Quartet of brothers focuses on keeping cows healthy
By CAROL RYAN DUMAS
Hands-on management is key at the Fitzgerald Family's 4 Bros. Dairy, which won the 2011 Idaho Milk Quality Award from United Dairymen of Idaho.
The four brothers, Jerome, Clem, Andy and Louie grew up in the dairy business, first getting their feet wet on their parents' Grade A dairy in Marysville, Wash., before the operation relocated to Shoshone, Idaho, in 1980.
The brothers now milk 11,000 cows in four barns. Their newest barn, designed by Andy Fitzgerald, won the award. It milks 580 cows an hour, quickly moving cows through. The dairy is able to accomplish that because it doesn't use automatic takeoffs, which slow down the operation, require a lot of maintenance and overmilk the cows, Clem Fitzgerald said.
Overmilking causes teat damage and higher somatic cell counts, Jerome Fitzgerald said.
The barn's somatic cell count for the year was 68,000 cells per milliliter, compared with Idaho's standard of 500,000.
The key to quality milk is actively chasing that somatic cell count, Clem Fitzgerald said. The dairy tests its cows monthly and treats cows with higher counts even if they're not showing clinical signs of infection. Cows are tested again before they're returned to the stream.
The quest for quality milk begins long before a cow enters the parlor. The dairy starts with a targeted breeding program, raising calves so they're healthy and vaccinated against diseases.
"They produce better milk, have a stronger immune system and better stamina. The breeding program is geared toward producing cattle with high milk production, high butterfat and protein content and longevity," Jerome Fitzgerald said.
Rations are targeted to the animal's needs at every stage, and animal care is essential.
"We've always been about taking care of the cows, period. You take care of the cows and they take care of you," Clem Fitzgerald said.
Everything affects the quality of milk, from housing, handling and corral maintenance to sanitation in the parlor and maintenance of equipment, Jerome Fitzgerald said.
The real key to the dairy's success is empowering employees to take care of the cows and the brothers' everyday management of the dairy, he said.
"With four brothers managing and working in different phases of the dairy, there is tight control," Jerome Fitzgerald said. "You train everybody to do the best job they can, and that helps."
Quality milk depends on teamwork, from the family and 130 employees to haulers and suppliers, he said.
The dairy has been a perennial winner of Glanbia Foods' quality awards, including Patron of the Year, said Russ De Kruyf, procurement manager for Glanbia.
"The 4 Bros. family dairies are a great example of a well-run operation. They focus on producing a quality product. I think what sets them apart is that for their size they are very hands-on owner-managers," he said.