ELLINGTON, Conn. – Building a 350,000 square-foot dairy barn and milking parlor that houses thousands of cows in a relatively visible part of town is naturally going to focus a lot of public attention on the operation.
And that is why Oakridge Dairy is so intent on opening its doors to its neighbors in a variety of ways to try to prevent negative perceptions from forming about the enormous facility that opened in June.
“We’re surrounded by people and they want to know what we’re doing here and where their food comes from,” company CEO Seth Bahler said as he showed a visitor around the farm on Jobs Hill Road late last week. “So we’re trying to be as transparent as possible and educate the public about modern farming.”
The farm did exactly that in late October, when they held a one-day open house that drew more than 2,000 curious visitors, who toured the farm on guided hay wagons and were treated to hot apple crisp and fresh cold milk.
“It was a tremendous success,” Bahler said, adding that the event served as a template for future plans that call for perhaps 100,000 annual visitors to the farm, which was founded by Adolph Bahler more than 120 years ago and is considered the largest dairy in Connecticut.
Finishing touches are now being put on a major part of those plans – a viewing room outfitted with an array of large windows that overlook an automatic milking carousel that is the heart of the operation.
Powered by five electric motors that rotate the milking platform on Teflon wheels running on a circular metal track, the carousel holds 72 cows at a time.
It runs virtually 24 hours a day, only shutting down three times daily for the system to be washed and sanitized.
Milked every eight hours, each cow is first given an application of anti-bacterial orange iodine foam to the teats, which is wiped off a few seconds later by another worker using a bright green microfiber towel.
“Every cow has her own towel,” which are laundered in machines installed near the carousel, facilities director Dave Moser said as he supervised the operation.
A third worker then attaches the vacuum milking unit. A digital flow meter mounted beneath each milking station displays exactly how much milk each cow is producing, and the milking unit automatically shuts down and drops off when she is done.
“We know how much each cow is giving every day and it all goes into a database,” Moser said, noting that the average cow gives about 80 pounds daily, and some up to 140 pounds.
Each rotation of the carousel takes about 10 minutes, and when done the cows step off the platform by themselves.
Their body-temperature milk is run through a cooler housed in the milk room just off the carousel, and immediately pumped into one of three tanker trucks that make daily trips to Guida’s milk plant in New Britain.
“It’s going in at 100 degrees and coming out at 37 degrees and within two minutes it’s out of the cow and onto the truck,” Moser said. “We don’t store any milk at the farm at all. That’s fresh.”
After each milking, cows return to the gigantic freestall barn, where they feed on hay and corn grown on nearly 3,000 acres the farm owns or leases. Bahler said the barn has developed its own social structure.
“There are cliques in there,” he said with a laugh. “A lot of cows like to hang out with the same cows every day.”
The walls of the barn are equipped with 180 large ventilation fans for climate control.
Manure is cleaned out of the 600-foot-long alleys by a large vacuum truck (pictured at right) that is constantly making the rounds. Liquid is separated and used as crop fertilizer, which is stored in a 5-acre lagoon on a hillside above the barn.
Solids are converted into bedding – now known in the business as “fiber” – which is changed every day. The overall goal of the operation is “cow comfort.”
“Happy cows make lots of milk,” Bahler said, using one of the farm’s main branding slogans that appears often on its website and Facebook page – two more tools being used in the farm’s public-relations efforts.
Getting the herd to its happy place, however, was a slow, months-long process after being moved from its former home in open-sided barns just down the road.
“Change is hard for cows,” Bahler said. “It took them quite a while to adjust.”
—Connecticut Dept. of Agriculture
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Now that the operation is running smoothly after about two years of planning and construction, the farm is readying for its next expansion to about 3,000 cows by December 2018.
“A lot has gone on here in the past two years and we thank the community for their understanding and patience,” Bahler said. “It’s been a huge undertaking.”