Conversations Central To Advancing Dairy Lifestyle

Dairy production is a labor intensive way of life for many families in northeast Iowa—and has been for generations. Jennifer Bentley comes from one of those families. Her work as a dairy specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach keeps her true to her roots.

Bentley (’02 dairy science, MS ’10 agriculture) grew up on the Stacyville dairy farm her father and brothers still operate. She has built her career connecting dairy families to local and Iowa State University resources and education, first as an ag research technician, educator and calf manager at the Northeast Iowa Community Based Dairy Foundation in Calmar, then in her current role with extension.

With the potential to add to the bottom line and quality of life, new technologies are of particular interest to Bentley’s clients. Robotic milkers milk the cows; automated feeders provide nutrients to young calves; and dairy producers check cow data on cell phones while walking among the herd.

“There is increasing interest in automation and robotics because of the many benefits,” says Bentley. “Besides being less labor intensive, automatic calf feeders allow calves to feed more often, which means they get more nutrients and are healthier. Data gathered by the robotic milkers is used to improve cow management and production.

Brian and Eileen Hoefler have a “family” dairy because of robotic milking. The family manages their 180-cow herd without hired help since adding robotic milkers in 2011. Three robots milk and compile daily records—available via computer—about herd health, feed use, animal weight, milk production and if a cow is in heat and ready to breed.

Bentley encourages the Hoeflers to share their new technology experiences with other producers. “Farmers tell us they like to learn from other farmers,” says Bentley. “As the Hoeflers talk about the robotic milking and automated feeding technologies, they are helping other dairy producers make decisions for their operations.”

Early adopters like the Hoeflers turn to Bentley when considering new technology. After hearing her speak about ventilation in calf systems the Hoeflers consulted her about their plans to add automated calf feeding to their operation.

“Jenn was a great person to discuss our ideas with,” says Hoefler. “She came back with information, education and links to Iowa State University that helped us understand how to make our investment in the automated system cash flow for us.”

“Farmers learning from farmers” is the concept Bentley used when she started
a young dairy producer peer group two years ago. All members are young couples just getting started in business. At quarterly meetings, they cover a topic they have selected and review benchmark data.

Monica and Brian Enyart both grew up on dairy farms. They have 120 cows, milk 95 with help from Brian’s dad—and are raising two preschoolers. They joined the young dairy peer group to increase their information and social networks.

“We’re all at the same stage of life, so it is a very comfort- able group to interact with. We have the same questions, same problems,” says Monica (’06 ag ed). “Without this interaction, we’d keep doing things the same way and getting the same results. This group allows us to evaluate what we are doing, see what others are doing and learn about different or better ways of solving our problems.”

Peer group members keep data sheets and review them at each meeting. “Before we began using the data sheets, we’d get the milk check every month but never compare it to previous months and we never compared to other producers. Now we do both,” says Monica Enyart. “We have six quarters of data to compare and we are identifying adjustments to increase our profits.”

The peer group setting allows for good conversations—and the calculated bench- marks are a key part of the conversations. Jenn Bentley knows that initiating good conversations—over benchmarks or new technology—is key to supporting families committed to the dairy lifestyle.