Hello cheese lovers! We all know our cheese comes from dairy, and we might even see in our mind’s eye a farmer sitting on a stool milking a cow into a bucket. Or we might even envision a more modern-day dairy parlor where the cow is being milked mechanically by suction tubes.
The “cow carousel” takes it to a different level. Yes. You read that right – a CAROUSEL! When we first arrived in northern Minnesota at the beginning of September, we knew Carl would be hauling corn silage to a dairy farm. We were told this farm had over 10,000 cows, and all I could think of was that I did not want to be down wind of a 10,000-cow farm! Read on for more information, and, for an inside look, watch our pictorial video.
We drove by it a few times, not seeing one dairy cow in sight. Just a huge pile of corn silage that was growing larger every day, a couple of tall silos, and a huge building. Where were the cows? Where did they graze? How were they milked? We were told they were all in the building, and I wondered if the cows were able to move around. I just couldn’t envision it.
Then we had a tour of Waukon Dairy, part of Riverview LLP, and the first thing we saw was the cow carousel. It holds 128 cows at a time, taking about 8.5 minutes to make one complete turn. The cows get on by themselves, they are cleaned with an automated device, then a worker puts the suction tubes on their teats, and by the time the carousel makes one complete rotation, the cow is milked, the suction tubes fall off, and the cow gets off by itself. Music is playing in the background, much like you’d hear music on a carnival ride.
Of course, for those of you who might know, the suction tubes are cleaned before and after each use, and the teats are sprayed with some sort of cleanser before the suction tubes are applied.
We then walked back toward the building where the 10,000 cows live (special breeds of Holstein and Jersey). We passed by the staging area (not sure what it is really called) where a section of cows were herded to wait their turn for the carousel. This area was packed full of cows, standing room only, and apparently this is not unusual. A friend who grew up on a dairy farm said that their cows were herded into a crowded area to wait to go into the dairy parlor. (Thanks Vicky!)
We finally made it into the 22-acre building that houses the cows 24/7/365. It is huge and surprisingly free of flies and horrific smells. Large, industrial fans make up one entire long wall. Cows are put into sections based on if they are milking or are “dry” and based on their dietary needs. When a section of cows goes off to be milked (twice a day), a large pooper scooper sucks up all the manure, fresh bedding is put down, and fresh feed is put out for them. They have room to walk around their sections and lay down if they want.
With this many cows, it is a 24-hour operation. The carousel closes down twice a day – at 12noon and 12midnight to be cleaned thoroughly – with operations beginning again one hour later. The manure is separated (liquid extracted), with the liquid pumped outside to covered lagoons to be used to fertilize fields and the solids “recycled” into bedding for the cows. We saw, touched, and smelled it, and you would never know that it was once manure. We weren’t surprised by this. Having used a composting toilet for the past couple of years, we have come to appreciate liquids and solids being separated.
Calves are constantly being born. There were at least a dozen that had been born that day. They are separated from the adult herd immediately, put in a special, warm area, tagged, and fed. They will be trucked to Arizona or New Mexico to be raised.
I’m still not sure how I feel about cows living inside of a building all the time. The benefits, though, seem good. There were no flies. I’m not kidding! We had been battling tons of flies at our Airstream, but not inside the dairy building. The temperature was comfortable – not stifling hot and not cold. This makes for a happier cow, I understand, and the milk yield is better. And, other than a typical barn smell, the smell was not horrific or overwhelming.
The two tall silos outside each store 70,000 gallons of milk, and it takes about 9 trucks to transport one silo of milk to the production facility (about one hour away) every day. This milk is strictly used to make cheese under the Bongards name – a Minnesota-based cheese found mostly just in Minnesota. Can you even imagine what the dairy farms might be like for Kraft or Tillamook or other larger brands?
We were impressed. The cows appeared to be cared for and treated well. The environment seemed stress free for them. The operation was clean. And modern, state-of-the-art methods were used.
It has been a good experience for us to learn more about the farming side of life. Although we both might have had a glimpse of it growing up, visiting different relatives’ farms, it is an important reminder that the food we eat doesn’t just come from the grocery store. It comes from communities like the one around Gary, Minnesota, where farmers work together – leasing land to each other, growing different vegetables and grains, harvesting to feed the masses and to feed the cows down the road, hauling manure to fertilize fields, caring for cows, hauling milk to be made into cheese. And on and on. Cycle of life.
We hope to find some Bongards cheese as we leave Minnesota.
If you have a farming story, please share! 😊