Meet Our Farmers
As the calendar turns to a New Year, many of us are thinking about resolutions for better health, finances or career opportunities. However, for dairy farmers like Doug and Julie Heintz, making improvements on their family farm is at the top of their minds all year long. From large investments to small management changes, constant improvements allow the Heintz family to provide even better care for cows, producer higher quality milk and be even better environmental stewards.
Doug Heintz began dairying when his father and grandfather died in a house fire during his junior year of high school. He purchased Heintz Badger Valley Farm in Caledonia, Minnesota, from his mother three years later in 1986. Today, he and Julie work with part-time employee Matt Feldmeier in operating the 150 cow dairy while farming more than 400 acres of owned and rented land.
Doug and Julie have two children. Son Dayne works as a robotic dairy start up specialist and helps at the farm when he can. He plans to join the farm in the future. Daughter Jackie is a local elementary school teacher.
The most significant investment at the farm was the construction of a new freestall barn and installation of two robotic milkers in 2008.
The freestall barn features individual stalls with sand bedding and allows cows to move freely and have access to food and water 24 hours a day. The insulated barn keeps cows warm during Minnesota winters and a thermostat-controlled system of curtains and fans keep them cool in the summer months.
“The sand-bedded freestall barn is by far the number one thing we were able to do to improve cow comfort on the dairy,” said Doug. “The sand is comfortable for the cows to lay in, it keeps them clean, and an added benefit is that when sand spills out of the stalls onto the walkways, it provides traction for cows walking on the cement floor.”
The cows visit the robotic milkers on their own, and Doug checks the computer system twice a day to make sure that each cow has been milked. After the robots were installed, milk production per cow has increased and the family has a more flexible schedule. They added a third robot in 2015.
The new barn and robots were a major change for the dairy and family, and have motivated them to continue improving.
“With robots, every aspect of cow management is intensified,” said Doug. “For example, foot health is always important for dairy cows, but with robotic milkers, it is critical. If a cow’s foot hurts, she won’t get up as often to go to the robot to be milked. We take a number of steps to keep healthy hooves, including having a professional hoof trimmer visit the farm every two months.”
Gathering and managing information helps them understand the health of each cow. Each time a cow visits the robotic milker, the amount of milk she produces is recorded, along with the temperature of the milk and her weight.
This winter, the family is upgrading the wireless readers that gather data from a tag on each cow’s collar. The collar tags include a pedometer to count the number of steps a cow takes. When the number is higher or lower than normal, it can indicate a health concern or that she is in heat. The tags also detect rumination activity, or how often the cow is chewing her cud. Research shows that cud chewing slows down about 8 to 10 hours before a cow has her calf, so the readers can send an alert to Doug when it is time to more closely watch a cow.
Previously the tags were only read while the cow was at the robot being milked. Now they will be sending data to the readers all the time.
Many improvements have benefits to multiple aspects of the farm. For example, a new plate cooler was installed in 2015. The plate cooler is a series of stainless steel plates installed in the milk line before the bulk tank. Cold water passes through a plate cooler in one direction and absorbs heat from the warm milk pumped through the plate cooler in the opposite direction.
The previous cooler would chill milk from 101 degrees when it leaves the cow to about 80 degrees, then go into a large bulk tank to cool to 37 degrees. The new plate cooler can quickly cool the milk down to 50 degrees, which saves energy for the bulk tank cooler. In addition, the water used to cool the milk is reused as drinking water for the cows.
“It is a win-win, because the cows actually prefer to drink the warm water,” said Doug.
Improvements also extend to the cropland where food for the cows is grown. In summer 2015, they built a manure storage pit that will give them more flexibility to store manure and apply it as natural fertilizer to their crop fields when needed.
“We are constantly trying to do things better for our cows, crops and family,” said Doug.
The Heintz family was recognized for their dedication to dairy farming and commitment to improvement with the Minnesota Milk Producers Association’s 2015 Minnesota Producer of the Year award in December. They were also recognized for community involvement, including hosting open houses, teacher workshops and numerous other programs to share the story of modern dairy farming.
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