John and Sharon, Pearl, Krysta, Craig and Dawn Vander Waal
Maurice, Iowa
Sioux County
300 cows

How did you get into farming? My dad, Aart, started building a new dairy facility near Hull, Iowa, in 1998. He got cancer and passed away later that year, so my brothers and I took over the operation. In 2017, my wife, Sharon, and I went out on our own and built a robotic dairy facility on a bare patch of land. It was great to have the opportunity to design our dairy from scratch instead of trying to retrofit things. We milk with four Lely robots and bed our cows with manure solids. We have two robots for the older and larger cows and two for the heifers and smaller animals. Our dairy barn is comfy and the cow flow is superb.

What are your thoughts and concerns about the dairy industry for the next year? One concern is having enough moisture for the crops. We are also worried about milk price volatility. And, it looks like feed prices are going to be higher.

What is the latest technology you have implemented on your farm and the purpose for it? My robotic manure scrapers and feed pushers can now be controlled with my smartphone via a Bluetooth link. If they get stuck, I can tell them how to get unstuck from the tractor cab.

What is a management practice you have changed in the past year that has benefited you? We have too many replacement animals, so we are starting to breed more of our cows to black bulls to keep things under control. When we select sires, we look at milk and fat production. Teat length and placement and milking speed are also important. We will not breed back any cow that milks out slower than the rate of 5 pounds per minute, even if she’s a high producer.

What cost-saving steps have you implemented during the low milk price? We continue to save on labor costs with our robots. We are working on reducing the costs of raising our replacement animals. We are also trying to keep our good cows around longer.

How do you retain a good working relationship with your employees? I make sure the robots are operating properly before I go to bed so they won’t call me in the middle of the night.

Tell us about a skill you posses that makes dairy farming easier for you. The biggest one is my ability to keep things running without calling for help. I can usually troubleshoot and fix things myself. Since we started up this robotic dairy, we’ve only had the service tech come out two or three times.

What do you enjoy most about dairy farming? I enjoy seeing the continuing betterment of the herd. It’s also nice to see how everything is starting to flow better.

What advice would you give other dairy farmers? Dairy farming has to be your calling. I have gotten a tremendous amount of support from Sharon who has a dairy farming background. It’s very important to have the support of your family.

What has been the best purchase you have ever made on your farm? Our milking robots. There isn’t a better way to milk cows.

What has been your biggest accomplishment while dairy farming? Getting our cows to produce more milk. Last summer, our herd hit an average production of 100 pounds of milk per head per day.

What are your plans for your dairy in the next year and the next five years? During the next year, we are going to strive for more consistency. We have been buying some of our hay and would like to end the year with more and better hay on hand. In the long term, we would like to add more space for our dry cows and maybe add another robotic milker.

How do you or your family like to spend time when you are not doing chores? During the wintertime, I like to go ice fishing with my family. In the summertime, we like to drive down to the marina at Yankton and go boating.