Milking is a way of life
OSSINEKE Russ and Janet Tolan have 300 dairy cows on their farm. They produce at least 700,000 gallons of milk a year. But if they need a quart for their breakfast cereal or to whip up some real hot chocolate, they have to do what everybody else does go to the grocery store.
The reason is because their milking facility at 11657 Behning Road is a closed system, Janet Tolan said. Once a sanitized milking machine is attached to a cow’s udder, human hands never come into contact with the product again. The milk streams from the cow into a collection tube. Then it passes through a small cooling unit and ends up in a self-cleaning 3,000-gallon tank that keeps it at 37 degrees fahrenheit.
Every 24 hours, seven days a week, the milk is pumped into a tanker truck and goes to a processing plant.
“When you put the milkers on, that’s it,” Tolan, who owns Risky Endeavor with husband Russ, said.
The dairy, which has been in the family four generations, is a member of the Michigan Milk Producers Association co-op. Sometimes the truck takes their milk to a plant where it is dried and turned into powder. Sometimes it goes to a Yoplait yogurt plant; sometimes it is bottled, depending on demand.
The couple lives modestly, even though they spend big. Feed is $250,000 a year. A 2010 tractor is $250,000, and an expansion is more.
“Everything we do is on a bigger scale,” Janet said, referring to the farming costs. “Big dollars come in and big dollars go out. The costs are more zeros than average.”
“If you need a higher income, you have to have more milk cows,” Russ said.
There is little left for exotic vacations or expensive boats. When their children were young, they’d go camping, Janet said. But now, they enjoy cross country skiing, when they can get away, or perhaps Russ can grab a ride on his bike if the weather is nice.
For help, the family employs seven dairy workers to handle 2 1/2-hour milking sessions twice a day, every day including holidays. The workers also clean barns and pens, spread 15 tons of feed just for the milking herd each day, and move cattle around.
“Employees are hard to find,” Janet said.
In front of her husband, one man begged on his knees for a job, Janet said. But his stay was soon shortened when he announced he only wanted to work with the front end of a cow, not the hindquarters, which produce the milk.
“The front end is where the money goes in,” Janet said with a laugh.
Other people fantasize about starting their own dairy operation or having a milk cow in their backyard. There is a problem, though, Janet said.
“No calf, no milk,” she said.
Daily cows must be “freshened” once a year by being bred with a bull and giving birth to a calf, she said. This allows their milk to come in.
At Risky Endeavor, cows produce calves year round.
This also means the farm has more calves than it needs. So the best stay on the farm to replenish the herd; the rest are sent to a weekly auction in Gaylord.
Janet and Russ recall some of the challenges they have faced over the years, especially during important dates – like when the milk pump quit while they were celebrating Thanksgiving Day in Alpena. Russ had to bolt back to the dairy parlor and figure out a way to fix it.
Their Christmas Day celebration was highlighted by the unexpected appearance of eight newborn calves.
“The cows know just when to time it,” Janet said.
And their daughter’s rehearsal dinner was interrupted just after appetizers were served. A bunch of cows broke out of a pen and ambled onto the highway.
“Everyone but the bride and groom ran out to chase them back,” she said.
“But it’s what we’ve always done,” Russ said. “It’s a guaranteed job. You own your own business.”
Betsy Lehndorff can be reached via email at email@example.com or by phone at 358-5693. Follow Betsy on Twitter @bl_alpenanews.