Insight on the dairy industry from Kerr Family Farms

By: Deborah Sadler, ASU Food Systems graduate student.

In December of 2021, the new cohort of ASU graduate students in the Sustainable Food Systems  program spent a morning visiting and touring Kerr Family Farms in the West Valley area of  Maricopa County, Arizona. Farmer Wes Kerr explained the history of the family farm, daily logistics on the farm, and his passion for dairy farming. 

Wes Kerr’s great-grandfather first started dairy farming in 1927, and moved his operation to  Arizona in 1940. Their current facility was built in 1990 and remodeled in 2014 to accommodate  milking 40 cows at a time. Kerr Family Farms milks around 1,150 cows a day, for around 75,000  pounds per day of milk. While Kerr Family Farms is a big dairy on the national scale, the farm is  considered small by Arizona standards, which has a small number of dairies, most very large. However, Wes thinks that the focus should not be on the size of the farms, but rather on their  management practices. He says that “farms can be well-managed or poorly-managed at all  sizes.”  

Cows on the Kerr Family Farm are kept in outdoor pens, with shade and fans in the Arizona heat.  They loop through the farm annually in groups, depending on when they are bred and where they  are in their lactation cycle. His cows are milked around 305 days a year, with a peak production  of around 100 pounds per day about 100 days after calving. 

To ensure healthy cows, Kerr works closely with a veterinarian who comes out every two weeks,  and a nutritionist who comes to the farm at least once a month. The nutritionist helps measure feed and adjust feed ratios as needed to keep the cows healthy. Much of the cows’ feed is grown on the farm, including alfalfa and grass. They also include other available non-human food sources, including the spent hulls of almonds. While almond hulls are food waste from a human perspective, it is part of the balanced diet of the cows, who keep the waste out of landfills and convert it into energy and milk.  

Kerr Family Farms sells all of their milk to the United Dairymen of Arizona (UDA) co-operative,  which operates a large balancing plant. UDA pasteurizes, homogenizes, and stores milk from  Arizona dairy farms, and then sells to a range of buyers. Milk is kept in large cold-storage tanks  on the farm at 37 degrees Fahrenheit and picked up daily by UDA. UDA was founded in 1960 and includes around 95% of Arizona dairies. Wes Kerr explained, “I love being a part of a co-op because I don’t have to worry about where the milk goes. They organize transportation. I just have to keep the milk cold.” UDA sells milk and dairy products all over the world, including increased exports to the growing market for milk in Asia. 

We were particularly interested in how the pandemic has affected the farm and Kerr’s predictions for the future of dairy farming. The pandemic has mostly been felt indirectly at Kerr Family Farms through recent inflation and supply chain issues. The cost of animal feed, specifically corn and soybeans, has increased. Fertilizer costs for hay and alfalfa feeds have also increased. These increased costs have led to an increased cost of milk. Kerr has seen cow numbers in the United States drop during the pandemic, as farmers have had to face these increased input costs. 

Looking to the future of dairy farming, Kerr thinks that we will continue to see the number of  farms shrink and the average farm size grow. He also explained that there are way fewer cows  today than historically. In 1940, there were around 26 million dairy cows in the United States, and  today there are only around 9 million cows. From 1940 to 2021, dairy farms have had a 66% drop  in carbon footprint due to improved genetics and feed, as fewer cows are able to produce more  milk. Kerr also predicts increased automation in the dairy industry, as it is increasingly difficult  to find agricultural labor. He says dairy farming is less labor-intensive than vegetable farming for  the amount of food produced, but that labor shortage remains a national driving force of dairy  automation.  

Thank you, Wes Kerr, for your openness in sharing your farm with the ASU Sustainable Food  Systems students, as we aim to better understand our agricultural system and the role  government policy plays in shaping our food system! 

This blog is part of a series from the December 2021 Arizona immersive component of the MS in Sustainable Food Systems Program. Students toured the state, meeting with farmers, ranchers, entrepreneurs, government staff, and non-profit leaders.