Sustainability: Better Practiced Than Defined

( The Holtermans )

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Rosy-Lane Holsteins earned recognition this summer as a winner of the 2020 U.S. Dairy Sustainability Awards by the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.

How does a farming couple achieve long-term success and international acclaim when saddled from the starting gate with $10,000 of debt and no assets? The story of Rosy-Lane Holsteins follows a 40-year road paved with perseverance and a painstaking determination to always do what is right. 

A daily grind is no friend of glory for an operation milking cows 24 hours per day and 365 days per year since 1998. Complicated and overflowing with nuance, a dairy is a biological system requiring precision management to the finest detail, particularly during an era of empty barns. Almost from its inception in the early 1980s, Rosy-Lane’s team has farmed with an eye on tomorrow, bypassing the shiny lure of short-term achievement.

“Every day, we try to get more profitable and that literally means taking better care of our cows,” says producer Lloyd Holterman, “along with our land, water and people. You can find all sorts of articles in the news about businesses that didn’t do things right when nobody was looking, or treated their people poorly and maybe even went broke. It all catches up, and in dairy and agriculture, we are no different.”

Build On It

Slipped into the gently rolling hills of southern Wisconsin, Rosy-Lane Holsteins operates on 1,900 acres outside Watertown. The four-decade project of daily improvements bears the stamp of a remarkable couple: Lloyd and Daphne Holterman. Two younger partners — Tim Strobel and Jordan Matthews — have shares in the business and handle boots-on-the-ground production.

Rosy-Lane’s cows average 4.6 lactations and 95 lb. of milk each day. The cows are fed rations that are 53% concentrate. With a 170,000 somatic cell count and every cow going in the tank, the dairy’s 1,100 cows produce 1.67 lb. of milk for every 1 lb. of dry matter.

Tortoise Over Rabbit

The operation’s genetics have garnered international recognition, and Lloyd’s emphasis on Productive Life (PL) translates to robust health and a swing away from traditional breed classification standards. Early on, he noted the highest-scored cows didn’t necessarily have greater lifespans or produce more milk, and he found the most profitable cows were average in size, had balanced frames and were more fertile.

Lloyd bred accordingly: “Genetics plays a large role in animal welfare, and it’s going to get even larger. If you want longevity, you breed for productive life instead of type. If you want high type and want to show cows, you can make money, but that wasn’t for me. I went with the science and that says you can breed for longevity or high type — but they’re not the same.”

By the early 1990s, Rosy-Lane’s breeding program was met with criticism — a reality Lloyd says is part and parcel of success. “We started in 1980 with $10,000 in college debt and no assets. Making a profit was not optional,” he says. “Still today, when we see something that makes us profit is more sustainable and makes our lives easier, we are absolutely going to do it.”

Always keenly aware of the condition of Rosy-Lane’s financial footing, Lloyd preferred the tortoise over the rabbit.

“We’re not like Wall Street, focused on quarterly profits; we focus on profits over the long haul and want the best results over time. Daphne and I always believed the most sustainable farms are the most profitable, and that’s not always comforting in the short term. Like the generations before us, we’ve protected topsoil for 40 years, conserved water, had lower cull rates, less replacement costs, less vet costs and less reproductive costs. Do that over 40 years, and you’ll get ahead. That’s what people don’t understand: Take good care of cows, topsoil and water, and good things happen.”

Slam Dunk Savings

Instead of milking more cows to make money, Rosy-Lane aims to widen margins at every opportunity. Simply, genetically superior cows drive feed efficiency up and vet costs down, and following the ball, if cows are healthy, then feed is the No. 1 expense. Every ton of Rosy-Lane corn silage is processed into shredlage, which yields $13 more per ton in higher milk production.

“Every single ton of corn silage, and we make 15,000 tons, is worth $13 a ton more in digestibility,” Lloyd explains.

Additionally, and unusually for a dairy of moderate size, Rosy-Lane invested in a state-of-the-art grain bin system (entirely automated with estimated six-year payback) to alleviate the inefficiency of feed costs. Rosy-Lane can buy wet corn, dry and store it, and take advantage of automated grinding — essentially saving $1 per bushel on purchased corn. For an operation feeding 115,000 bu. per year, the $1 per bushel savings make payback an enticing proposition.

Another savings example is the recent purchase of a Triolet, a self-propelled feed mixer common in Europe. The Triolet saves substantial capital and labor, replaces the work of a tractor, mixer, skid loader and pay loader and conserves four to five hours of labor per day.

“It’s an expensive item up front, but we were fortunate because we were at the point where our feed mixer and its surrounding equipment were tired,” Lloyd says. “Rather than buying four new pieces of equipment, we bought the Triolet, saved $40,000 and reduced labor. A slam dunk.”

A Special Place

The adage, “A body is only as strong as its weakest muscle,” doesn’t gain traction at Rosy-Lane. Lloyd conducts genetics and finance; Daphne oversees community relations and social media; Strobel manages crops, safety and building maintenance; and Matthews handles the cows and dairy.

“Our people are crucial to all success,” Lloyd contends. “Jordan does an amazing job of developing a cohesive staff, and that’s a culture he’s been successful in building. Tim has an incredible attitude. He doesn’t want drivers — he wants operators. We want people engaged, trying to make things better, and that’s what we have created.”

Strobel has walked the rows at Rosy-Lane since he was 14 years old and takes care of all fieldwork.

“We’ve all got the same goal here. I’ve got great faith in this team, and sometimes I take it for granted, but I don’t have to double-check or ask questions. Instead I’m able to focus on what I do and do my best,” Strobel says.

Likewise, Matthews has been in Rosy-Lane’s barn since he was 14. For a young man raised with no pets, the calves were his first introduction to animals, and he thrived. Twenty years later, Matthews is grateful for the opportunity.

“Anyone can build a barn,” he says. “Anyone can get access to genetic companies. Anyone can theoretically be on the same playing field. But what can make a big difference is how we treat our people every day. They show up because they know they are going to get treated not just fair, but great.”

The Internal Compass

Daphne is aptly described as the internal compass of Rosy-Lane. She is consistently on the move beyond the front gate. When she speaks of “doing the right thing,” her actions echo far louder than words.

“Our farm is always open to anyone with an open mind. A dairy can’t function any longer without an unofficial social license,” Daphne says. “We go to assisted living centers and chamber of commerce events, and we welcome farm tours by the public. We want to be the face of farming to our community and state.”

Doesn't Happen Overnight

A focus on animal care, a concentration on profit over the long haul and a belief sustainability is a concept better practiced than defined.

“Sustainability? Everyone has their own explanation,” Matthews says. “The common thread is how we take care of the environment. In our business, what do we do to make sure we are here tomorrow? We know we need to get more performance out of our cows using the same resources — or even less. We’re not going to be in business if we don’t pay attention to sustainability, and part of that means always making sure our cows have a comfortable environment and great health. My goal is to make sure tomorrow is a better day for the farm than it was yesterday.”

Lloyd sums up Rosy-Lane by describing his hopes for the future. “We want to be the farm that people, including environmentalists, point to and say: ‘They’re the ones I would want to own and run any farm because they do what is right.’ That’s a culture you have to build and it never happens overnight.

“Look at all the row crop and livestock operations across the country and show me the successful ones,” he concludes. “You don’t find farmers depleting the land, jeopardizing water quality or not taking good care of their animals. No, you find people doing the best job they can every day. In the end, maybe that’s the simplest definition of true sustainability.”