VanEss Dairy Travels 1,500 Miles to Relocate in Northwest Iowa

Published on Mon, 11/30/2009 - 9:36am

“It’s not about the size of the dairy; it’s about doing a good job with cows. Our highest goal is simply to be very good dairymen. We want to take great care of our animals, and treat our neighbors with respect,” says Harvey Van Ess about VanEss Dairy located in O’Brien County near Sanborn, IA.

It is a philosophy that Van Ess learned long ago from his father, James, who with his wife Alice, immigrated to the United States from the Netherlands in 1948. Along with his older brother Louie, who also made the journey, they settled in the western part of the state of Washington. According to Van Ess, his father and uncle partnered and began dairy farming, milking 30 cows in a rented tie stall barn. “They partnered together until my uncle died of a heart attack in 1972,” says Van Ess, who is the youngest of eight children. He and his brother Hank helped their father expand the dairy until “we were milking up to 300 head.”
With dairy farming deep in his blood, Van Ess rented a dairy farm near the home place and with his wife Lisa, whom he had married in 1983, continued his dairy-farming career. By 1994, the two brothers, Harvey and Hank, were at a crossroads. They wanted to expand, but there was nowhere to go. “Dad’s dairy was an old dairy, and so was the place that I rented. Plus, the land was in a flood plain, so there was always concern about flooding. We had a huge flood in 1990, and although I had to move the cows up by the road, many farmers got it a lot worse than I did. My brother-in-law was rescued by helicopter from the top of the barn roof. He had chased the cattle to the top of the hay stacks to save them.”
So Harvey and Hank began looking for another state in which to locate. “We decided on Idaho because there was a lot of milk processing capacity, feed was relatively inexpensive and rainfall was only about 10 inches per year.” Sure enough, they found a decent dairy farm that met their needs, and they were soon on their way to Middleton, Idaho, which is about 30 miles west of Boise. They brought with them a herd of 365 milking and dry Holsteins along with 400 heifers. “My dad kept the rest of the heifers back in Washington until they were closer to breeding time, and then we brought them to Idaho, too.”
Several years later they purchased a second dairy farm located about two miles away from the original dairy farm. The expansion paid off and their herd grew to over 1,900 head, but there were also problems. First operating two separate dairy farms meant nearly doubling the machinery and managing two separate work crews. “Expansion was really out of the question,” notes Van Ess. “It was during the time of high land prices, and housing developments were closing in. Our dilemma was do we buy the expensive land and build, try to buy other smaller dairy farms or move to another area.”
By this time, Harvey and Lisa’s five boys were growing and all of them expressed an interest in being part of the family dairy farm, so the decision became to look for another place to relocate. Selling one of their dairy farms and leasing out the other gave the Van Ess family the seed money to make a move. At the time of the move, Jeremy was 22 and Chad 20 years of age.
They finally settled on a parcel of land about 4 ½ miles from Sanborn, Iowa. Van Ess had a sister and brother-in-law, who operated a dairy farm in southern Minnesota, and during family visits found the southern Minnesota/northern Iowa landscape to his liking. Van Ess says the move was really about where they wanted to live, because “if you don’t like living in a place, it doesn’t matter about the business. We found this to be an area where we wanted to live.”
During the spring of 2007, Chad moved to Sanborn to oversee the construction on the 110-acre parcel of land, while Harvey traveled from Idaho every couple of weeks to check on the progress. In February of 2008, the move began for the herd.
Van Ess only shook his head and smiled, when I asked how many semi loads that turned out to be! He then said, “Before we were done, I suppose we had over a 100 loads brought in. It was a 24-hour trip, so we milked each truckload in the morning, and since it was February, we put Frost Guard on the udders. They actually came through the move in good shape. As soon as they got here and were unloaded, we milked them and then turned them loose to do what they wanted to do!”
Along with the Van Ess family and the herd of cattle came eight of the Van Ess employees and their families. Now that they are up and running, Van Ess says, including the Van Ess family, 23 people are employed at VanEss Dairy.
Harvey sees himself as the overseer of the entire venture, while Jeremy takes care of the workers, their schedules and the day-to-day work with the herd. Chad takes care of the equipment, handles repairs and the feeder. Josh and Tyler are in charge of cow comfort. Todd helps out with what ever needs to be done when he is not in school. “We all pitch in in the morning with the cow work. Lisa and I complement each other well. She and I used to work eight hours a day together, but she’s backing off now with the boys taking on more responsibility.”
The facility that houses the over 3,000 head of cattle is a state-of-the-art cross-ventilated barn covering 9.8 acres. The 439’ x 1000’ building includes 120 52-inch fans all installed on the north side of the building. “Turning these fans on delivers a steady air flow equivalent to about 5 ½ mph. In the summer, this will drop the temperature up to 15 degrees. Plus, this steady air flow provides static pressure that results in no flies in the barn.”
With over 3,000 head to milk three times during a 24-hour period, VanEss Dairy is in use around the clock. “It usually takes 6-6 ½ hours to get through one milking cycle. Five employees will facilitate the milking with one ‘pushing’ or bringing up the cattle.”
Van Ess says the goal of VanEss Dairy is to provide a safe and wholesome product. On average, each cow produces about 93 pounds of milk per day. To maintain maximum production, VanEss Dairy follows a detailed management plan with a consultant visiting onsite every other month, while two veterinarians monitor the herd weekly. All of this expertise helps the Van Ess family care for their cows by keeping them clean, well fed and comfortable, while at the same time addressing the need to be environmentally friendly. 
Part of this environmental friendliness is choosing to recycle their sand bedding. “Workers scrape the pen each time the cows leave the pen, moving the used bedding to the middle, where it is dispensed into a 12 inch wide flume where recycled manure water pours through the flume at 2000 gallons per minute. The waste eventually ends up in a lagoon with four 5,000,000-gallon ponds in front to catch most of the solid waste before it ends in the rest of the 59,000,000-gallon lagoon. The result is clean sand ready to be loaded up and recycled back into the pens.”
To ensure milk freshness, milk goes through a chiller and is loaded directly into tankers provided by Associated Milk Producers Incorporated (AMPI). The tankers are then taken the short five-mile drive to AMPI located in Sanborn. “Having AMPI this close was another reason we chose this area to relocate.”
With a dairy facility this size, the Van Ess family realizes the importance of being good neighbors. “There was concern in the community when the word first got out about us bringing in a dairy farm this size. We know that there are odors, and we are doing our best to help neutralize the odor as much as we can. We have added a special additive to the lagoon to help control the odor. With winter and freezing, we know that the odor will be pretty much eliminated, but then with the first thaw, we will add the special additive again to help control the odor. All of our manure is either spread on our own ground as fertilizer or sold to our neighbors.”
Van Ess says he is also looking into building an anaerobic digester, which is designed to break down the farm’s manure into methane gas, which in turn generates electricity. Still in the planning stage, Van Ess has been told that a digester would provide power for about 400 homes.
Van Ess says the VanEss Dairy is always open for the public to come and visit. “Once we were up and running, we had an open house in August of 2008. There were lots of people out there interested in what was going on here. We know that consumers are becoming more conscientious about how their food is produced, and we want them to be confident that the information they receive is correct. We had over 1200 people tour our facility that day.”
As Lisa explained, “We wanted to explain our commitment to the safety of our livestock, our milk, and ultimately, our community.”
Since that time, numerous other informal tours have been given for service groups, school groups and nursing homes. Van Ess says with pride, “We are proud that most of the revenue generated here at VanEss Dairy stays in O’Brien County. It circles through the community several times.”
So, has the move, the construction and organizing a complex facility been worth it? Both Harvey and Lisa say yes because “Our kids have all made the commitment to be part of VanEss Dairy, and the expansion ensures that opportunity. The move has proven to be all that we had hoped for.”