Area dairy farmers turn techie for feeding assistance

Kent and Angie Maershbecker who own and operate A to Z Dairy have been through many changes throughout their 20 years in the dairy business. They started their dairy operation in 1995, and bought their farm on the edge of New England from Angie’s parents in 1999.

One calf is drinking milk in the feeder while another calf is awaiting its turn. [PHOTO BY RACHEL BOCK | The Herald]
One calf is drinking milk in the feeder while another calf is awaiting its turn. [PHOTO BY RACHEL BOCK | The Herald]
By RACHEL BOCK | For The Herald

Kent and Angie Maershbecker who own and operate A to Z Dairy have been through many changes throughout their 20 years in the dairy business. They started their dairy operation in 1995, and bought their farm on the edge of New England from Angie’s parents in 1999. Angie helped milk for her parents while she was growing up.

“I used to (milk) when I was growing up, but I never thought I would come back to it,” Angie said.

Having a dairy operation is not for everyone, as numbers of dairy farms have decreased dramatically over the years. The job requires a lot of sacrifice as you have to be available at all times being that the cows need to be milked twice a day, seven days a week.

For the husband and wife duo, who also farm, both have their roles which is what makes their operation successful.

Angie, who works in Dickinson three days a week, is in charge of the majority of the milking, while Kent is busy with feeding and the other farm work. Kent also milks during the mornings when Angie works in Dickinson.

Together they have raised three grown sons who have also helped on the family dairy farm, before going off to college and pursuing different careers.

Since Angie spends much of her time with the cows, she can tell them apart just from looking at their udders.

“I know them (the cows) better from down here then I do from the top because this is where I see them all the time,” Angie said.

Since she has milked so much throughout her life, she probably could hook the cows up the the milkers blindfolded, and often catches herself not looking.

“It just comes natural,” Angie said.

Being with the cows twice a day seven days a week, Kent and Angie both have had their favorite cows over the years. One of their favorites would make her yearly debut in the Wheat Harvest Parade as Kent would lead her down Main Street in New England during the parade.

“They (the cows) are very well taken care of, they are pretty spoiled,” Angie said.

The Maershbecker’s milk a total of 68 cows, twice a day with one shift at 7 a.m. and the other at 6 p.m. Milking takes about two hours each shift. The milk that is produced and picked up every two days and sold to Associated Milk Producers INC. (AMPI) located in New Ulm,Minn. The milk that A to Z Dairy produces is primarily made into cheese products.

Kent and Angie have also made many changes over the years to their operation. In 2000 they remodeled their barn to have a milking parlor big enough to hold 12 cows at one time. However, they were only using six milking machines and would alternate from side to side.  In 2011 they added six more milkers so all 12 of the cows can be milked at the same time.

Each machine is on an automatic take-off system. This system senses when the cow is done milking, and the machine automatically removes itself off of the cow.

For a cow to produce milk the cow is bred and gives birth to baby calf. For the Maershbeckers, they keep the heifer calves, and sell the bulls calves to individual buyers.  The heifers will eventually make their way back into the barn when they are old enough to be milked.

“We maintain our own herd,” Angie said.

The baby calves that are born need to be fed milk every day by either a bottle or a bucket.

Over the years this chore would become very time consuming as there can be as many as 17 or more calves to feed at one time. To make this job a little bit easier, the Maershbeckers added an automatic calf feeder in March of this year. The calf feeder is shaped like a three sided box that has a nipple attached to the inside.Attached to the nipple is a hose that is connected to a machine that mixes dry milk replacer with warm water to make a bottle. For the machine to work, each calf has a computer chip placed into its ear just above the ear tag. The computer chip holds each calf’s feeding requirements. Depending on the age of the calf, the most a calf is fed is 16 pints of milk. Each pint of milk is called a credit.  When a calf wants to be fed, she steps into the box and her computer chip is then scanned. If the calf has available credits the machine will mix only the available credits at a time for the calf to drink. If the calf is out of credits for the day, she has already been fed her daily requirements of milk and the machine will not mix up any more milk for that particular calf.  Every 24 hours, the machine resets and the calves get their new daily credits.

In addition to the milk, the calves also are fed hay and feed. To make sure all the calves are receiving and drinking all their milk, Kent and Angie go through the computer twice a day. The calves are fed milk for two months before they go through a 12 day weaning process. Once the calves are weaned, they “graduate” into a new pen and are fed more hay and feed.

Training the calves to drink from the machine takes about two days, which is enough time for the calves to realize that is how they get fed. The feeder has increased the size of the calves, because the calves were only fed two bottles a day prior to the automatic feeder; and now they are fed four bottles a day.

The feeder has also given the calves’ consistency as they have steady feedings, with steady bottle temperatures, and accurate milk replacer to water measurements. All of this helps maintain the growth and the healthiness of the calves.

The automatic feeder came from Minnesota, and has been a great addition to Kent and Angie’s dairy operation.

Over the years Kent and Angie have invited area children and 4-H groups to watch and tour their dairy operation, so children can learn about the dairy industry and see where their milk products come from. If anyone is interested in joining Angie in the barn sometime, feel free to give her a call.

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