CALMAR, Iowa – It takes innovation to work around a pandemic – and innovation is something the Northeast Iowa Dairy Foundation is good at. The members work with farmers and consumers. When a traditional farm breakfast was postponed, the group decided to host a drive-through barn tour with a refreshing milkshake ending.

“The whole point is to get people out here and educate them,” said Mariah Busta, coordinator for the Dairy Foundation. “We need consumers.”

The barn tour included a drive past two of three young-stock facilities on the farm. There were two stops to receive more information along with fun activities for kids to take home. And there was a drive into a freestall barn where the robotic milkers could be seen working.

The non-profit foundation was formed by Iowa’s 1,000 dairy farms, whose owners are committed to learning new techniques using applied technology. To help achieve their goal of keeping young farmers farming, in 2000 they built a working farm called Iowa’s Dairy Center near Calmar. Since that time they typically host 10,000 guests each year; they have recorded visitors from all 50 states and 30 countries.

Originally the dairy center had 280 cows but a year ago they decided to sell 80 animals to lessen stress on employees and facilities. Of the remaining cows, 120 are split into two groups, one Jersey and one Holstein, each serviced by a robot. The remaining 80 cows are milked in a double-eight parlor, one side a parallel and one side a herringbone.

On the day of the drive-through tour the Jersey robotic group was milking 70 pounds, the Holsteins were at 90 pounds and the parlor cows – predominantly Holstein – were milking 86 pounds. The farm has two bulk tanks so they can compare the paychecks between the robotic-milked animals and the parlor-milked. Jerseys were chosen instead of other breeds because they are the fastest-growing breed in the United States.

Feed for the animals is grown on the farm’s 200 acres, mostly planted to corn silage, and is stored in a bunker. Hay and additives are purchased. Calves are started in a soft-side barn with pens; they’re moved to a custom grower at between five and six months.

“One of our goals in downsizing is to have all our heifers on-site,” Busta said.

The heifers return at 13 months for breeding. All breeding on the farm is done with artificial insemination using sexed semen, to dairy and Angus bulls.

As part of the farm’s teaching directive, Select Sires comes to the farm three times each year to teach artificial insemination to any farmers who enroll. It’s required for ag students at nearby Northeast Iowa Community College.

The Dairy Center also partners with Iowa State University, where lockdown technical research is conducted. That allows the center to concentrate on applied research. The buildings at the farm include classrooms and labs for teaching farmers what the university researchers have learned.

Field trials are done in conjunction with the Winneshiek Soil and Water Conservation District of Winneshiek County, Iowa. This year there are 18 plots in research including a rain garden, nitrogen applications and small-grain mixes.

Another partner is Midwest Dairy, a 10-state promotional organization funded by checkoff dollars. Its focus is on informing consumers about the benefits of dairy products. Hosting the drive-through tour helped with the Midwest Dairy mandate. Visitors were given scavenger-hunt cards when they arrived at the Dairy Center, with a list of items to look for as they drove around the farm. There were also posters with dairy facts placed strategically in the barns.

Along the way visitors had the opportunity to ask questions of Busta, Iowa State University-Extension employees and county dairy royalty. At the end of the tour route, after showing visitors how milk is cleanly and humanely produced, Winneshiek County Dairy Promoters were on hand with their Moo Mobile. They served eight different flavors of milkshakes – proving by tasting that milk is a great food.

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LeeAnne Bulman writes about agriculture from her farm overlooking the beautiful Danuser Valley on Wisconsin’s west coast. When not writing she helps her husband on their small grain and beef farm.