Generations of the California Dairy Industry – Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Joey Airoso is a fourth-generation California dairyman, his son, Joseph is the fifth, and his grandchildren could be the sixth.

His great grandfather, Charles, emigrated from the Azores to the San Joaquin Valley in 1912.

Charles had been a dairyman in the islands of Portugal, but moved his family to the US, to live the American dream. Joey grew up on the family’s Tulare dairy, which currently maintains a herd of about 600-700 milk cows, while an additional 2,000 milkers, and some of the older stock, are housed at the family’s Pixley location, built in 2006.

While modern technology has changed the way dairies operate in recent years, the principles remain the same – to take the best care of the animals as possible, while getting the optimum production possible.

The Airosa Operation

The Airosa Dairy cows calve every 12-14 months. Cows have a 279-day gestation period, and receive a 60-day respite from regular milking prior to calving, Airoso said.

This produces some 2,600-2,700 calves per year. Female calves are held back – many of which will remain at the dairy, others of which will be sold to other dairymen around the country. Twenty percent of the male calves will also be held back for potential breeding stock – the remainder are sold as newborns into the beef trade.

Production at the Tulare facility remains much the same as it was when Airoso grew up there, he said. The Pixley location has a bit more modernization to it.

The “new farm” as Airoso calls Pixley, “provides a lot more comfort in the wintertime – it’s easier to work in, for people and cows,” he said.

The rotary parlor, which was perfected in the late ‘90s or early 2000, he said, moves cows around in a circle while being milked. It is easy for new cows to get on, those finished to get off, and technicians to handle production.

The Airoso rotary parlor milks up to 72 cows at once – it takes five minutes to milk a cow and each cow spends about nine minutes on the apparatus. Airoso Dairy Holsteins are kept in groups of approximately 300. They are milked three times per day and the milked is picked up three of four times per day and taken to the Land ‘O Lakes creamery, where most of it is churned into butter. Some milk is sold off for production of Mozzarella or Parmesan cheese.

The rotary parlor uses “the same concept as far as milking, but different technology,” Airoso said. “It is more labor intensive the old way.”

The industry continues “trying to make it easier for the cows and the people,” he added.

Other changes in the new dairy from the old, are the freestall barns, where each animal can spend time on her own bed. The barns provide insulation from the weather, winter and summer, Airoso said.

State Regulations

But, while comfort of the cows has become better along with ease for the human technician, regulations have become harder and harder to deal with, especially in California, he said.

The largest regulation, SB1383, requires the state to cut methane emissions from dairy cows and other animals by 40%, by 2030.

A September 17, 2016 Sacramento Bee article stated, “Today, many more California dairies are trying to figure out how they, too, can cobble together enough money to buy their own digesters. They anticipate regulations that would compel them to slash methane emissions by at least 40% by 2030, the target set by a bill awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature.”

The bill was signed by the Governor three days later.

The Sacramento Bee article went on to state, “Hitting that target would require about 200 of California’s 1,400 dairies to join the Van Warmerdams [a Galt dairy family referred to in the article] in building a digester, said Michael Boccadoro, president for the advocacy group Dairy Cares.

“Dairy advocates say it’s a tall order.

“Each machine usually costs several million dollars. The companies that build them are trying to meet the demand for their services. Full-time dairymen also have to find utilities to buy the power they can generate on their farms. Otherwise, they won’t recover the cost of the equipment.”

“California, by far, is the most regulated state,” Airoso said.

He predicts the cost of a methane digester for the Pixley farm would cost $3-$5 million. For a smaller farm, like the Tulare farm, it would probably cost around $3 million, he said.

“You can’t justify that,” he said of the smaller farm.

Smaller dairies will have to close, he added. And dairies in the state have already declined from 2,500-2,600 in the late ‘90s, to about half that now, he said.

Airoso did note that small, organic farms should be OK – they have pasture room that South Valley dairies don’t have available, so methane levels are much lower.

Along with the methane-reduction bill, comes the raising of the minimum wage and the Ag worker overtime pay requirements.

“The people in Sacramento have no idea what the working environment here is,” Airoso said.

The minimum wage raise, in-and-of-itself, is not that big of a deal, he said. Dairyman pay their good workers well.

“But, when dealing with animals, it’s difficult to keep regular hours,” he said. “It’s legal to smoke weed, but it’s illegal to work seven days a week – does that make sense?”

Dairyman have long taken good care of their workers.

“You’ve got to treat your people good in order to keep them,” he said.

But, this has a big impact in the industry, he added. And it could backfire. Dairyman may look to how to get some things done without using people – so, overtime pay or additional hiring may not take place.

The Drought

And yet another huge concern has been the drought.

“Water [or the lack of it], has been the single largest thing I have had to deal with, other than family things such as illness,” Airoso said.

“In Sacramento, they worry about methane, but they don’t look at infrastructure,” he said, in an interview prior to Governor Brown’s unveiling on February 24 of a $437-million plan for shoring up some of California’s most pressing water and flood-control needs, saying “the storms of January and February have made clear the state has substantial needs that have gone unmet for years.”

Hopefully, the plan will help address future water needs.

Another Perspective

Unlike Airoso, Jason Mello, a third-generation Kings County dairyman, has not felt the drought as drastically.

“We haven’t run out of water,” he said.

But, he has felt the pain of California regulations on the dairy industry.

“I’m not against all regulations,” he said, “but I think, for the most part, we are stewards of the land and our animals.

We work here, live here and raise our families here. We don’t want to ruin the environment!

“We provide care for our cows, 24 hours a day. What else takes care 24 hours a day, except for an infant? These aren’t factory farms, they are family farms.”

As for the “methane problem,” Mello doesn’t understand why some consider it more of a problem than auto emissions.

“So far, nobody has been able to been able to convince me that my cows’ farting is ruining the environment and not the car’s running,” he said. “I’ll spend the night in a garage with three cows farting, and someone else can spend the night in a garage with one car running – who do you think will come out in the morning?”

Mello manages two dairies, for one, JD Mello Dairy, he is in partnership with his dad, the other is his own.

Like Airoso, Mello feels he pays his staff well, and isn’t too concerned about the newly implemented minimum wage.

Finding good workers is difficult, he said, and he wants to keep his, so he treats them well.

Mello’s Dairies

Mello doesn’t feel running the dairy has changed much from when he grew up.

“We were pretty modern 30 years ago,” he said.

Mello maintains two herds of 900 Jersey cows, which are milked twice per day. Cows live in freestall barns, which were built in the 80s. Cow care has always been Number 1 for the Mellos.

“We take good care of them, and they take good care of us,” he said.

In 2012, Mello sold off his Holstein herd to replace it with Jerseys.

“I feel they [Jerseys] are a more efficient animal,” he said.

They produce a little less milk, but they also eat less, he said, and more of their food is turned into milk. They also reproduce well, he added, they conceive easier.

Like at the Airoso Dairy, Mello’s cows are generally bred once per year, and the Mellos tend to keep the majority of the female calves back to replace those that are aging in the milk line. All cows are artificially inseminated.

The basic changes to the industry are those of labor and regulations, Mello said.

“What’s different is that you have to be every efficient, if you want to survive,” he said.

“Other states have regulations – they’re not as bad. They just haven’t gotten there yet – they will.

“I hope for the best. I look at things a little different – through faith, we’re going to be fine.”

Cows come a “close” second to family.

“Sometimes my wife thinks it may be the other way around,” he joked. “It’s a great environment to raise your kids in – it teaches them a lot of stuff you’re not going to get in school,” he said, more seriously.

Keep Your Eyes on the Cows

Mello has a bit of advice to offer those junior exhibitors of today.

“The best advice I can give them is don’t ever forget that in order to be successful, you must get out and work with your cows,” he said. “You can’t just sit behind a computer. Your success and your future, you can’t blame on your cows or your employees, you are responsible for your operation.

“Agriculture, in general, is the heartbeat of our country – I don’t think a lot of people are aware of that.”

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