September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.

Florida farmer receives dairy-beef quality award

Larson emphasizes proper drug use, humane treatment on his four dairies
Woody Larson’s 3,000 replacement heifers graze 10 months out of the year in Florida.<br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->PHOTO SUBMITTED
Woody Larson’s 3,000 replacement heifers graze 10 months out of the year in Florida.<br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->PHOTO SUBMITTED

By By Ron Johnson- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

OKEECHOBEE, Fla. - With four dairy farms and a beef ranch, you'd expect Woody Larson to like working with cattle. But this Florida farmer also likes to treat his cattle right.
For his efforts, Larson was recently named the National Dairy Beef Quality Assurance winner by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA).
Larson knows that he - like other dairy farmers - is also in the beef business even though his main income from the 4,000 dairy cows is from the sale of milk. One aspect that he and his employees pay particular attention to is drug residues in the farms' milk, and in the meat of cull cows.
He said he wants to remind dairy farmers that drug residues in meat has really become a dairy cow issue and not so much a beef feedlot issue these days. "I know that's not a popular statement to make," Larson said. "But it's pretty much the truth."
If antibiotic residues do become a problem, it's often because of a failure to keep and use good records about animal treatments, Larson said. That failure might be linked to a lack of time.
"I know how it is. As dairymen, we are busy - busy doing milking, busy doing chores, growing crops, feeding calves - all the things we have to get done on a dairy farm," he said. "It goes on seven days a week, and I know that. And it's hard. It's hard work."
Farms often have protocols to automatically turn to when an animal needs treatment. But protocols are only half the equation Larson said. Good records are also important.
On Larson's farms, collectively called Family Tree Enterprises - thorough records are kept of a medicine that was administered, when it was given, and its withdrawal time. These records don't have to be fancy or computerized. Larson's farms use computer records and hand-written ones.
A key point, according to Larson: Record the treatment right away. "Our rule is that everything gets written down every day," he said.
Good records not only help producers keep track of treatments. "For dairy farmers, they're the best defense against violative residues in case a question does arise," Larson said.
Larson said it's also important for farmers to keep control of the refrigerator where medications are stored. On each of his farms, just one or two people are authorized to administer treatments.
Since Larson's four dairies have 70 employees, communication and training in drug residue avoidance takes on added importance.
"I cannot overemphasize the importance of training. As our operation grows, training is nonstop," Larson said.
With the help of veterinarians and pharmaceutical companies, Larson has brought employee training sessions right to his farms a couple of times each year.
In addition, Larson isn't reluctant to send employees to off-farm workshops. The Florida Beef Council sponsors training for Spanish-speaking employees, and Larson supports that. He said, "A little investment of time in education usually yields pretty big dividends."
Larson, the president of the Florida Cattlemen's Association, noted that some of his employees did not grow up on farms. That means they also need training in cattle behavior and handling.
He's a fan of animal behaviorist Temple Grandin. As such, Larson uses many of her methods.
Larson said he does not tolerate anyone injuring his dairy or beef cattle, or treating them roughly. He also has taken steps to keep his cattle from getting hurt.
To cushion the feet of his dairy cows, Larson has installed rubber belting - some of it off conveyors in sand mines - on the floors near the feedbunks. When that belting has seen better days, Larson continues to make good use of it by bolting it to high-pressure areas on his ranch. The belting goes on places like cattle chutes and acts as padding. The result is less bruising and fewer broken boards.
Larson and his wife, Grace, live on their beef ranch in Okeechobee County, in south-central Florida. Their first two dairy operations are about 30 miles apart and are in that area of the state, with the most recent pair in northern Florida, some 280 miles distant.
Until a dozen years ago, Larson's farms were part of his family's business, Larson Dairy. In 2001, Grace and he formed Family Tree Enterprises.
The tree's roots reach back to Wells, Minn., where Larson's grandmother was from. His grandfather and father both are from South Dakota.
Larson's grandfather was a blacksmith, but lost just about everything he had in the Great Depression. The elder Larson found work at Hollywood, Florida, in a shop that built pumps to drain the Everglades.
Larson's father began dairying in south Florida, near Miami, later moving north to Palm Beach County, and then farther north to Okeechobee. The moves took place because, as the Sunshine State's population burgeoned, land prices rose. And, with the advent of refrigerated trucks, Class I milk for the fluid market could be more practically produced farther and farther from the population centers like Miami.
Larson has done all the hands-on work of dairying, but now relies more on four managers for his farms. The farms are home to 4,000 head milking, plus approximately 3,000 replacements.
Most of the cattle are Holsteins, but Larson professed a particular fondness for the 700 registered Brown Swiss cows he has on one place.
"My dad had some when I was a kid and I ended up showing some in 4-H. I fell in love with the breed and enjoyed having good ones," he said.
The four herds vary in milk production, partly due to differing management styles. Larson's highest-producing freestall herd carries a rolling herd average of about 24,000 pounds while his grazing herd is closer to 17,000 pounds.
In his part of Florida, cattle can graze almost year-round. Since they don't get much dry matter off the pastures in December and January, stored feed is needed.
His area of the state normally gets about 56 inches of rain a year. Since dry lots would soon become wet lots, Larson doesn't have any. Instead, his cattle are in freestall barns and open pastures.
Larson's dairy farms encompass some 3,100 acres. His crops are primarily tropical grasses for hay and sorghum for silage. He contracts for corn silage and buys corn, soybean meal, cottonseed, cottonseed hulls and dried distiller's grains.
Some of those ingredients originate as far away as Illinois and Indiana. With the transportation costs factored in, Larson's break-even price for milk is $20 to $25 per hundredweight, depending on the time of year.
Helping offset some of those high costs are Florida's relatively high milk prices. The state usually has the best mailbox price in the nation. Larson said his mailbox price is now around $23. Still, Larson said, "Margins are very tight at this time of year."
His milk goes to Southeast Milk, Inc. and ends up in the fluid market. He said Florida is home to 130 dairy farms, but also has 19 million people.
Larson said he especially enjoys a couple of aspects of dairying. The first one is working with cattle.
"And I like the challenge of making everything come together to make a product," he said. "Dairy farming is probably the most complex business in all of agriculture."
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