12/27/2011 11:11:00 AM California: The land of dairy opportunity Dairying Across America
Cows – and an employee – walk along rubber traveling lanes to the Durrers’ double-12 herringbone parlor. The Durrers have been using traveling lanes for 20 years to improve foot health on their cows. (photo submitted)
Part of the Durrer Dairy herd cools off under misters as they stand near the feed bunk. The climate near Modesto, Calif., often brings extended periods of heat, including one three-week stretch were temperatures reached or topped 100 degrees in 2006. (photo submitted)
MODESTO, Calif. - When Chris Durrer's ancestors traveled from Switzerland to America, California became their land of opportunity - their land of dairy opportunity. Three generations later, the Durrers' California dairy tradition is still going strong, with two generations working side-by-side and bringing up the fifth generation on Durrer Dairy. Chris Durrer and his father, Leo, currently own and operate Durrer Dairy in partnership, along with Leo's wife, Cheryle, and Chris's wife, Ellen, and their sons, Clayton (5) and Cole (2). "Dad and I are very active on the dairy every day," Chris said. The dairy is located in the Central Valley near Modesto, Calif., about an hour south of Sacramento, where they've been for nearly 60 years. The Durrers milk around 650 Holsteins twice daily in a double-12 herringbone parlor. About one-third of the herd is registered under the Lorita Holsteins prefix, one of many factors that drew Chris back to the farm after school. "It's something I've always loved. It's more a hobby than work," Chris said of registered cattle. "It's a challenge to try to develop a cow that someone wants to contract or that someone could win a show with ... I don't really believe in the quantity aspect. I want to try to get that one perfect animal." Genetics is something Chris and Leo have put a strong emphasis on since Chris returned to the farm in 2001. Their focus is paying off, with three All-American nominees this year. To showcase their herd's genetics, the Durrers are co-hosting the California Earthquake Sale in March 2012. The Durrers raise their heifer calves on site as replacement animals, along with several bull calves out of their top cows. These calves are typically sold to other dairymen to be used as service sires or clean-up bulls. "I breed for the true-type Holstein that excels in the show ring and has the will to milk," Chris said of his breeding philosophy. "I breed for type more than anything. If she has that true type, she will last; she will have the strength to withstand." The Durrer herd is currently averaging 25,762 pounds of milk with 3.66 percent fat and 3.14 percent protein. The cows are housed in freestall barns with access to outside lots. Composted manure solids are used to bed the freestalls. The maternity and hospital pens, however, are bedded with almond shells - a by-product of the local almond industry. "We live in the almond capital of the world," Ellen said. The shells aren't the only by-product of almonds the Durrers use daily on their dairy. Almond hulls are also fed in the ration. The hulls are one of several commodities the Durrers purchase to feed their herd, including dried distillers, pelleted canola, whole cottonseed, vitamins and minerals and molasses. They also purchase much of the hay fed to their dairy herd, although they do raise alfalfa on their 330 acres of tillable land. "We have border-line hay here, so we feed our hay to our dry cows and heifers and blend it with really good hay [for our dairy herd]," Chris said. While hay quality may not be there, quantity is typically not a problem, as the Durrers average six cuttings of hay a year. Because of the climate they live in, the Durrers are able to double-crop much of their land. For this, they rotate corn with oats, barley and wheat. The corn is grown during the summer/fall growing season and harvested as corn silage. The oats, barley and wheat are raised during the winter months and are also harvested as silage, which is fed to their heifers. As the Modesto area and much of the Central Valley only averages 15-17 inches of rainfall a year, irrigation is necessary for producers to raise any crops. "This is basically a desert," Chris said. "But with modern irrigation, we are able to make it work." "The climate is [actually] really good for growing all kinds of crops. That's one thing that makes California so unique - it's diversified," he said. Crops are flood irrigated with water from reservoirs in the mountains. The Durrers also combine recycled wastewater from their manure separator with the fresh water. This combination provides moisture and valuable nutrients as well. "The only fertilizer we use is spoiled feed stuffs and cow manure," Chris said. "Now we have some of the nicest farmland around, all from good old cow dirt." Along with the lack of water, the climate in Modesto also brings heat. In the summer of 2006, they had a three-week stretch where the mercury pushed to and over 100 degrees. To help battle this element, misters soak the cows as they stand at the feed bunks. Other facility comfort measures include rubber traveling lanes - lanes of rubber mats for the cows to walk on while going to and from the parlor, as well as along the feed alley for them to stand on while they eat. "We've had them the last 20 years," Chris said of the rubber lanes. "We saw the benefits with [improved] foot health, so we added more as needed." Facility-wise, Durrer Dairy is comparable to other California dairies, but size-wise they are below the state average. In 2010, the average herd size in California was just over 1,000 cows. What they may lack in size, however, they make up in quality. In their district, the Durrer herd is ranked in the top six. They are also in the top 25 for quality at their creamery, maintaining a SCC between 150,000 and 170,000. "We are on the small side for California ... but we have registered cattle. That's where our focus is," Chris said. The workload is perfect for Chris and Leo and their eight employees. They don't plan on increasing that workload anytime soon, unless, of course, both of Chris and Ellen's sons decide to come back to the family farm, continuing the dairying tradition that both Chris and Ellen were raised in. That, however, will depend on several outside factors, such as the California pricing system and environmental regulations that could stifle growth opportunities. "Our ultimate dream is to have this available for our kids and our grandkids, but it's not really up to us," Ellen said. "It's going to depend on what extremes we have to go through to maintain our family business." For the time being, the Durrers will continue enjoying the opportunities California has given them - the chance to dairy farm as a family in the nation's No. 1 dairy state.