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

Foster Dairy navigating winds of change

Kansas family mulling investment in robotic milkers
David Foster, shown here with his wife, Addi, and their daughters – Ansley, Nayla, and Davina – milk 140 cows at Foster Dairy near Fort Scott, Kan.<br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->PHOTO SUBMITTED
David Foster, shown here with his wife, Addi, and their daughters – Ansley, Nayla, and Davina – milk 140 cows at Foster Dairy near Fort Scott, Kan.<br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->PHOTO SUBMITTED

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

Fort Scott, Kan. - The winds of change never stop blowing. That's true at Foster Dairy, Fort Scott, Kansas.
Just when certain changes will arrive isn't clear. But David Foster, who farms with his parents, Gary and Lynda, and wife, Addi, and three daughters, hopes they start to take place soon.
One such change could be a switch from the 34-year-old, double-six herringbone milking parlor to a robotic system. One benefit of robots is the time they can free up from milking so it can be used other places.
"We're all so busy and have so much to do that the labor issue is probably our biggest detriment," Foster said. "We have 25 man-hours of labor to do every day, just for basic maintenance - to cover our chores."
David, Gary and an employee handle milking, feeding and calf care, while Lynda serves as the relief milker and handles the cow records. On top of that, Foster and his mom are both involved off the farm, with Dairy Farmers of America (DFA), the National Dairy Promotion and Research Board, the Midwest Dairy Association, and the Kansas Department of Agriculture.
Besides the work that milking the 140-cow herd twice a day entails, the Fosters have 1,000 acres to manage - 450 acres of row crops and 75 acres of alfalfa.
Foster said he has been promoting robotic milkers to his parents for four years. They recently visited a farm near St. Louis, Mo., that uses the machines.
If the decision was his and his alone, Foster said, "I would have put robots in already. I've done the numbers and they're the best option for the future of Foster Dairy, if I'm going to be the one running it."
He figures the extra production from the cows being milked more frequently would pay for the robots. And if the machines free up 12 to 14 hours of labor per day, the family could feed and care for more cows, and the robots could operate at peak efficiency.
Then there's the matter of the Foster Dairy herd. It keeps growing, as herds naturally do if things are going well.
Foster said the farm will be milking 40 more cows this summer, boosting the herd to 180. The freestall barn has room for 200 cows, so there is room for more.
But the milking parlor is another matter. It's been in daily use more than three decades and takes lots of maintenance. Said Foster, age 34, "For me to think about milking another 30 years, that' something that's going to need to be fixed."
Foster is on the marketing advisory board of the Kansas agriculture department. Board members are looking at things the state can do maintain its number of dairy farms - about 300, according to Foster. He sees robotic milkers helping.
Robots, said Foster, can help older farmers keep milking more years. But a tax incentive or some other program might be needed to help farmers make the leap to robots - a leap that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars."
Maybe such a tax incentive could be extended to the companies that sell and install robotic milkers, too.
"It's a big step just for a dealer to come out into an area where there's nothing started, especially with under 300 Grade A dairies across the state," Foster said. "There's not a whole lot of market, but there are enough dairymen that are interested."
Besides seeing Foster Dairy invest in robotic milkers, Foster is itching to tackle more of the farm's management. His mother, he said, urges him to be patient.
One of her favorite sayings, according to Foster, is, "Rome wasn't built in a day." To that, he is likely to reply, "Rome wouldn't have been built at all if they never started and just kicked the can down the road."
Foster is the third generation on the farm. It's been in operation since the 1940s, and the Bourbon County dairy has milked cows continuously since 1978, when Gary and Lynda came home from college.
The herd of mainly Holsteins is clicking along with a bulk tank average of approximately 70 pounds a day. Foster said the somatic cell count (SCC) has been running under 100,000.
Foster Dairy's milk is sold to DFA. Much of it is bottled in Springfield, Mo.
The Fosters farm in southeast Kansas, some 20 miles from Missouri, and about an hour from the Oklahoma state line. They're in the wetter area of the Sunflower State, near the Ozarks, and get 34 to 36 inches of precipitation a year. Much of the rest of Kansas gets half that, according to Foster.
After graduating from Kansas State University in 2003, David returned to the farm. He majored in agricultural communications and enjoys working in multimedia - video, editing and designing websites, but his heart lies in farming.
"There's a certain amount of pride that comes with building a business and running it yourself, seeing the changes you can make, and building it up," Foster said. "I'm a visionary and I get excited about what this operation could look like and work toward that. If I don't have something to work towards, it's very difficult for me to get through the day-to-day tasks. They just melt away when I've got something I'm working for."
One thing Foster has been working toward is his pilot's license. And last year he launched a business that makes mobile applications for cell phones.
Foster also has a sideline business buying farm buildings and machinery. A recent project involved having four large chicken barns torn down, trucked to a new location, and reassembled for their new owners.
Said Foster, "I'm a wheeler-dealer. I like to have my hands in about everything."
That philosophy seems to apply to dairying, too. Foster is part of an emerging leaders group through DFA. As such, he gets a deeper look at the workings of the cooperative.
He's also in the middle of a two-year term with the Kansas Farm Bureau Young Farmers and Ranchers program. Closer to home, Foster is on the county fair board, and is in charge of lining up entertainment for the event. He's also the fair's assistant secretary, and his mother is the secretary.
The off-farm activities sometimes make getting all the farm work done more difficult. They also get in the way of finding time to look to the future.
"We're all so busy, none of us stop to do any future planning - see what everybody wants and where we want to go," Foster said. "A lot of times, I have big dairy envy. Those managers have time. We don't have any."
Besides a more modern milking system, Foster said he would like to sit down with his parents and wife and create a written transition plan. He's optimistic that things will happen.
"I expect," Foster said, "some change in 2014."
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