Dairy strives to keep improving

An aerial view of Threemile Canyon Farms near Boardman, Ore.

Jeff Wendler, livestock operations manager of Threemile Canyon Farms, looks across the sprawling dairy and crop operation near Boardman, Ore., and still feels awe.

Robotics, digital tracking, in vitro fertilization and methane digesters that convert waste into electricity are all part of the operation.

“It’s a good place to be, and it just keeps getting better,” Wendler said. “You’ll see that in time, we’ll be able to learn more, gather even more information and improve on top of what we’re doing.”

Anne Struthers, the director of communications, explained that Threemile Farms began in 1999 under the Offutt family, the sixth-generation owners of R.D. Offutt Co. Marty Myers, the general manager and western business manager, runs day-to-day operations at Threemile Canyon and is part owner with the Offutts, who are headquartered in Fargo, N.D.

They operate the farm and dairy on 93,000 acres in Boardman, milking 25,000 cows. They sell the conventional milk to cheese manufacturers and organic milk to retailers.

Threemile Canyon employs 300 full-time workers year-round and up to 500 during planting and harvest, the busiest times of the year.

The cows, mostly Jerseys, are milked twice a day in three barns that have been constructed to cater to their comfort.

Once remodeling is finished next February, Threemile will have the ability to milk 38,000 cows — all done without a single person ushering them into place. The cows step up in an orderly fashion to take their turn on one of the carousels. Each steps into a stall where robot arms clean and stimulate their udders before employees attach milking units. After milking, each cow voluntarily leaves the carousel.

The animal welfare program is a point of pride for Wendler, who is also a veterinarian. He said a committee meets every month to discuss issues and watch videos. Committee members then train other employees in caring for the cows. An animal advocate from Evergreen State College, Mike Paros, who also is a veterinarian, comes once a month to train and address concerns. His phone number is listed on signs throughout the farm for anyone to contact him about any concerns.

An outside auditor also visits every four to six months to spend a week talking with employees and inspecting the operation. He gives a report card at the end.

“We are one of the few who have ever received 100 percent on an audit — maybe the only one,” Wendler said. He adds that the score is usually between 96 to 100, and that he has “absolutely zero tolerance for animal abuse.” Animal housing is built with comfort in mind with each cow having its own bed and fresh water and fresh feed.

“Everything the cow needs is provided,” he said. “The people who are going to survive in this industry are going in this direction.”

He is also proud of the “closed loop system” created at the dairy, as milk, methane, fertilizer, energy and feed are all produced, with waste in one area helping the production of something else.

“We are one of those few, true closed-loop systems,” he said, and he credited Myers for that. “It’s always been Marty’s plan, and it continues to be the company’s plan, to make that better.”

He boasts that everything, from cow behavior to water use, is analyzed, and decisions are made every day to improve the system.

Many of these improvements would be impossible for a small dairy, he said. Given its size, Threemile Canyon can employ staffs of full-time specialists who can, for example, sample blood, urine and feces to optimize the cows’ nutrition.

The dairy can also support management and send them around the country and the world to learn from other farms.

They follow up on what they learn, as happened when the farm built its first methane digester in 2009 as a demonstration project. As the manure is digested, it creates methane gas, which powers electrical generators.

A second, larger digester was added in 2012. It produces 37,700 megawatt-hours of electricity each year, making it the largest in the Western U.S., according to Pacific Power.

Tom Chavez, digester manager, said it provides green power to the grid over and above the energy required to run the dairy. Eighty percent of the manure produced at the dairy is processed by the digester.

Wendler added that not only is energy use monitored, but many other processes are documented throughout the farm looking for inefficiencies.

It is the only dairy that he knows of with its own in vitro fertilization laboratory. The lab is staffed by specialists employed especially for the process.

At this lab, the top 5 percent of animals are identified for their health and production. Their eggs are collected, fertilized and grown into embryos that are then placed into the lower 40 percent of animals. This way, the least productive animals are employed to produce the top cows.

Threemile has been doing this for three years, and the results are “mind-blowing,” with healthier, more efficient and more productive cows the result, Wendler said.

Threemile Canyon Farms

Started: 1999

Location: Boardman, Ore.

Size: 93,000 acres (39,500 of irrigated farmland; 9,000 acres of certified organic and 6,500 acres of potatoes)

Number of cows: 30,000

Number of cows milked: 25,000 (twice daily)

Products: Milk for cheese manufacturers, organic milk for retailers, potatoes, sweet corn, sweet peas, carrots, blueberries, onions, silage corn, grain corn and alfalfa hay.

Employees: 300, with up to 500 full-time during busy seasons

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