Dairy gives visitors a peek into life on the farm

Thursday, July 1, 2010
Dylan Poeckes, 4, of Le Mars, gets a close look at some of the dairy cows at Plymouth Dairy, south of Le Mars, during its open house Wednesday. The night of tours and free food was sponsored by the Western Iowa Dairy Alliance and Midwest Dairy Association.

In one of the large dairy barns, Shelly Poeckes, of Le Mars, explains to her 4-year-old son Dylan that cows like these are where milk comes from.

"Can I ride the cows?" he asks.

Dylan's grandfather farmed his whole life but retired before Dylan experienced life on a farm, Shelly said.

Newborn calves, less than 24 hours old, draw attention from youngsters visiting Plymouth Dairy during the Wednesday event celebrating Dairy Month. Visitors of all ages toured the milking facilities, barns and more.

She brought her son to the Plymouth Dairy open house Wednesday to give him a peek into farming.

That's exactly what organizers were hoping to give the more than 2,000 people that toured the 2,700-head dairy 4 miles south of Le Mars, according to owner Alan Feuerhelm.

"A lot of people don't have the opportunity to see farms anymore," he said. "This way people can see where milk comes from."

All of the milk from Plymouth Dairy -- about 4 1/2 tanker truck loads per day -- goes to Wells' Dairy in Le Mars for ice cream production.

That's about 10 gallons of milk per cow each day.

During the dairy's open house, visitors took tours, stopping to look into the milking parlor.

"We want them cool, comfortable and bored," Darin Dykstra, another Plymouth County dairy owner told the crowd. "If they have the same routine every day, they produce more milk."

Dykstra served as a tour guide along with dozens of volunteers, coordinated by the Western Iowa Dairy Alliance.

Plymouth Dairy's open house drew people from near and far, including Kaylie Coulter, a 10 year old from Moville.

Milk, she said, is her favorite dairy product.

During the tour, Coulter learned cows can produce more than 160 glasses of milk each day.

"I drink three," she grinned.

Other visitors, like a woman from Hull, owned their own dairies or other farms and wanted to see how Plymouth Dairy's operation ran.

Regan Feller, of Le Mars, who works with a Wells' Dairy team that makes ice cream bars, brought his kids to see where the whole process begins.

"I didn't know the cows drank a whole bathtub of water," said Kenzie Feller, 9, of Le Mars.

Regan explained to her that water is a major part of the cow making milk.

"I grew up on a farm," Regan said. "They really don't have that familiarity with farm life."

The variety and amount of people interested in visiting the dairy is one of Feuerhelm's favorite parts about owning Plymouth Dairy.

"You get to meet a lot of different people," he said.

In the spring, about 50 school groups tour the dairy. He's hosted an RV club visiting northwest Iowa in their campers and a Model T club is planning a visit. He's had visitors from England, China and Russia.

"We like people to come see how milk is produced and how we take care of our cows," Feuerhelm said.

He founded the dairy 10 years ago.

"My two sons were coming back from college and I wanted to try to figure out how to involve them in the farming operation," Feuerhelm remembered. "Wells' was looking for milk produced locally, and we decided to try it."

The farm continues to be a family operation, he said. It employs 30 people.

"All the employees working here are good," Feuerhelm said. "They're part of the family, really."

In its first 10 years, the dairy has already seen technological advancements.

Now each new calf is tagged with a small microchip in its ear.

Workers simply wave an electronic wand near each cow's ear and a computer brings up all the data on the animal -- when it last had a calf, where its milk production level is.

"A lot of that stuff used to have to be done by paper," Feuerhelm said.

Technology aside, the dairy is manned 24 hours each day, according to Kurt Wierda, who manages the herd.

"The cows are milked three times a day, and it's about 6 1/2 hours per shift, plus we wash the pipeline out between every shift, and that's another 45 minutes," he said.

When giving tours, Wierda occasionally fields questions like, "Does chocolate milk come from the darker colored cows?" but he is happy to explain the process.

"It's fun to see kids plugging their nose when they get off the bus for a tour and by the time they leave they're having a good time," he said.

Wierda said he was glad so many people turned out to tour the dairy Wednesday.

"That's what we wanted," he said. "People are so far away from the farm anymore."

He welcomes people wanting to tour the dairy.

"We're happy to show people what we do out here," Wierda said. "Our doors are always open."

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