Behind-the-Scenes of an American Dairy Farm
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Adventure, family, and hard work. That’s life for New Mexico Milkmaid Tara Vander Dussen, her husband, and two daughters. Their day-to-day routine, 365 days a year, revolves around feeding, cleaning, and milking cows to provide food on the table for their family and yours. But it’s more than a job; it’s a way of life, one full of passion, creativity, and innovation.
The Propane Education & Research Council is partnering with social influencers like Tara to share real-life stories of how American families use clean energy like propane to support their sustainable lifestyles.
As a fifth-generation dairy farmer, what is one of your favorite memories about growing up on a dairy farm?
Hands down, the adventures. The freedom that comes with growing up on a farm is unlike any other. Every morning, my siblings and I would take off for the dairy. As long as we checked in with my mom or dad throughout the day, we were able to do and explore as we wanted. I remember building forts in the haystacks, playing in the cottonseed, trying to catch and tame barn kittens, raising a litter of pigs. The list goes on and on. There was always an adventure to be had on the dairy.
Why was it important to you to continue your family’s legacy and become a dairy farmer?
I know that everyone says this, but it’s because it’s true: Farming is more than a job, it’s a way of life. Farming becomes a part of who you are, not just what you do. I think it’s because of how all-consuming it is. You live on the farm. Your children grow up on the farm. You work together as a family on the farm. And I want to have that in our life and our future. I want to be able to “bring my kids to work day” every day on the dairy. I want them to see firsthand what it takes. There is also something powerful about raising an animal or growing a crop that ultimately provides food for your family and other families. There is an incredible sense of hard work when you sit down to dinner and the milk and beef on the table is from the cows we raised.
What is a typical day on your farm like?
Every day is different on the dairy. It just depends on what needs to be done. But there is a general routine. We milk our cows every day two times a day. No matter what. Rain, snow, wind, and even on holidays. We also feed our cows twice a day. Their diet consists of a TMR aka total mixed ration that is a combination of protein, carbs, fats and vitamins planned by their nutritionist. We clean the barn and the pens every day. For our calves, they receive a bottle of milk two times a day and fresh water and grain throughout the day.
What is the most difficult aspect about farming, and what is the most rewarding?
One of the most difficult things about farming is probably all the things that are out of our control. From the markets, to our prices, to the weather, to the changing demands of consumers. It can be hard to have all the curve balls thrown at you. The most rewarding? Enjoying the food you produced with your family.
How do your daughters help out around the farm? What are some of your favorite things to do together?
My oldest daughter already loves the dairy. Her favorite thing to do is head to the barn after school. She likes to check and see if there are any new barn kittens. She also likes to help the herdsman with barn wash. She will also come back and let us know how many new calves were born and whether they are male or female. With her dad, she has a notebook in his truck where she keeps track of “her cows.” She likes to know what pen they are in and how they are doing.
How does your family use propane around your property?
There are endless ways we use propane around the farm and at our house. One of the most important things we use it for on the farm is heating our shop. The shop is where we repair any and all equipment. And propane keeps it warm throughout the fall, winter, and spring.
How does propane support your family’s lifestyle and values?
At home, propane is what brings our family together in the evenings. We use it for grilling, for a heater on the patio, for our fire pit, and even to heat my family’s pool. There isn’t anything better than a beautiful afternoon sitting around the fire pit with dinner on the grill.
What is one of the most common misconceptions that people have about farming?
There are a lot of misconceptions about farming. It’s hard to pick just one. But I do wish more people understood our genuine love and passion for what we do. We want to provide our family and yours with the highest quality products for food on our tables.
What advice do you have for the next generation of farmers?
My advice is to be innovative and creative. Don’t get stuck in a rut or put in a box. Farming is always changing and adapting. Be sure you adapt and change with it.
As an environmental scientist, what does it mean to be a sustainable farmer? How do you help other dairy farmers practice sustainability?
Sustainability, to me, is so much more than just about the environment. In order to have a sustainable food system, we need to consider social factors, financial viability, be environmentally conscious, affordable, nutritious and more. If a farm is being environmentally friendly but isn’t financially viable, that doesn’t do anyone any good. Or if a food is environmentally friendly but isn’t affordable or socially acceptable, again it won’t matter. We can also have foods that are environmentally friendly but don’t offer the same nutrients. That is also a problem. We need to be looking at the whole picture. That is sustainability to me.