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Cow Carousel

They know about the "cow carousel" at least 60 miles out. Folks will actually say, "Hey, you want a good story? There’s this guy over in Rose Bud with a big merry-go-round that cows’ll ride. Rose Ark Dairy — check it out!"

If you want, you can call the dairy and chances are they’ll give you a tour — they’re really nice that way. It’s something to see. Set atop a big hill overlooking gently rolling fields, the new dairy building sports a red roof and glass front. Put a spire on top, start ringing a bell, and you could mistake it for a new church. Ignore the cow barns out back and you can almost see the faithful filing in.

The latest in a long line of dairymen, Rick Strain — owner of Rose Ark Dairy in Rose Bud, Ark. — gets it honest. He didn’t sneak up on his life’s calling. That "nature-versus-nurture" question isn’t going to be answered by studying Strain’s history and upbringing. Too much evidence is stacked in each camp to draw a conclusion.

Strain’s great-grandfather settled in Rose Bud in 1881. He bought his farm from the original homestead family. All four sets of Strain’s great-grandparents lived within a mile of each other. His roots run deep on all sides of the pedigree.

"The majority of the land we own has been in one side of the family or other. We’re very fortunate to still be living here. My children (Margaret, William, Daniel and Samuel) are the fifth generation to have lived on this family land," says Strain, who is married to Corinna.

Growing up, Strain’s father was the farmer and his mother was the dairyman. Strain’s three older sisters and brother all worked in some capacity on the farm. Being the youngest, Rick worked with his mother. The setup worked well, and the family had a very departmentalized operation that, at some level, had an aspect each of the children was responsible for.

"My dad likes to tell everyone I came as close to being raised in a dairy barn as any person could be. I was born at the end of August and my mother would carry me to the barn with her in a box. By the time I could walk, I had the run of the place. The back two cows in the old barn were right at the steps. When I was 18 months old or so, I could stand on those steps and hook up the milking units.

"My early games involved barns and pastures and cows all made up of carefully placed pebbles and rocks. Every day, I’d put the cows through their rotations and through every aspect of a dairy operation."

The early preparation of scratching plans in the dirt with stones has led to overseeing three people working the farm and about 20 working the dairy. This brings tremendous responsibility. Rose Ark Dairy, next to a feed mill/egg operation in town, is the largest employer in the community.

Strain’s primary dairy breeds are Holsteins and Jerseys, but he’s fulfilled another childhood ambition by having at least a few cows from the remaining four breeds. "We keep the other four breeds to help educate children and, in truth, for me. I just like them and always said I’d have a herd of each breed. I’m not at that stage, but I’m still happy."

Rose Ark Dairy is a 1,200-cow facility on 600 acres. Strain, his father and brother work about 2,000 acres that they’re mostly pasturing.

"We have a sort of conventional, no-till row crop. In the summer, we prepare a seedbed, roll it down and then no-till sorghum. After we harvest the sorghum in the fall, we drill wheat into the stubble. So our rotation has aspects of conventional and no-till."

Last year they drilled about 600 acres of wheat. Some 400 acres of it was chopped for haylage with the remainder left for grazing. "This summer, we’re going to plant about 400 acres of sorghum."

Rose Ark’s earned an equipment on its upscale operation by building a an observation area above the carousel. The equipment company wanted a showplace to bring potential customers — something Strain provided.

"By now, I think about 250 of the rotaries are in use, but we’re the only one in Arkansas using one."

The carousel (Strain prefers using the word rotary) rides on rubber rollers atop a circular railroad track. A hydraulic pump slowly turns it. The rotary is some 50 feet across. Its efficiency allows Rose Ark Dairy to produce in excess of 6,000 gallons of milk daily.

The rotary gains efficiency through two avenues, says Strain. "First, cows like it better than any other setup I’ve seen. They load more willingly, on their own and without prompting. That means the cow flow is better, and it takes less intervention to get them ready for milking.

"Second, in other milking parlors — say a 40-cow setup with 20 cows facing away from each other in rows — you lose a lot of time loading and unloading the cows. If you’re running in 20-cow groups, you’ve got to set them all up at once and wait until they’re all done before moving in a new set. That wastes a lot of time."

In contrast, the rotary brings in one cow while another is going off. Efficiency is gained by essentially milking one cow at a time and not worrying about the group. The continuous motion of the rotary allows this.

"The biggest advantage is the cows like the setup, and they’re willing to come in on their own. I don’t want to put myself in a cow’s head, but I think they like the motion of the rotary, and they like being able to see other cows across the circle. And since each cow has it’s own stall, there’s less jostling and disturbance between cows."

In older barns, cows stand broadside to traffic. Every time someone walks past their heads, the cows are alarmed. With the rotary, operators are behind the cows, allowing the cows a certain detachment from what’s going on.

The price dairymen are receiving for milk is at a 25-year low, says Strain, an Arkansas Dairy Cooperative board member. "Our marketshare of a retail dollar has diminished over the last 30 years. Our share of a retail dollar is less than 30 percent."

Dairies produce a product that requires very little in terms of manufacturing. Homogenizing and pasteurizing are relatively inexpensive — minor treatments on a food product.

Milk isn’t like wheat, says Strain. Getting a loaf of bread from whole wheat is much more complicated than getting milk into a jug.

"Something needs to be done to make sure that farmers — whether beef, pork, row-crops, whatever — get a bigger share of the retail dollar. There are options for how to get that done, but we need action now before every farmer is out of business."

The new farm bill will help dairies, says Strain. "But in our case, with benefits we can receive, we’ll cap out in 40 days. So if we’re producing below the cost of production, 40 days of help isn’t much of a safety net for an operation our size."

If the government is going to intervene, Strain sides with using some sort of humanitarian aid. "I’d have much preferred more market intervention where the government would spend money purchasing excess inventory for the needy. Get the excess off the market and let starving people have it. That would be cheaper in the long run, would build goodwill, and would likely work in many more commodities. And with less supply, farmers would have better prices."


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