Meet Our Farmers
For Rodney and Dorothy Elliott, sustainability comes in many forms. It means caring for the environment, caring for their animals, and providing a good living for their family, employees and local businesses.
That focus has stayed the same as their dairy has grown and changed, and especially as they moved from Northern Ireland to build a new dairy in South Dakota.
They began milking cows at Drumgoon Dairy near Lake Norden in 2006. After an expansion in 2014, they now milk about 4,000 cows in two milking parlors on the farm. They also raise about 3,600 calves and heifers. Some calves and heifers are raised at the dairy, others are raised on other farms in the area, then return to Drumgoon Dairy to have their first calf and join the milking herd.
While the size of Drumgoon Dairy is impressive, Rodney notes that the success of every dairy – large or small – depends first on caring for cows.
“From the first cow I owned in Northern Ireland to every cow on our farm in South Dakota, the cows always come first,” said Rodney Elliott. “Farm size doesn’t matter when it comes to taking care of our animals. We all have to have the best practices and equipment and pay attention to every detail.”
They are always looking for ways to improve their facilities and management practices to be more efficient, including designing barns and buildings to allow for the most natural air flow, which reduces the need for fans or ventilation systems. Drumgoon Dairy also uses energy efficient LED lighting, energy efficient water heaters, and recycles water, sand bedding and other materials as much as possible.
“In almost every case, when we make a change that improves efficiency for the dairy, it also results in definite environmental and sustainability benefits,” said Rodney.
Manure from the dairy’s cows is an important natural fertilizer for land owned by the Elliotts and other local crop farmers that produce corn silage for the dairy’s feed. It is stored in lagoons at the dairy, then pumped through large hoses and applied directly into the farmland twice a year.
The Elliotts have worked to raise the vast majority of their corn silage within three miles of the dairy, noting that it requires less trucking and fuel and results in less wear and tear on local roads. It also reduces the cost of fertilizer application.
“We are able to pass along some of those cost savings as price premiums to the local corn farmers who grow our silage, which is helpful to them during a time of low commodity corn prices,” said Rodney.
Rodney and Dorothy are realistic about the hard work and demanding schedule of dairy farming, but are also excited about the opportunities that the dairy offers to their children and 50 employees.
“We’ve had a lot of success in moving employees into jobs where they can grow their skills,” said Dorothy, noting that they provide on-the-job training for animal handling, milking and other jobs, and encourage additional training at local colleges for animal science, veterinary care and other important skills.
They have three children: sons David and James have graduated from college and daughter Rebecca is attending college in North Carolina, where her husband is stationed in the U.S. Army.
David is the operations manager on the farm, with responsibility for feed purchases, feeding animals, maintenance and other jobs.
“David graduated with a degree in psychology, which brings a new skill set to the farm for managing people,” said Rodney. “He is great at motivating employees and is a millennial himself, which means he does a better job of relating to our employees in that age group.”
James and his wife, Alex, live in Nebraska. He is in the roofing business, so is able to return to the dairy during winter months to help.
In Northern Ireland, Dorothy was a nurse and community health administrator, but took on an important role on the dairy’s management team in South Dakota. She manages human resources and other administrative responsibilities. Rodney’s role has evolved from taking care of animals and milking cows himself to instilling the values of animal care in all of his employees, and ensuring that they have the resources they need each day.
“My job is to touch base with as many employees as I can during the day. When one group of employees are working on a big task, I can help with bringing in more people and balance the workload,” he said.
Working together, the Elliotts have built not only a dairy farm, but a business that will sustain their family, employees and community for years to come.
“I view the right to farm here as not a given right, but a blessing, and something I have to work to maintain every day,” said Rodney.
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