How can you tell what a dairy farmer looks or acts like if you've never met one?
A few weeks ago, I was out with a dairy farmer comrade of mine in San Diego and we struck up a conversation with a married couple from the city in their 20s. After a few minutes, the husband said, "You guys sure don't seem or act like dairy farmers." Then I asked him, "How many dairy farmers do you know?" His answer was "none."
It confirmed in me the disconnection between Urban America and where their food comes from.
As a young dairy farmer, I face a much different set of challenges than my parents did. I have to defend what I do, have a good grasp on continuously changing regulations and restrictions, and keep a satisfied team at the dairy.
On top of that, I need to be a good face to the new consumer who wants to know everything about where his or her food comes from. I'm up for the challenge, though.
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to be chosen to participate in the Young Dairy Leader Institute, which is put on by the Holstein Foundation. I had just finished college and was apprehensive about taking the three-day class, thinking I wasn't going to learn much within those few days.
I was wrong. The class really changed how I thought about the dairy industry — and also how I should present it to consumers.
Now, I welcome opportunities to discuss how I farm. At dairy shows, I open discussions with people by asking them if they want to pet our cows. In addition, we recently made a video to display at shows and farm tours explaining our dairy and how we take care of our cattle, our employees, and the environment. I always try to tell my story, use facts and science to back it up, stay positive about everything and, lastly, show that I am proud of what I do.
Along with being a spokesman for dairy farms, genetics have also become an important part of my work. When I started in 2006, we put radio frequency ID tags on all of our animals. Since then, our dairy has progressed tremendously in the use of this technology. Within six months of the RFIDs, we were running nearly everything at our dairy through hand-held computers compatible with DC 305.
The part that is most fascinating for me, however, is the use of genomic testing in our herd.
In November 2011, we started to raise our own calves. By 2012, we were genomically testing every calf born at our dairy, totaling nearly 1,500 calves. Our original plan was to cull off the lower genetically valued animals. Shortly after we started testing calves, we decided to start a dairy in Texas, scrapping the original plan. However, we continued with the testing to find genetic outliers. From the results, we would sell high animals as breeding stock through registered sales, market unique bulls, and do in vitro fertilization work on special individuals. Genomic testing has helped out tremendously. With 100 percent certainty on parentage verification, I can improve breeding choices. Culling decisions are made with higher confidence because of more accurate pedigrees.
I hope that in the next five years, bovine leucosis disease, polled genetics and other positive/negative traits can all be wrapped into a more affordable genomic test than what we currently pay.
My plan for the near future will be to continue being a positive face and spokesman for the industry. And stay on the leading edge of genetics.
Brett Barlass, originally from Janesville, Wis., now manages a dairy farm in Hilmar, Calif. In fact, he manages 2,200 registered milking Jerseys and 17 full-time employees. He also manages calves for two other dairy farms.