Arizona dairy manages 12,500 cows and 52,000 steers

STANFIELD, Ariz. — Actor John Wayne was master of all he surveyed when he looked out at thousands of beef cattle from his office window at Red River Feedyards.

Today, the Duke would stare out over the same property in disbelief to see the Herefords have been replaced with Holsteins.

Wayne and his business partners, Ken Reafsnyder and Louis Johnson, fed about 87,000 beef cattle at Stanfield.

Sixteen years ago, the feedlot became part of T & K Red River Dairy owned by Tom and Kathy Dugan and their family.

The family-run operation about half an hour from Phoenix, feeds 52,000 Holstein steers at a time, milks about 12,500 cows and farms 12,000 acres.

The Dugan family, consisting of five brothers, left Wisconsin in 1962 and started dairy farming in Arizona. Most of the brothers have retired and Tom Dugan bought some of them out and brought them under the umbrella of T & K.

“Everybody is getting bigger. The trend is to go to multi-dairies, where there are mega dairies held by one owner,” said Dennis Dugan, Tom’s brother, who guided visitors during a special tour sponsored by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

There are fewer than 100 dairy producers in the state and most belong to a producer-owned co-operative in Tempe where a million gallons of milk are processed every day.

Tom Dugan’s sons have taken over the day-to-day management of the farm, which runs with precision and planning.

Cows are milked three times a day and 50 to 100 calves are born here every day.

At one day old, each calf is moved to one of 4,600 hutches where they live until they are 70 days old. They are then moved to larger group pens until they are moved to the feedlot at 180 days.

Each calf receives three quarts of pasteurized colostrum within its first hour of life and within 24 hours calves should receive 1.5 gallons.

The farm has its own pasteurization unit for the calves’ daily milk supply. It can process 2,000 gallons an hour.

At one day of age, each calf receives an electronic identification ear tag. When employees scan a calf’s tag, information such as weight, health status and treatment is entered on hand-held tablets.

The animals also wear management tags. Males get white tags and females wear yellow. If they must be treated with antibiotics, they get a green tag, which means they received a dose of Baytril, and a yellow tag, which indicates Draxxin was used. Animals that require more treatments are moved to a separate pen for veterinary care.

“Mycoplasma seems to be our biggest problem here. We are working with the vets on that,” Tim Dugan said.

When calves are moved out of the hutches, each little house is flipped over for disinfection and exposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun.

The hutches are turned southward in the winter to capture sunlight but once the outdoor temperature starts to climb beyond 32 C, they face north for shade.

An extensive tree-planting project is ongoing to provide more shade.

The calves are sorted throughout their lifetimes, moving into larger groups throughout.

The bull calves are raised for beef in a natural program and are slaughtered at a local JBS plant. The farm raises all of its own replacement females.

Fifteen to 20 percent of the feedlot calves do not qualify for the natural beef program, which stipulates they must live 300 days free of antibiotics.

Once the calves are on feed, the goal is to have them gain 2.1 pounds per day to finish at around 1,300 lb.

A pound of gain costs US$1.36 per head per day.

“I used to try and do it cheaper for $1.25. I am spending more, but I am putting more meat on their backs and growth. On the heifer side, that is hopefully going to give us more milk in the first lactation and a healthier animal,” Tim said.

The cows average about three lactations and yield about 80 lb. of milk per day. About 800 cows are milked per hour in parallel milking parlours in three different barns.

Special accommodations have been set up to help animals live comfortably in Arizona’s hot and dry climate.

The cows live in open-sided pens with roofs overhead equipped with fans and sprinkling systems.

A cooling system was recently installed in the pens to keep the area at a constant 24 C.

Curtains can also come down when the temperature goes up.

“It is all about cow comfort. The more you keep them comfortable, the more they will give milk,” said Dennis Dugan.

The farm power bill from June to August is $300,000 a month but drops to about $150,000 a month in winter, said Dennis Dugan.

The farm works with Purina on nutrition.

The ration is about 20 percent protein for the cows and contains alfalfa, corn silage, flaked corn and other byproducts depending on cost. The farm uses about 100 tons of corn and 30 tons of barley every day.

The corn comes mostly from the U.S. Midwest but T & K grows alfalfa locally year-round.

Local corn is often chopped for silage to avoid problems with the fungus aflatoxin.

The farm has wells but water is also delivered in irrigation canals from the Colorado River to supply Phoenix and Tucson. When the system was installed the cities did not use their full water allocations and so the municipalities shared it with farmers. Competition for water is growing.

“As the cities grow, they are taking that water back,” Dennis said.

Finding workers presents another ongoing issue.

“We always have labour challenges. With minimum wage going up and the economy booming in construction, it is probably the biggest challenge we have is finding people and keeping them on,” said Tim.

Arizona minimum wage is $10.50 an hour and the average person on the farm makes about $30,000 a year. Managers on this farm earn six figure incomes.

“Eventually all the dairies are going to go to robots. Within 20 years I bet 60 percent of the cows in this country will be milked by robot because we can’t get the workers,” Dennis said.

Dairies and feedlots also produce a lot of manure. Much of it is hauled out and spread on the farmland.

Recently British Petroleum set up a digester system to buy liquid dairy manure and convert it to methane, which will be shipped out via a pipeline.

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