A glimpse into Arizona dairy at Kerr Family Farms

By: Connor Kaeb, ASU Sustainable Food Systems graduate student.

The 2022 cohort of Sustainable Food Systems graduate students from Arizona State University got the opportunity to get a first-hand glimpse of the Arizona dairy industry with a visit to Kerr Family Farms in Buckeye, Arizona. During the visit, students met with Wes Kerr, a fourth-generation dairy farmer.

Wes provided students with a tour of his 1,100-cow facility, which was originally built in 1990. The tour consisted of the fresh cow pen, where the dairy cows who have recently calved are housed, the milking parlor, the calf barn, and the feed area. The dairy raises Holstein crosses and Jersey crosses. Cattle at the dairy are kept for approximately five lactations. The lactation cycle for the cattle is 305 days, and they are dried off for a period prior to their next calving. The dairy uses a milking parlor that allows them to milk 40 cattle at a time, an upgrade that was made in 2014. Prior to that, they could only milk 24 cattle at a time. Wes credits this upgrade with an increase of six pounds per cow in milk production after that point. He explained how the decreased time the cattle had to wait to be milked decreased their stress and resulted in more milk. Seventy-five percent of Wes’s cattle are milked three times a day while the remaining 25 percent are milked twice a day.

Wes shared that his two main passions with dairy farming are genetics and nutrition. The farm uses all artificial insemination for the cows, allowing them to research and choose superior genetics to increase milk production and herd health. Additionally, the farm has a veterinarian who regularly visits the farm to assess the health of the herd. On the nutrition side, the rations are being continuously evaluated and revised based on factors such as season, feed availability, feed costs, and herd health. On top of that, the farm uses several different rations for different cows based on their stage of development. The nutrition program allows the dairy to use several byproducts from other processes. They feed byproducts such bakery waste, almond hulls, soy hull pellets, citrus pulp, glycerin, and whey permeate. The use of such byproducts prevents them from becoming waste in other industries.

Wes provided a glimpse into some of the incredible successes the dairy has had. The somatic cell count in the dairy’s milk (which is indicative of the stress of the cattle) is consistently under 175,000 cells per milliliter of milk, which puts them at the top of their dairy cooperative and earns them a bonus. The farm’s death loss is 1.3%, which is substantially below the 5% rate that is considered good in the industry.

He also shared some of the sustainability measures taken by their dairy and the industry. Industry-wide, the carbon footprint of dairy production has dropped by two-thirds. On the Kerr farm, they switched from corn silage to sorghum silage as a means of reducing water usage. They also employ a robust crop rotation program, rotating crops like alfalfa, rye, and sorghum.

Despite these successes, the dairy industry is not without its challenges. Wes shared how in 2018, the farm was doing everything correctly and exceeding all of its metrics, but the milk market was so poor that there was no path to profitability. He also explained that the economies of scale required to profit in the dairy industry will continue to encourage consolidation of dairy farms. Labor is another major challenge for dairies, as they are competing against other industries like construction for workers, and federal programs like H-2A cannot be used by dairy because the work they do is not seasonal. The rapid development in the area also threatens dairies like Kerr’s as the land becomes more desired for the construction of residential and commercial properties.

Despite the challenges, Wes’s love and passion for his animals and the dairy industry was apparent. His willingness to open up his facility to ASU students and the expertise shared by him and the Arizona Milk Producers during the tour provided all with a new appreciation for the dairy industry in Arizona.

This blog is part of a series from the December 2022 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.