements made at the dairy, Sahr says he has seen a major decline in injuries, a healthier herd and a greater life-expectancy for his animals. The average lifespan for a cow living on his dairy is currently about five years.

“We have staff on 24 hours a day,” explains Sahr. “They milk three times a day. Normally, we milk a cow for about one year, then they are dry for about 50 to 60 days before they calve. We have about three or four calves born everyday.”

The key to success in the dairy industry, explains Sahr, is to produce milk cheaper than they do out west.

“Our feed costs in the midwest are much cheaper, but our housing costs are higher here,” he says.

Sahrside Dairy’s milk is sold by the pound, but he estimates it to be equivalent to over 9,000 gallons per day. All of the milk produced on the farm is trucked to LeSueur Cheese where it is processed into cheese.

“The majority of the milk in Minnesota is made into cheese and not fluid milk,” says Sahr.

Since milk is a food source, Sahr says his employees must ensure nothing harmful goes into the milk. Even the cows sold for slaughter must be disease-free and safe.

“We are inspected several times a year by the Federal and State inspectors as well as the milk processors,” says Sahr. “A milk tester still goes around about every six weeks too,” he adds. “The tester gets a sample from each cow determining the components of her milk.”

Sahr says they also have to follow another set of regulations concerning manure and waste.

“We have to account for every gallon of waste,” says Sahr. “A fertility test of the soil is conducted to show we are not spreading too much waste into the soil.”

He says his business buys no commercial fertilizer, since 100 percent of the fertilizer he uses comes from his cows.

“Manure is a valuable re-source to us. We incorporate it back into 800 acres on our farm as well as on neighboring farmland,” says Sahr.

There were no computers when Mark Sahr first began farming with his father, but they have gained an important position in today’s dairy business.

Some of the computer-tracked items range from an inventory of feed ingredients to milk weights.

“This is how we keep track of each animal’s feed intake,” says Sahr who does the monitoring by groups.

Chips in the animal’s collar enable Sahr to account for every cow on his farm. In the future this device will enable every animal in the U.S. to be accounted for he states.

Another change incorporated recently at Sahrside Dairy was replacing a cushion mattress with a 12 inch bed of sand. The sand is scraped out each day and put into a recycle system. After the recycling process is complete, the sand is put back into a cow’s stall for its bedding.

“The employees are the key to success in any business,” says Sahr. “Our employees are no exception.”

Sahr says he has been fortunate to have retained his management team over the years. They include herd manager Ken Harpestad, assistant manager Steve Schoppers and feed manager Eric Nassen.

Most of the veterinary work is done by the herd manager and the assistant manager. A veterinarian is primarily used on a consulting basis only says Sahr.

The two herd managers, Harpestad and Schoppers, are kept pretty busy with record keeping, herd health issues and breeding.

As for his other employees, he says most of them have specific roles at the dairy, but some also help on the crop end.

“Training new employees about the dairy business is one of my most rewarding jobs,” says Sahr. “We train them the way we want if they haven’t been around cows before.”

When new equipment is installed, the manufacturers have also helped train the personnel.

There is little turnover with employees today, partly because of the more mechanized and less labor-intensive process of milking the 1,000 cows. New hires are generally acquired “through a word of mouth referral system,” says Sahr.

Sahr says the economic recession created the biggest drop in milk prices in history. The months of December and January saw a drop from $15 per hundred weight to $11. Contributing to the decline are a consumption cutback by consumers and a huge export decrease in the product.

As for the future Sahr says, “I’m always looking at ways to improve the operation.”

Meanwhile, Mark Sahr and his crew continue to keep the cows calm, comfortable and contented.

They “treat ’em like a lady.”