Twenty years ago, more than 56 cow dairies in Marion County were on official milk test rotations with the state dairy herd improvement registry. Now only a handful of farmers make their living with dairy cows in an area once known as the land of milk and honey.
With dairy farmers dropping like flies because of low milk payments, high labor costs, and even higher feed costs, it is a wonder that Kent Sterk, Sterk Dairy Inc. southwest of Hillsboro, maintains a positive attitude about the industry.
“It’s pretty tight all over,” Sterk said. “But we are too good at making milk to completely disappear. When someone sells out, the cows don’t ever really go to slaughter; they just go into another dairy.”
Sterk keeps a rolling herd average of around 250 milking cows. To combat a drop in milk production because of heat stress and to improve the bottom line of intake to conversion he utilizes crossbreeding in his dairy herd. The majority of cows in his herd look like Holsteins, but a crossbred influence keeps them living longer, producing more, and eating less, than the average purebred herd.
“I’m not afraid to have smaller cows,” Sterk said. “I have many cows that are part Jersey, part Brown Swiss, Aryshire, Guernsey, and a few others. They are just stronger, healthier, more tolerant cows, that produce just as much or more than the purebreds.”
Sterk uses artificial insemination almost exclusively in his breeding program, though a cleanup bull resides in the bred heifer pen to catch any missed opportunities.
He has even introduced some unique bloodlines such as Normandy (a French dairy breed known for longevity) and Australian Kiwi (a breed known for smaller frame and structural soundness).
“I really get into the genetics side of things,” Sterk said. “I love the cows, and really enjoy keeping track to see how certain lines perform, how daughters of a certain bull produce, figuring out which crosses will raise my overall efficiency ratings.”
Sterk grew up in the state of Washington on a dairy farm started by his grandfather, taken over by his father when he was 17, and still maintained by his brother.
“My family wasn’t too happy when my wife (Amy) and I let them know we wanted to have a place of our own,” he said.
Kent and Amy met at Dordt College in Iowa, and then lived there four years after graduation while Kent served as herdsman on a large dairy. He built up his own herd of dairy cows during that time, and moved 10 of them to Kansas when the opportunity to buy a working dairy came up in 1996.
“My grandparents moved to Washington during the dust bowl years,” he said. “So they were not at all happy when they learned we were buying a dairy in central Kansas. But we really like it here.”
The Sterks purchased the working dairy, including cows, from Myron Schmidt and in the past 16 years have made many improvements for the benefit of the cows.
“It’s really in my own best interests to take the best care of my cows that I can,” Sterk said. “If the cows are happy, then I am happy, and my bottom line is happier.”
Loafing sheds with large fans and timed sprinkler-mist systems keep Sterk’s cows comfortable, even during 100-degree days that have plagued the mid-states the past few years.
“They kind of have their own rotation through the sprinkler systems,” Sterk said. “They come in after eating and stand awhile in the cool mist, then go lay down under the fans. They really seem to enjoy the water.”
In the past year, Sterk enlarged and remodeled his milk-parlor to accommodate the addition of several more cows.
“I’ve gotten cows from Doyle Jost, Kevin Winter, Jim and Bruce Schmidt,” he said. “I am just a sucker for cows. I have always loved animals, and I spend a lot of time out here, just watching, making sure everything is right, checking heat cycles, making repairs. It’s what I like to do.”
Sterk milks two or three times each week, starting at 2:30 a.m. He spends most of his time feeding, breeding, repairing, and performing his own veterinary work on the cows.
He employs two full-time laborers and hires several part-time high school age workers to help with the chores.
“I’ve got a real good group of kids working right now,” he said. “They are all pretty reliable and that makes the summer go a lot smoother.”
The cows are fed a mixture of corn silage, alfalfa, cottonseed, and commercial grain mix, most of which is purchased from local providers.
“We used to be able to produce all our own alfalfa and silage,” he said. “But the drought has made that very difficult. I just go to local suppliers because that is a much more efficient use of my time and money rather than finding it and trucking it in from all over.”
Sterk said his own corn production was way down this year, when compared to other years.
“We only got about 4.4 ton per acre this year,” he said. “Other years it has been as high as 18 tons per acre.”
While the drought has made feed costs double for the dairy, Sterk said he believes it is all part of a three-year cycle, with this being the worst year.
“Last year, at least we had some feed inventory to carry over,” he said. “This year we had just enough to get to summer, so now we are buying. This will be the most difficult year yet.”
To combat high feed costs, Sterk said selling cows was always an option.
“Last week we shipped 34 cows in milk and 11 heifers out to a dairy in Oklahoma,” he said. “There is a market for good producers, and we can always raise more to take their place.”
Through fall and winter months, two or three calves are born each day on the Sterk dairy. Spring and summer months average about five per week.
“I try to avoid calving in July and August as the heat is just harder on all of them,” Sterk said. “Plus is it just hard to get the cows to settle in the hotter months.”
Sterk makes the most of calving season, using sexed semen when breeding top cows. Advances in genetics make it possible for a dairyman to choose male or female semen for insemination.
“We used to get a very high percentage of bull calves, especially from the good cows,” he said. “But since we started using the sexed semen, I’ve got better than 90 percent conception rate and at least 55 percent or better heifer calves.”
Sterk keeps and raises all heifer calves as dairy replacements. He sells bull calves to local buyers or at the sale barn for $125 per calf.
“With the crossbreeding we’ve been doing, we really have had some healthy calves,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about. Starting them out healthy and keeping them that way so they will be good producers.”