To be named a Dairy of Distinction indicates that a farm maintains its grounds and buildings in an appealing fashion to represent a good image of the dairy industry. That’s a big motivator for Karen and Mike Hooper, owners of River Ridge Dairy LLC in Memphis, New York. One of the nine farms in the Empire State receiving the award, River Ridge milks 118 between two Lely robotic systems. The Hoopers operate the farm with certified organic management.
“I was extremely excited,” Karen Hooper said of the award. “I’m very proud of our farm and have always been. It’s very important to me to keep it clean and appealing. It’s a reflection on the neighborhood.”
That means keeping vehicles and equipment parked neatly and picking up any rubbish.
“You can’t find a lot of trash on our farm,” Hooper said. “Everyone who comes here respects what we’re trying to do.”
Cleaning up frequently also keeps the farm less attractive to flies, which are attracted to things like rotten feed or manure. That’s especially important for this organic operation, since conventional tools like pesticides aren’t used.
In addition to the milking herd, the Hoopers raise 130 heifers. In season, all the cows graze on 200 groomed and rotated acres of alfalfa, white and red clover, and native grasses.
Unlike many operations that breed for milk production or breed type, udder placement is one of the Hoopers’ main goals.
“It’s very important for the robots,” Hooper said.
She also likes that the robots reduce the amount of time the animals are standing. This allows the animals more resting time on their bed pack &tstr; they don’t use stanchions or stalls &tstr; and lower risk of hoof injuries. They receive “mani-pedis,” as Hooper calls hoof trimming, twice annually.
The Hoopers had begun dairying together as conventional farmers in 2000. But when milk prices dropped, they “took a hiatus” from agriculture, as Karen put it. Her husband is a licensed contractor, so they moved to Florida to figure out what to do next while he worked there.
The Hoopers missed New York and farming, but knew that at mid-life, they had to make the physical aspects of farming easier. The Hoopers always look for something new that could help their efforts to farm. Robots appeared to offer an opportunity to get back into agriculture. Karen also wanted to begin farming again as an organic farm.
She feels that the plethora of data the robots give them helps them better manage organically.
“We know they’re sick before they know they’re sick so we can straighten them up before it gets really bad,” Hooper said. “Having the robot and computer report tells you every day where you’re at.”
They returned to farming in New York in 2014 with 12 three-day-old calves and a new barn set up for installing robots. Once they began milking them, the Hoopers installed the robots.
The cows enjoy the predictable routine and the Hoopers have experienced no problems with using the robotic system. The herd produces around 65 pounds of milk per cow daily. The Hoopers ship to Upstate Niagara Cooperative. Other than the Hoopers, two other employees work on the farm. They also grow soybeans and corn for grain and grow and feed haylage.
Hooper said that to remain successful in the dairy industry, farmers need to keep “trying to make ends meet and be smart about farming.”
Unlike many operators, she doesn’t believe that getting bigger is the answer, whether organic or conventional. Rather, she emphasizes quality, such as in keeping the herd at optimal health so fewer are culled.