Tradition of efficiency endures at Klassen Dairy

When Lloyd Klassen brought 16 cows the two miles from his parents’ farmstead on foot in 1956, and started milking, he probably couldn’t have foreseen what Klassen Dairy Inc. would look like in 2003.

Not only has the number of cows multiplied, but the marketing and technology forces that keep his son, Dale, balancing in the dairy business was, well, unimaginable then.

Dale and his wife, Kay, with sons, Andy, 13, Aaron, 9, and Brandon, 5, have their roots deep in Marion County agriculture, but find it challenging to keep going- even with innovations. Klassen Dairy is one of the few dairies left among a declining number.

Dale’s grandparents, Sam and Hulda Klassen, farmed at the first location with his parents, Lloyd and Evelina, beginning at the second mile northwest of Hillsboro just off K-15.

Dale’s older siblings were nearly grown up and gone from home in his early boyhood, and he credits Sam with tripling roles as grandfather, companion and the farm mentor who would help start him in his career.

“It seems like every day,” Dale said, “that Dad would be saying to Grandpa, ‘Go find Dale, and get to doing something.’ We were pretty tight.”

Kay grew up on a hog farm south of Hillsboro, he said, the daughter of Orval and Rosella Suderman.

Lloyd still is involved at the dairy, although flirting with retirement, Dale said, especially on the cropping side.

“He’ll still holler at us to tell us what we ought to do,” he said. “He probably won’t truly ever quit. He’s one of those guys who will die in a tractor seat, and that’s the way he’d want it.”

Dale said he suspected Orval will have much the same sentiment.

Lloyd built the dairy from the 1960s to the 1980s to a cow herd of 220 head. Lloyd’s brother, Jerry, left because of health concerns, and the cow herd tapered off to a little more than 130.

Dale, who hadn’t left the farm until he graduated from high school in 1985, came back after doing other work almost right away in 1986. He began an expansion in 1991 that continued up to 400 cows.

In the mid-1990s, he went from the traditional milking two times a day to three times a day, but gave it up after a year. With limited family time anyway, it was taking nearly all rest he had left.

“From the standpoint of the cows, milking three times was one of the best things I did,” he said. “Production went up. Udder health was better because they were being milked before the udder was distended with pressure. But there was no down time left.”

Lloyd’s first love on the 3,500-acre farm was raising crops, Dale said, but his own was dairying and the cows. Labor divisions have stayed somewhat that way, although last week Dale was helping farm workers bring a combine up to readiness for wheat harvest.

Doug Faul is the herdsman on the dairy end and Ty Johnson is his crops manager with Dale overseeing both.

The dairy has seven full-time employees with eight to 10 part-time workers, some of them high school students working only a quarter or an eighth of the time.

Dale uses Will Thompson, a nutritionist out of Tulsa, just as several other dairies in the area do, to monitor cow rations every three to four weeks to keep them at the optimum. Ingredients may include a blend of alfalfa, silage, haylage, high moisture milo and corn, dried distillates, soybean meal and cottonseed meal.

“Whatever makes us run the best,” he said.

Dale said the dairy industry today “burns the cows up” getting the most out of them, and nutrition can be the number one factor in maintaining both health and production. Nutrition can’t be left to chance, or under the assumption that conditions and rations can stay the same, he said.

Cows are confinement fed, as can be seen by a broad expanse of open-sided barns and silos on the grounds, but heifers are pastured on native grass and brome grass.

Proper care brings his top-of-the -herd cow average to 25,000 pounds of milk annually with an overall average of 18,000 to 20,000 pounds and a daily tank average of 80 pounds.

Back in the early 1990s and the 1980s, when Dale was just getting into management, he said cows typically produced 50 to 60 percent of what they do now.

His really top-of-the-line cow, Lanna, who was reserve champion cow at both the state fair in Hutchinson and the All-Kansas Spring Expo, also in Hutchinson, had an annual total of 40,000 pounds with a tank average that peaked at 140 pounds.

“The good Lord didn’t make cows to do what they can do now, but we had to in this country to keep up,” he said.

Dale explained that under federal government free-trade agreements, large amounts of imported milk are allowed into the country while “this country already produces too much milk.”

The government subsidizes dairy farmers with funds most of them wouldn’t need if the imports weren’t there-effectively adding up to a government subsidy of imports, he said.

Added to this is the development of “money and greed-driven” mega-dairies, especially in the Southwestern and Western United States, with cow herds in the 4,000 and 5,000-head-plus. These corporate communes control resources rather than try to maximize efficiency-which is in philosophical contrast with the traditional family farms of the Midwest.

Dale said when milk prices hit a profitable level $17 per 100 pounds, one of these dairies may quickly throw in another 500 cows to grab more profit-or even do so when prices are down to maintain cash flow, thus exasperating the situation.

“It’s killing the heart and soul of the American dairy country,” Dale said, blaming policies that only take into account a cheap and adequate food supply.

He said areas like Marion County have lost half of all dairies in the past 20 years with an unhappy likelihood that the number could drop by half again in the next 10 years.

With strong family ties and traditions, plus the desire to take cows to shows and be a part of improving dairy breeds, Dale said most dairy farmers can’t relax back to what they find really most rewarding about their work.

As a newly elected school board member, Dale can draw analogies between schools and dairies. Both struggle with budget cuts, needing to make improvements, and having to comply with growing government mandates.

In the dairy industry, bigger regulating units control resources and government policies help to destroy the fabric of rural social life that once provided the basis for national life, he said.

To compete, he, like nearly all dairy operators, injects cows with BST, a concentrate naturally found in cattle, to boost milk production.

Dale said it actually appears to help the cow’s health and life expectancy, and converts what might have been fat build-up on high-calorie rations into more milk.

A side benefit is that most cows continue to give milk, even through breeding.

In natural cycles before BST, cows had to go through a dry cycle and breeding to produce the calf that would stimulate the next cycle of milk production.

“It’s never killed a cow,” he said.

Dale’s three sons still show 4-H dairy cattle, and he would like to do more in the show circuit that once took him to places like Kentucky and Wisconsin.

Although the dairy has predominantly Holstein cattle, the showing has brought some Jersey heifers into the herd from time to time. Dale considers that a good benefit with a trend back toward the higher-fat milk the Jerseys produce.

Most breeding at the dairy is by artificial insemination, which has been the trend over the past few decades to accelerate genetic improvement. At the same time, the dairy keeps a couple of clean-up bulls.

Dale said the farm is still a great place to raise children-even with all the machine traffic and other inherent dangers.

“I think kids raised on the farm stay more alert and aware of the world around them,” he said.

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