The 3,200 cows at J.M. Larson Dairy live the good life as they produce 25,000 gallons of milk a day.
Mostly, they eat and sleep, either in pastures or inside barns cooled with fans and mists of water. It’s the humans running the place that operates 365 days a year who do all the work.
“If people knew what we go through they would pay more for milk,” Jose Verano, 55, general manager who has been with the dairy for 20 years, said, “They complain about paying $3.50 for a gallon of milk, but they will pay $2 for an energy drink.”
A staff of 60 runs two milking locations plus a heifer farm and feeds the animals more than half a million pounds of feed a day. The scientifically formulated feed includes cotton seed, corn, corn sillage, citrus pulp and peel, sorghum, brewer’s grain, molasses, vitamins, minerals and more.
“Generally, 90 percent of the milk sold in Florida is produced in Florida. We are a fluid milk market. We do not sell cheese, although some goes to cottage cheese, half and half, cream and ice cream,” said John Larson, the farm’s president and owner.
Florida produces a little over 1 percent of the nation’s milk supply, or about 272 million gallons a year. Exports have risen from 4 to 5 percent to over 13 percent, with demand increasing from China and Mexico.
Larson runs one of Florida’s 136 dairy farms and comes from the legendary Larson Dairy family. In the late 1980s, the Larsons operated the nation’s largest dairy farm. They and McArthur Dairy started Dairy Feeds, Inc., in 1978 so they could mill their own feed. It handles more than 120,000 tons a year.
Larson, 54, was born and raised in Delray Beach, where his parents Reda and Louis E. “Red” Larson lived and his father owned and operated a dairy. Before that, the business launched in 1947 had been in Miami, Davie and Dania, but moved north as those areas developed. But in 1971 Larson sold the Palm Beach County land and moved to Okeechobee where the dairy has been ever since with a total of more than 10,000 acres.
The youngest of four children, Larson was in the eighth grade when the family relocated to Okeechobee, 70 miles north and west of West Palm Beach. He was already on the way to being a dairyman after joining the 4-H Club at age 6, two years younger than usually allowed.
After graduating from Troy State University with a business administration degree, he joined the family business.
Red Larson, 89, still works every day. Today the dairy is split into three companies, one run by Red and two grandsons, one by John Larson and one by his brother Woody Larson.
They share a centralized office in a gray building in the heart of Okeechobee. Memorabilia from the decades in the business are on display.
“Dad’s hobby is the farm. We are all on call 24/7,” Larson said. “Weekdays, we usually work until around 7 p.m. and we do work a lot of weekends.”
In Okeechobee County, beef and dairy cows outnumber people by more than three to one. The county has roughly 45,000 dairy cows and 100,000 beef cattle and close to 40,000 people.
There’s a lot that Larson is proud of, like the super-fast time it takes the milk to go from the cow to the fridge.
“It’s 24 to 48 hours from the time the milk leaves the farm until it is on the shelves,” Larson said.
It helps that many of the state’s dairies in Central Florida are only one to three hours from South Florida’s large cities. Southeast Milk, a cooperative owned by the dairy farmers, picks up milk in its 6,000-gallon refrigerated silver tanker trucks from the dairies several times a day. The milk is then transported to bottling plants owned by Publix, T.G. Lee, Dean Foods, McArthur, Gustafson’s and Velda/Borden.
While Larson can discuss every detail of milking cows, from the German-made milking machines to breeding and production, he’s very involved in the marketing of milk. He serves on the board of Dairy Management Inc. and on the board of Florida Dairy Farmers Inc.
DMI has a $200 million budget, and all of the money comes from dairy farmers who pay 15 cents for every 100 pounds of milk — a little more than 11.5 gallons — that they sell.
Milk sales have been declining over the last 30 years, falling to about 6 billion gallons in 2011, the latest year available, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s about 20 gallons a year per person. At the same time, sales of yogurt, cheese and other dairy products have increased.
Larson serves on a DMI advisory committee to troubleshoot the decline by working with bottlers on product innovation and other issues.
Growing competition from bottled water and new beverages such as sports drinks and bottled teas are blamed for the drop along with a declining number of children. Soy, almond, and rice milks and other alternatives are also cutting into market share. But the dairy industry is doing what it can to promote its product.
“We worked with McDonald’s to develop its line of McCafe coffee drinks,” Larson said of the espresso coffee drinks including cappuccinos, lattés, and iced and hot mochas. “Eighty percent of those drinks are milk.”
The McCafe drinks have resulted in the sale of an additional 116 million gallons of milk a year. Another coup for dairy farmers is McDonald’s automatic inclusion of milk in its Happy Meals.
“We are on a health and wellness agenda,” Larson said. Another DMI initiative, Fuel Up to Play 60, a partnership with the NFL, emphasizes getting 60 minutes of physical activity and consuming three daily servings of dairy products. The program is active in 73,000 schools.
A partnership with Domino’s has led to the company putting more cheese on its pizzas.
“We have kind of created a pizza war. If you can get one more ounce of cheese on a pizza, it will move a 116 million gallons of milk per year,” Larson said. “Twenty-five percent of the cheese in the country is moved on pizza.”
Milk production rests on the health and well-being of the cows. The amount of milk each cow produces is tracked. The average is about 8 gallons a day. If a cow’s production is below par, her days are numbered. Most produce milk for three years before going to the livestock market and then to the hamburger plant.
Male calves are raised to 350 pounds or so before being auctioned and sent to the stockyards in Texas and Oklahoma to be fattened.
The animals wear permanent plastic tags in each of their ears and are tattooed and branded as well.
“The Food and Drug administration has stringent regulations. We keep a tight record of everything. Our food supply is the safest in the world. We cannot market milk that contains antibiotics,” Larson said.
When the cows leave their barns to walk to the milking parlor three times a day, their beds of sand are scraped clean with a machine called a skidloader.
A group of 68 cows are milked at once. Each milking takes less than five minutes, which allows 260 cows to be milked per hour. Then an automatic gate is lifted, and they know to head back to their barn.
“Cows are creatures of habit. The more consistent you are, the better they do,” Verano said.
The dairymen call the barn the Holstein Hilton, since 95 percent of the cows are black and white Holsteins.
“When they were milking, the maid service made up their beds and room service brought their feed,” Larson said on a recent morning as the cows made their way through their spruced-up quarters.
Feed costs are higher than ever due to the Midwest’s prolonged drought, but milk prices have not kept pace. The number of dairy farms in Florida has been shrinking each year, but the number of cows has increased in the last few years to approximately 123,000.
“When the drought happened, feed costs went up 40 percent. There is not 40 percent profit in this deal. If there were, everybody would be in it,” Larson said.
Florida’s roughly 123,000 dairy cows produce 272 million gallons of milk per year.
Each Florida dairy cow produces about 6 to 8 gallons each day.
Cows drink 25-50 gallons of water per day.
Cows chew their cud at least 50 times a minute.
One gallon of milk is approximately 345 squirts of a cow’s udder.
Source: Florida Dairy Farmers Inc.