Learning from Tillamook dairy

This last week I have been in Tillamook, in Western Oregon. Together with three colleagues from Calder Stewart, I have been exploring the dairy systems here, to see what learnings we can bring back to New Zealand.

Tillamook is a high rainfall zone on the Pacific Coast and has much of the same feel about it as the West Coast of New Zealand.  It is one of the few places in the world where dairy cows can be grazed on perennial pastures, and using the same grass species as we use in New Zealand. The latitude is 45 degrees North, which is a latitudinal mirror image of Oamaru, Alexandra and South Westland.  But climatically, it Westland that is the best comparison.

Winters are always wet in Tillamook but the current season has been particularly wet and cold, with four metres of rain in seven months since October.  A winter day is about 10 degrees and a summer day around 20 degrees. On that basis, we noted during our stay this week that summer has still to come!

Indoor and outdoor dairying is the dominant industry in Tillamook

In Tillamook, everyone sheds their cows in the winter from the cold and rain, and also to protect the pastures. Most farmers have their cows in barns all of the year. But our keen interest was to observe the hybrid systems, where cows graze outside from spring to autumn, but farmers still use the barns on an ‘as needs’ basis throughout the year.

We found that there is considerable diversity of system. Most barns are free-stall, but some are compost systems – more on that later. Most farms still milk through herringbones and rotary sheds, but there are increasing numbers of robots, including on grazing farms.

All farmers supply the Tillamook Dairy Co-operative which is famous for its cheeses. Tillamook started branding their cheese way back in 1925, and their members now receive milk cheques about 35% higher than standard American commodity prices. In some ways, Tillamook is the Tatua of American dairy, but with more emphasis on consumer products and less on specialised ingredients than Tatua. They are a great example of how a co-operative can bring benefits to all its members.

All Tillamook farmers except for one farmer supply milk all the year round, and that is the way the cheese factory likes it. The one exception is a grazing farm, but this farm still sheds the cows in winter.

Our visit was organised by Troy Downing from the Oregon State University Extension System who is based in Tillamook. Troy has visited New Zealand and understands our systems. He is also a great fan for grazing systems and has no great love of barns. But the reality is that barns are essential in Tillamook for environmental and market-related reasons.

Troy asked us why we in New Zealand would want to use barns if we do not have to. My response was that we have environmental and market-related reasons, just as they do, that are forcing us to do a rethink of the way we will farm in the future. So, at the very least we need to fully understand the pros and cons of barns.

Troy told us that his own preference is for compost barns where the cows lie on the compost under a covered roof. In a well-managed compost barn, the manure generates considerable heat which keep the cows warm and dry. There is no smell in a well-managed barn. It is only if non-aerobic bacteria are present that there is an unpleasant odour.  The udders stay much cleaner than in a conventional free-stall barn.

Tillamook compost barn with clean dry cows

Troy took us to Norm and Blaise Bennett’s farm where there is both a free-stall and a compost barn, with all cows robot-milked in a De Laval system, and where the cows choose after milking whether to go to the padded free-stall or the compost beds. About two-thirds of the cows choose the compost bed.

The compost beds are tilled twice-daily for aeration – this is essential. Straw is added every three days and wood chips are added weekly.   Once a year, the compost is taken out to the fields.  The standard rule is that the large American cows require seven to nine square metres of compost bedding space.

Compost barn tilling equipment

Blaise told us they were very happy with their compost barn, which was much cheaper to build than a free-stall barn. Also, their cow replacement rate had declined considerably. The only disadvantage appeared to be the cost of the wood chips, and this is something we would need to look at closely under New Zealand conditions.

The Bennetts were also very pleased with their investment in robots. Milk production increased 10% to 2.65 kg of milksolids per day (all year average) with no appreciable increase in feed after they installed the robots. Their new system of robots plus compost were also giving very low somatic cell counts – much lower than average New Zealand numbers.

One of the grazing farms we visited was set up some thirty-five years ago by Kiwi Rob Seymour and his American wife, Amy. We were shown around by their son John who now manages the farm. Rob and Amy met when Amy came out Lincoln University on an exchange from Oregon State Uni, and son John also spent a semester at Lincoln in 2010.  So they, and also others such as Tillamook farmers Brad and Melody Cowan whom we visited, understand the New Zealand system very well.

In Oregon, the grazing system does have to be adapted to a hybrid. Troy has calculated that on the Seymour farm about 65% of the milk comes from grazed pasture, with the rest from barn-fed TMR (total mixed ration) feed. The Seymour cows are typical KiwiCross from LIC semen, and produce about 500 kg milksolids (peaking most years at about 2.4 kg per day). In Tillamook, the grain-fed component can come from the Mid-West, some 2000 km away, and the alfalfa hay typically comes from Idaho. Silages are grown locally.

When we were there, the rain had been coming down and so the Seymour cows were inside. The cows adjust without problem to the nutrition change, but they do like to get outside again when the sun shines.

As for the barns themselves, there was nothing much for the Calder Stewart team to learn there. Calder Stewart are already using the latest American technology here in New Zealand, whereas in Tillamook most of the barns were 30 years old. By our standards, most of the Tillamook barns were dark and dingy, but there were also some good ones.

We visited a fascinating grazing farm owned by Kurt Mizee who milks 175 high performance cows with three Lely robots.  The cows have to walk up to 1.6km for grazing, but his system gives him about 2.8 daily milkings per cow. Kurt, who is also now the local Lely dealer, is currently designing a robot grazing system for a 1200 cow organic farmer.

A key characteristic of Kurt’s system is the mix of feeds. The cows need feed incentives to head out to fresh pasture, but a different feed incentive to come back to the barn. So, whereas the Seymour grazing system was all-pasture whenever the weather allowed, for Kurt’s system it was a mix of pasture and TMR even in summer.

A number of farmers we met are interested in cow genomics and they are using this to drive cow production. Kurt selects strongly for free-milking trait. This is because he needs the cows to get in and out of the robot quickly so another cow can get in. Sexed semen, and embryo transplants all play a part within his system.

For me, there have been lots of ‘take away’ messages from Tillamook, including some that were unexpected. I have decided I now need to learn more about compost barns. The role of genomics in selecting for specific traits is something else I need to do more thinking about.  There is no doubt that Tillamook is doing extremely well from its value-add focus, but of course that has been a long journey. And they can only make it work with 12-month supply of milk.

Brad Cowan discussing the principles of manure management with Calder Stewart’s Kelvin O’Connell

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About Keith Woodford

Keith Woodford is an independent consultant, based in New Zealand, who works internationally on agri-food systems and rural development projects. He holds honorary positions as Professor of Agri-Food Systems at Lincoln University, New Zealand, and as Senior Research Fellow at the Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University, Wellington.
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3 Responses to Learning from Tillamook dairy

  1. Honora Renwick says:

    Enjoyed your informative and thorough article, Keith. How many years on average would a cow on the Bennett’s farm produce milk? I understand in the States dairy cows will produce for around 3 years and in New Zealand, they produce for 10 years. Correct me if I’m wrong of course.

    Brad’s standing in the shed with no gumboots on says it all for his system!

    • Keith Woodford says:

      Honora
      On the Bennetts farm, with robots plus compost barn, the replacement rate is 20%; it used to be over 30%. The 20% equates to five lactations per cow.
      Today I have been on an organic dairy (free stall plus grazing) in Holland. This farm currentlyy has a repalcement rate of only 15% but long term is working on about 20%. (That too would be consistent with 5 lactations per cow). They have very large Fleckvieh cattle. They are currently running at 60,000 somatic cell count. (In NZ we average over 150,000, although a very few NZ farms do achieve less than 60,000).
      Yes, on average cows in the US do only provide about 2.5 lactations. I do not yet have good overall data for Holland – will hopefully get a better feel for tha in the next few days.
      KeithW

  2. Honora Renwick says:

    Thanks for you reply Keith. Much appreciated.

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