A robotic arm applies iodine post dip to cows at Perry Creek Dairy. It takes four people to operate the 80-cow rotary parlor that milks the dairy’s 3,300 cows.
A robotic arm applies iodine post dip to cows at Perry Creek Dairy. It takes four people to operate the 80-cow rotary parlor that milks the dairy’s 3,300 cows. PHOTO BY JERRY NELSON
    MERRILL, Iowa – Many dairy farmers can trace their dairying roots back through multiple generations and across several decades. Dairymen Alan Feuerhelm and his sons, Scott and Brad, are a bit different than most, having launched their dairy careers in the year 2000 with Plymouth Dairy Farm.
    After growing their first dairy to 3,000 cows, they took the leap to build another one – a 3,300-cow dairy they named Perry Creek Dairy. Perry Creek Dairy will host an open house from 4-8 p.m. June 9.
    “We built Perry Creek Dairy on the farm that was homesteaded by my great-grandfather John Grebner in 1885,” Alan said. “I was born and raised on the farm across the road from Perry Creek Dairy.”
    The freestall barn at Perry Creek Dairy measures 850 feet by 500 feet. It features a tunnel ventilation system that creates a constant 6 mph breeze.
    “We looked at barns that had cross ventilation,” Brad said. “When the sprinklers are running during the summertime, the airflow causes some of the water to fall onto the feed. We didn’t like the idea of our TMR getting wet.”
    The north wall of Perry Creek Dairy contains dozens of exhaust fans. The barn’s south wall features a curtain that controls inlet airflow.
    “We were worried that the south end of the freestall alleys would freeze during the winter,” Alan said. “We decided to install a series of cupolas on the roof. When it’s cold out and the south curtain is closed, fresh air is let in through the cupolas. The cold air mixes with the warmer air as it’s drawn down. We’ve never had a problem with freezing.”
    The barn’s floors slope 2% toward a central cross alley. Several times per day, an automated system opens valves that are set into the floors at the top ends of the alleys. When a valve opens, 2,500 gallons per minute of flush water rushes down the alley.
    After exiting the barn, the flush water flows through a sand lane where up to 80% of waste sand is recovered. The flush water then runs into one of a pair of settling ponds before it flows into a two-stage manure lagoon. Perry Creek Dairy can store up to 52 million gallons of manure. This massive amount of holding capacity means they have to pump the lagoon only once a year.
    “The flush system keeps the alleys clean and keeps the skidloader out of the pens,” Scott said.
    The gleaming heart of Perry Creek Dairy is its 80-cow rotary parlor.
    “When we built Plymouth Dairy, we put in a double-40 parallel parlor and thought that we had the world by the tail,” Alan said. “We learned that one slow cow or having an odd number of cows in a pen can affect the parlor’s throughput.”
    Brad said a cow steps into the rotary parlor every 4.5 seconds.
    “We are currently milking 3,300 head, and the parlor is idle for four hours a day,” he said. “We’re expanding the freestall barn by 800 head. Once that expansion is fully populated, the parlor will be idle for a total of 1.5 hours per day.”
    The cows at Perry Creek Dairy have responded well to being milked three times a day and loafing in free stalls bedded with sand. The somatic cell count at Perry Creek Dairy hovers between 110,000 and 120,000.
    Plymouth Dairy Farm and Perry Creek Dairy have a synergistic relationship.
    “All of our animals go through their dry periods and give birth at Plymouth Dairy,” Scott said. “Fresh cows are hauled to Perry Creek shortly after calving, and the cows that are being dried off are taken back to Plymouth Dairy.”
    Labor has not been a challenge on their farm, said Alan.
            “When we started dairy farming, we were told that one of our biggest challenges would be labor,” he said. “That hasn’t been the case. Some of our employees have been with us for 18 years, and one of our key managers has been with us for 16 years. We wouldn’t be able to operate without good employees. We have a great crew, and they do a fabulous job. We want to recognize them for their hard work.”
    Before becoming dairy farmers, the Feuerhelms raised beef cattle and hogs.
“We had always farmed and raised cattle and hogs,” Alan said. “By the late 1990s, the boys had earned their agronomy degrees at Iowa State University and wanted to join the operation. Our financial advisor was also telling us that we should diversify our operation. He recommended that we look into dairy farming,” Alan said.
    Before making such a commitment, the Feuerhelms set themselves to the task of learning as much as they could about operating a modern dairy.
    “We worked with a consulting firm and went on tours of dairies in California and Wisconsin before we started to make any plans,” Alan said.
    Scott said the three of them had a learning curve to climb.     
    “We learned a lot about modern dairy facilities,” he said. “The big debate back then was a 4-row versus a 6-row freestall barn. We decided to go with four rows and high sidewalls.”
    The Feuerhelms built a 1,300-cow dairy at Le Mars and named it Plymouth Dairy Farm. They milked their first cows in August 2000.
    “We went from no cows to 1,300 cows in one year,” Alan said.
    Diversification was not the only reason the Feuerhelms decided to begin dairy farming.
    “Back in 1998, corn was selling for something like $1.88 per bushel,” Scott said. “We thought we were making big money when we received a 25-cent Loan Deficiency Payment.”
    Brian said the farm needed a way to add value to the grain they were producing.
    “We had the land to raise forages for our dairy cows and recognized the benefits of fertilizing our farmland with manure,” he said. “As we expanded, we learned that our neighbors were happy to sell us corn for silage or to buy manure from us.”
Regardless of what type of animals they are raising, the Feuerhelm family has always valued transparency.
    “We began to give tours at Plymouth Dairy Farm soon after it was completed,” Brad said. “We have toured thousands of schoolchildren throughout the years.”
    Both dairies have viewing platforms above the parlor.
    “We feel that giving tours is important because a lot of people have lost their connection to agriculture,” Alan said. “They don’t know where their food comes from. … We are incredibly pleased with the way the community has accepted us. It’s been our privilege to produce a nutritious food that so many people enjoy.”