By Amanda Loviza/Farm to Fork
Stepping out of the car at Robey Farms Dairy Barn in Adairville, Ky., our nostrils filled with the smell of hay, manure and crisp winter air. Birds were scattered across the snow-covered fields and the tops of the red barns.
Robey Farms was established in 1898, when there were more than 50 dairies in south-central Kentucky. Now fewer than five dairy farms remain in the area. As Robey Farms has grown over the years, it has bought about 86 other local farms. Today the Robeys farm 10,000 acres; they own about half of that land.
Dr. Jenks Britt, associate professor of animal science at Western Kentucky University, led our tour of the Robey farm. Britt helped the Robeys design the current facilities, which they moved to in 2003.
We walked into the milking center, home to the milking parlor, where the cows are milked three times a day. The air was heavy with steam and the overpowering scent of raw, unprocessed milk.
The Robey milking parlor is a parallel parlor, which means the cows are milked in two lines of stalls. Fifty cows can be milked at a time, and Robey Farms has 1,892 cows. Milking stops for only 45 minutes every eight hours. Each cow produces an average of 86 pounds (10 gallons) of milk per day.
During milking, there are three employees working in the parlor, disinfecting each cow’s udders and attaching the contraption that pumps the milk. One “cow-pusher” directs the cows into the parlor.
To the rhythmic sounds of “hey, hey” from the cow-pusher and the steady pumping of pipes in the walls, the cows nonchalantly file into the parlor and back themselves into their respective milking stalls. As they are being milked, the cows absentmindedly nod their heads, occasionally even resting their head on the cow next to them. The farm hands, most of them immigrants hired through the H2-A program, tend the cows and make sure nothing goes wrong. Each milking takes less than 10 minutes.
Robey Farms has five large, open-air barns to house its cows, plus three smaller barns for new calves. Britt said the farm keeps the cows very comfortable. They bed on sand, which Britt said is the most comfortable material for them. Robey cows spend about 13 hours lying down each day. The more cows lay down, and the more comfortable they are, the more milk they are able to produce, he said.
Robey Farms has remained profitable due to their diversification, Britt said. Not only does the farm raise cows, but it also raises crops. Most of the crops are used to feed the cows, but the excess is sold for profit. The Robeys also grow tobacco as a cash crop.
During the last six years, the milk industry has seen wild fluctuations in milk prices. In just a few months, a farm can go from huge profits to huge losses.
“A 1 to 2 percent surplus can crash the price of milk,” Britt said.
Britt said the government has a program to control milk prices but doesn’t enforce it. If farmers are producing too much milk, the prices fall, he said.