We visited Oakridge Dairy in Connecticut to witness how a dairy farm can thrive amidst changing consumer preferences and environmental regulations. Will new technologies, such as data management and artificial intelligence, keep farms like Oakridge Dairy resilient for the future?
This fall, I visited 2,700 Olympic ladies. It wasn’t at the Tokyo Olympics, but here in New England. Oakridge Dairy is a fifth-generation farm located in Ellington, Connecticut. Established in 1890, the Adolph-Bahler family started growing tobacco, potatoes, and dairy cows. Now, they have a powerhouse of 2,700 Holsteins that produce over 21 thousand gallons of milk per day – an Olympic-sized feat, for sure!
While other dairy farms in the nearby area closed over the years, Oakridge expanded by adhering to the motto:
Quality does not happen by chance; it’s done on purpose.
Through the generations, this family has endured and responded to changing consumer preferences, new technology, increased regulation, and a host or other challenges. They currently have three family members who actively maintain their families’ passion for all things dairy.
Challenges in the Dairy Industry
We wondered how they, and the dairy industry overall, are faring in today’s tough environment. Dairy has been mistakenly blamed for causing cardiovascular disease, cancer, and lactose intolerance, pushing consumers over to nut ‘milks’ such as almond, coconut, and cashew. And climate change has turned the spotlight on agriculture, specifically methane-producing cattle and dairy cows. In addition, the regulatory environment is much stricter on manure run-off and smell pollution in the surrounding neighborhoods.
But the truth about dairy farms and their products is not all doom-and-gloom. In fact, it’s the opposite. Let’s start with what these bovine athletes give us. Many of the necessary nutrients our bodies need to stay healthy are found in just one 8-ounce glass of milk. It helps us make muscle, blood, bone, skin, hair, and hemoglobin which carries oxygen throughout our blood. It regulates the nerves, muscles, and heart while also being a building block of our genes.
Milk nutrients help protect against cell damage and infection. It helps with brain functions of memory and thinking, as well as food for our microbiome. Finally, there is research that shows dairy can protect from both heart disease and colorectal cancer.
To combat the demand for alternative products, the dairy industry is becoming more creative in addressing consumer concerns. A recent McKinsey study on consumer behavior toward dairy shows that 42% of consumers perceived alternative milks as health and wellness solutions, a 14% increase from 2019.
Dairy farmers around the world are using data-driven insights to create new varieties of dairy to meet customer needs and preferences. Some choices are flavored milk, lactose-free milk, reduced sugar milk, and high-protein yogurt, milks and other products.
Some cheeses such as Swiss, provolone, gouda, cheddar, Edam, Greyere, and cottage cheese have been shown to be beneficial for our gut microbiome. And don’t forget Kefir as a fermented source of about 30 species of probiotics that aid gut health.
So, how is Oakridge handling these challenges?
The Milkman is Back
The Adolph-Bahler family is conscious that not everyone understands how a dairy farm operates. They have a delivery service called The Modern Milkman that delivers fresh milk, local eggs, butter, yogurt, and cheese within a 50-mile radius of their farm.
To further this community offering, Oakridge Dairy want their neighbors to see where milk comes from. They host field trips, educational events, and farm fairs over the course of the year to enhance transparency for all customers. Quite literally inviting them in to see exactly where the milk comes from and how it ends up in their carton or cheese.
Oakridge Dairy strives to be the farm of the future in a world where people know their farmer.
Feeding People with the Environment in Mind
There is no denying the environmental impact of feeding 7.9 billion people, 1.7 billion cattle and pigs, and 34 billion chickens around the world. However, each year, sustainability across the ag sector improves. Farmers around the world, particularly in the U.S. and Europe, are giving humans, animals, and birds the nutrition needed while minimizing the impact on land, water, and air.
This is also true of dairy, where farmers have made significant strides over the decades to produce more milk using less land and fewer cows emitting less methane. The average cow in the U.S. produces about 7.8 gallons of milk per day, an increase from 5.7 gallons in 1999.
For the cows to produce that much volume, they eat about 100 pounds of food and drink 50 gallons of water each day, equating to an acre to feed one cow and calf for a year!
While the number of dairy herds has dropped from approximately 46,000 in 2013 to 36,000 in 2023, the number of dairy cows has remained the same due to dairy farm consolidation.
Yet milk production has increased by an extra two gallons a day per cow than more than 20 years ago. This is due to the science around animal feed.
Animal feed science for dairy has increased cow digestibility and decreased methane. Cows eat plants for their diet, but they lack the ability to efficiently digest their food. Hence the methane burps we’ve heard about in the news the last few years.
To digest the food most efficiently, the cows need a strong set of microflorae such as bacteria, protozoa, fungi, archaea, and bacteriophages. Data science has allowed feed companies to match the perfect microbiome and feed combination for a specific farm to enhance yield production.
Oakridge Dairy’s ‘Cow Power’
The gases, which otherwise would go into the atmosphere, are captured inside the dome and used for a variety of purposes. The farm can use the gas to generate their own electricity, thus eliminating the need traditional coal-powered electricity. If the farm generates excess energy, it can be sold back onto the grid as an alternative energy source for the surrounding area.
Additionally, the captured gas can be injected into natural gas pipelines and used to power renewable natural gas vehicles. It is fun to think that the electricity used to charge electric vehicles could be run on cow power. These digesters are not cheap and can be cost prohibitive for farms with dairy herds of less than 500 cows. Another reason for dairy consolidation.
Oakridge Dairy implemented a digester at its farm. Not only does the digester give them enough energy to power the electricity needed on their farm but depending on the time of year and energy prices, they also can sell it back on the grid.
Another great benefit is that Oakridge Dairy uses the solid waste for the cow’s bedding. It sounds a little unsanitary, but when we visited the farm, we saw that the digestor heats up the manure and kills all the bacteria.
The heated manure goes through another heating and drying process which makes it fluffy and clean for the cows to use when they lay down.
Cows lay down for about 14 hours a day, so it is critical that their bedding is clean and bacteria free.
Artificial Intelligence & Dairy
Data management and artificial intelligence definitely have its place on a dairy farm. It gives predictive dairy and cow information to the herd manager to monitor cow health and milk production.
At D2D, we have talked about sensors that dairy cows wear – like collecting your data on your Apple Watch. The herd manager can look at the data on any cow and see if she is eating enough, has a fever, milk production is consistent, and if she is socializing with her friends. The data is endless. This has helped reduce sick cows by at least 15% because it lets the herd manager see and treat a cow before she is in distress. This has a tremendous impact on animal welfare.
Furthermore, dairy farmers can now put all this information together and find trends. What does the overall fertility rate look like for the herd? Is the animal feed just the right balance for the cows’ health? How well are they chewing their cud? Should the beds be changed more often? Do the cows like classical music or rock and roll when they milk? The farm can then adjust feed rations, milking schedules, and labor for optimal financial results.
A contented cow is a productive cow.
Farmers do everything to ensure their cows are comfortable, well fed and stress free.
At Oakridge Dairy, automated milking uses the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence as an on-going innovation in the milking parlor. The data can show the best time of day to milk, optimizing cow traffic which affects milk quality. The cows are automatically sorted into a moving carousel which helps reduce lameness and decreases costs.
Each cow’s udder needs to be cleaned before the milking apparatus is placed on the teats. Otherwise, bacteria would get into the milk. Generally, this is done manually by one or two farm laborers. However, this is time consuming and always fraught with human error.
Oakridge Dairy invested in two robots that go underneath the cow and prep them for milking. The fascinating part is that even though most cows are Holsteins and should have a similar teat anatomy, all cows are unique, just like us. The robot goes underneath the cow and because of AI, it remembers each teat placement of each cow.
After the milking, there is another robot that also has the same AI-type memory bank that sprays the teats, so they are clean before entering the barn.
Recycle and Reuse
If it were not for cows, a lot of food byproducts would just go to landfills.
For instance, the world eats a lot of almonds. The United States alone produced the most at 1.3 million tons of almonds. Did you know that almonds grow in a shell? What happens to those shells? As the almonds are processed, the shells get crunched up and sent to use as animal feed for dairy farms, like the hulls that are fed to the cows.
The world also drinks a lot of beer. The United States is 20th, with each of us drinking about 73 liters a year. FYI, Czech Republic is the global winner, drinking 140 liters a year. Beer comes from barley malt or other grains. After fermentation, there is something called brewers’ grains which is used for animal feed. If cows didn’t eat it, it would end up in a landfill.
Bread has been a staple in the human diet for over 30,000 years. So, it is no surprise that the left-over product of making wheat is used for animal feed. Wheat middlings are a great source of protein, fiber, phosphorus and other nutrients for animals.
Visiting Oakridge Dairy to witness reusing & recycling, AI, and biodigesters in action was an insightful experience into the future of ag, where technology helps to meet the needs of the cows and our global health.
The farm’s concern for their ‘Olympic ladies’ is self-serving because cow comfort means more milk for their customers. And as seen first-hand, these cows are clean, comfortable, and very happy, indeed.
The Bottom Line
Oakridge Dairy is a powerful example of the dairy industry’s remarkable ability to adapt — and thrive — in the face of extensive change and enormous challenges. Caring for the land and the comfort of animals produces more than just higher yields; it shows that a philosophy based on quality by design can hold the key to another century — or more — of farming success.