Ria Vos is the Dairy Maiden of Chase County.
She loves her cows; she knows every one of them by name. They know their name, and if she teases one by the wrong moniker, that cow scowls back.
Might sound farfetched, but fact it is.
In “cowboy country,” the Flint Hills of Kansas, dairies are few, and numbers decline annually, seemingly. Actually, Vos Dairy at Cedar Point is the only remaining dairy in Chase County.
Yet, Ria Vos has the greatest respect among cowboys, and all who’ve crossed paths with her, been to “her” dairy, or are even vaguely aware of her dedication to, and knowledge of “milking cows,” and most congeniality, and generosity to all.
While talking about cows builds apparent excitement for Ria Vos, she said: “I hire some kids to help with the work here, and am always anxious to give tours and explain the operation to youngsters, and anybody who is interested. These cows can teach people, especially youth, more about living, responsibilities, and appreciation than I can, or even more than a formal education.”
Then, tongue-in-cheek softly, Ria added, “Sometimes these kids who I hire to help, do play around more with the cows than get the work done. That’s okay; they’re still learning, and becoming better people. Even if they are never involved in the dairy business again, they’ll know where milk comes from, how it’s a high quality nutritious food, so important to diets today. Many people don’t understand that.”
While dairies are few statewide, despite milk cow count remaining stable, or even up due to corporation dairy companies, Ria Vos is most rousing in her objectives for her industry, milking cows, selling milk, producing cows, merchandizing seed stock and more.
“I’ve come a long ways, but I’m always setting higher objectives. Somebody said, ‘She puts too much hay on her fork.’ That might be true, but when I accomplish something here that somebody’s said could never be done, I set my goal even higher, and will accomplish it, and more, too,” the Milk Maiden left no question to anyone.
Dairy is in her blood, and from the heart most obviously. She visited while finishing Saturday morning milking. “I don’t have any help now. There’s too much for one person to do, sometimes. It’s better to talk, while I milk. The cows really don’t care,” Ria said.
Growing up in South Africa, Ria said, “My dad managed a 250-cow dairy, so I’ve always been involved in the dairy industry, and have always loved the business.”
When safety concerns forced her family to the Netherlands, the dairy was dispersed. Thus, Ria couldn’t foresee career opportunities in the dairy industry, so she decided to pursue different career alternatives.
“I enrolled in horticulture at college, and received my degree, but that just didn’t fit me. I loved milking cows, so I transferred into the dairy science curriculum to get another degree,” she reflected.
When Ria graduated from college, dairy profession opportunities were limited in South Africa and the Netherlands for what Ria really wanted to do, so she responded to a job offering in the United States.
“Chuck Magathan needed a herd manager for his Silver Creek Dairy. I came here in 2001, was going to check it out for two weeks, but Chuck hired me, and I stayed. I’ve been here ever since,” she said.
“When Chuck decided to sell out in 2008, I bought part of his herd, and added those cows to my herd I’d been developing along. I lease the facilities here from Chuck, and help him with his farming operation,” Ria, 37, explained.
“I’ve even been able to buy some land, where I can grow my own forage, and also have some pasture for my heifers and dry cows,” she said.
“With an FSA (Farm Service Agency) loan, I was able to make improvements to the facilities. I came to America with nothing, and now I own a dairy herd and a farm,” she pleasingly added.
Herd improvement has been foremost in objective from the beginning. “This was a commercial herd when I started, but I knew it didn’t cost anymore to milk good cows than average cows. I started acquiring top registered Holsteins, used the bottom cows as recipients to carry embryos from my top cows. This way I’m getting higher producing, higher quality registered cows quicker,” Ria advised.
The grade-A dairy features registered black and white Holsteins, with 70 cows in production at the present time. “Oh, I do have one Brown Swiss cow; she originated from some of Chuck’s relatives, and fits right into the herd,” Ria noted.
The double-four Herringbone milk parlor is more than 50-years-old, but works fine for the dairy maiden. “I’m always concerned about cleanliness, sanitation, and milk quality, so I have healthy cows with low somatic cell counts,” she said.
Unlike many agriculture operations with modern conveniences, the dairy business is unchanging in required dedication of management. Cows must be milked twice a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Ria is always there.
“During certain seasons, when planting, baling hay, harvesting, helping Chuck with his farming, I may not milk at the exact same time every day, but I don’t miss. I take care of my cows,” she assured.
Exchange students have come to the farm to assist, and the dairy periodically also hires college students, along with the 4-H children who provide some assistance.
“The children are good to help break the heifers to lead, get them gentled down, and then have the opportunity to show my dairy heifers in 4-H events and the county fair. The kids like it, learn, and this does help me with another one of the chores here,” Ria credited.
Because dairies are far and few between, milk pick-up can be a problem for some operations. “I’ve had to buy a bigger bulk tank. But, I’m fortunate the Dairy Farmers of America truck from Hillsboro comes by every other day, to pick up my milk that goes to Wichita or Kansas City,” Ria said.
Few dairies don’t mean high profitability, according to Ria. “Milk was up to $25 a hundred, and is now $16,” she informed.
While lower family milk consumption in this country attributes to the decreased demand, Ria said the decline is more directly affected by overseas increased milk production and supplies. “Europe strongly influences this country’s dairy exports, but it’s more of a political issue. New Zealand seems to control the milk price worldwide,” she insisted.
Thus, the milkmaid has become more conscientious of her Holstein type to sell not only milk, but also seed stock. “High milk production per cow is essential, so I breed my cows to have solid records, but they must have good udders, fit into our environment, with sound feet and legs, that will last in the herd for six or seven lactations,” Ria described.
“I want to sell my herd genetics as well as milk,” she clarified.
Every cow on the dairy has been produced through artificial insemination, which Ria does personally. “There are many factors affecting conception rates, like the heat, cold, stage of lactation, and the like, but I don’t have many problems,” she said.
A veterinarian handles embryo flushing and transfers, as well as determining pregnancies, and assisting when other individual cow health issues might arise.
“Herd health is key to every part of this herd,” Ria reiterated.
Mating cows to leading sires of the industry, Ria expressed concerns about too much use of specific same lineage, possibly creating problems that could arise with inbreeding and line breeding. “I diligently study the bulls to find those with production and phenotype to work best on my cows, and I do use a lot of outcross bulls,” she informed.
Embryos from the top cows in the Vos herd are impregnated in lower quality, lower producing recipient cows. “This has helped increase the quality of my cowherd, too,” she admitted.
Daughters should be better than their dams, so Ria typically has retained all of the heifers she’s raised for herd improvement.
“Most of the heifers are genomic tested, and based on their DNA; I determine what to do with them. The ‘good’ heifers are bred artificially, while the ‘super elite’ heifers are flushed, and the ‘rest’ of the cows carry the embryos,” Ria explained.
“I still have a fairly old herd. If a cow breeds back, continues to have a good milk record, there’s no need to replace her,” the milkmaid said.
Efforts are continuous to produce bull calves meeting dairy stud criteria. “That sure helps on the dairy’s profit, compared to the steers I sell weighing about 500 pounds,” she admitted.
“Bull studs are always ready to buy that next great one, and Vos Dairy is just the place to breed them,” Ria said
Recent sale of embryos to a dairy in Wisconsin made Ria pleased. “I would like to sell more bulls and embryos, and even some replacement quality females, when heifers don’t meet my standards of the cows that are in production here,” she commented.
Feed quality is essential to cow milk production. “I have 80 acres of my own and generally grow a winter cover crop, barley, rye or triticale, put that up as silage, and then grow corn silage during the summer,” said Ria, noting that dry winter conditions reduced forage growth, so this year’s barley will be harvested for grain.
Corn, alfalfa and protein are purchased for rations calculated by hired professional nutritionists. “I could push my cows with higher protein and mineral rations to get higher production, and I have done that, but I like a more relaxed herd with longevity,” Ria said.
The herd has projected ME 305 milk, 25,555 pounds; projected 305 fat, 839 pounds; and protein, 756 pounds. The 305 ME milk in 2013, was 22,550.
Lactating cows are kept in dry lots, while dry cows and heifers graze the Flint Hills. “I intend to have a free-stall barn in the future,” Ria forecasted.
Milkmaid might be her profession, but “farmer” has to rank second. “I can do just about everything that there is to do here operating farm machinery for Chuck,” she insisted.
“If an implement breaks own and needs repaired, I‘ve learned enough from working with Chuck that together we can usually get it fixed. Being smaller, sometimes I can crawl in or under the combine or other machinery to do repairs when somebody else couldn’t,” Ria related.
Future of Vos Dairy is most optimistic in the herd owner-manager’s outlook. “There continues to be a place for small herds in the industry to keep working to improve cows’ genetics for larger operations.
“The cows here are getting better all of the time, so demand should continue to increase for my bulls, for the embryos, and for selling herd replacements. I also have more ideas to develop an on-farm processing plant, sell raw milk, and also cheese, and even my own brainchild, drinkable yogurt,” Ria informed.