Traditional Cowmen Manage This Large Dairy

Joel Hastings

Kyle VanDyk is the herd manager at J & K Dairy in Sunnyside, Wash. He and his crew are responsible for the 3,000 milking cows there and a like number of young stock. Kyle explains that he grew up and spent time working with his dad, Kent, at their herd of Registered Holsteins with the Van-Dyk-K prefix and home of the well-known Van-Dyk-K Integrity Paradise (2E-96) and her family. Paradise was Supreme Champion at World Dairy Expo in 2000 and 2002. (Full disclosure, the author was a partner in the purchase of a Paradise clone at the 2003 Century Celebration Sale in N. Y.)

This is a 100-head family dairy where it was all about caring for every animal as an individual. In the process of milking, feeding, breeding and tending to the herd, the VanDyk family lived the art of herdsmanship, always attentive to the personality and habits of each animal, often anticipating the onset of a health problem even before there were clinical signs. Kyle learned this starting at a very early age, following his dad around behind the cows.

Then three years ago, Kyle was hired as herd manager at J & K. He brought this sensibility of cow care as an art. As he explains, that’s the only way he knew how to do it. But he also found a kindred spirit there, too. The dairy is owned by Jason and Karen Sheehan along with Karen’s parents, Tony and Brenda Veiga. Like Kyle, Jason grew up on a traditional Registered Holstein farm in Rochester, Minn. His aunt and uncle are Bob and Jeannette Sheehan who bred, owned and showed last year’s World Dairy Expo Grand Champion Holstein, Sheeknoll Durham Arrow.

Kyle explains that when he first arrived, he found a herd management system driven by protocols of cow care… just the way it’s supposed to be done in today’s large herds. But he was concerned this approach was not centered on the cows, but rather on the people and the process, missing the signs that the cow was showing him and his crew early.

Kyle says he began encouraging his staff to really see the animals as they worked with them. He taught them to take a moment to study the animal herself… her eyes, her ears, her muzzle, the way she moved… how is she feeling?
As an example, before Kyle, the protocol called for taking the temp of every fresh cow and treating only those cows whose temperature was elevated. Out of a pen of 200, that meant 15 or so were treated because their temp was above normal, but the group was locked up for two hours… too long to be away from the stalls resting, he thought. And a cow that might be slightly off and heading for more trouble was missed. Now, they move through the pen in less than an hour. Focusing attention on cows that need therapy, and not wasting valuable time on those that do not. The ultimate goal is that Kyle and his team do not create added stress for the cows by having them locked too long.

So, Kyle asked his workers to “put the thermometer in their pocket” and “take their eyes out of their pocket.” “If we don’t look we’ll miss 90 percent of what she is telling us,” he explains. “Your eyes can tell you.”

Kyle also showed his workers how to move among the cows, slowly with their hands in their pockets. He had to change the mindset of the work force. He explains to his staff that the barn is the cows’ home, “you are in their environment, respect is mandatory and you must move quietly, slowly and smoothly. We have to earn the cow’s trust. We can’t be threatening, fast or noisy.”

With all activity related to the herd he asks, “what are we trying to accomplish?” He points out cows need adequate time in the stalls resting and time at the feed bunk. He matches the feeding schedule with milking, so fresh feed is available as cows return from the parlor. After they eat, they can lie down.

“We get our work done while the cows are eating, then we leave them alone. The cow’s time is more important than anyone’s time,” he emphasizes. “The less we interfere with her, the better results we get.”

“We need to be students of the cow,” he says. “We learn this on a small dairy, on a moment-to-moment basis.” Kyle believes these skills can be taught, but, it must begin with a person who really cares and has a passion for the cows. Kyle has been successful in identifying those employees who really like cows and some who are better off working in other areas.

He and his crew deliver timely treatment to cows that might need it and a little less treatment when they catch it early. The old “ounce of prevention” adage pays off in the dairy herd. For a time, he tried an electronic cow management system but found that it was simply confirming the observations and care the herd was already receiving, and usually a day or so later.

That doesn’t mean that Jason and Kyle anti-technology, though. They use EID button ear tags for all the cows, readable by handheld computer with ID scanners that pull up info when scanned, flagged for follow up, all plugged into the DairyComp herd management software.

They have the system working, with the herd averaging 87-89 lbs. a day of energy corrected milk derived from monthly bulk tank average. He monitors income over feed cost, milk production, repro rate, lameness, cell counts, week 1 milk and week 4 milk – all indicators that have improved during his time at J & K.

They say that visitors, like his vet and nutritionist, remark on how quiet the cows are compared to those at some dairies. Kyle himself knows his approach is not for everyone. But as he says, it’s the only way he knows. And it certainly seems to be working at J & K.

“For a commercial dairy, both Jason and I come from the other side of the industry and have a drive and passion for great cows,” Kyle concludes.

Editor’s note: Our telephone interview with Kyle was arranged by Christie Melby of Communiqué PR, an agency working with Darigold, the farmer-owned cooperative of which J & K Dairy is member.