Modern Milkmen of Oakridge Dairy
A rotary milking parlor, environmental responsibility, and the idea to supply milk direct to consumer are the new notions driving change at a dairy whose history dates back more than a century.
When Adolph Bahler started a farm in central Connecticut in 1890, he was bucking the trends: he moved east from Illinois, rather than west towards the frontier. Still, Bahler’s 12-acre farm grew through the generations.
By 2013, when Adolph’s great-great-grandson Seth Bahler came on as CEO, it had become one of the the largest dairies in the state. Still, Oakridge Dairy faced challenges. Too many owners made it hard to make decisions; underinvestment in facilities meant expensive repairs loomed.
Seth, just 24 at the time, helped his family develop a new succession plan: family members would retain their stake in the dairy, but operations would be overseen by a separate management team. “It’s really about trying to take the business and make it run as a business,” says Seth, sitting sits in his farmhouse office—outfitted with two computer monitors, a colorful array of motivational quotes and stacks of business management books.
Seth is really more businessman than farmer. He’d had little involvement in the farm as a child; after high school, he’d started and then sold his own construction firm. At Oakridge, Seth ran the numbers and set an ambitious goal: the dairy, he believed, could grow from 1,700 cows to 2,600, while at the same time expanding crop acreage by more than 50%.
Getting there, though, would require embracing new techniques.
A High-Tech Barn with a Rotary Milking Parlor
The dairy’s existing facilities had fallen out of compliance with environmental regulations. Rather than pouring in a bit of money year over year to gradually update, Seth raised millions in outside capital and built an all-new barn.
The facility opened in June 2017 after a year of work. Everything was designed around efficiency, Seth says, because “if you can get more throughput through, you can get your cost of production down.” He sees that as key to success in a business where margins are often low and sometimes nonexistent.
The facility includes a rotary parlor that milks 72 cows at a time, 426 cows per hour, with just five employees on the floor. Milk reaches a tanker within two minutes and is at the plant within 12 hours. The cows live in an attached, climate-controlled 7.3-acre barn, and incoming and exiting cows can be in motion at the same time.
“There’s no downtime,” says David Moser, the dairy manager. From his office overlooking the parlor, Moser plugs through some quick calculations: He figures the new facility has increased the rate of production by 33%.
Oakridge now produces 23,000 gallons of milk each day.
When Moser was hired in 2016 to oversee the construction of the new facility, he had no experience in agriculture. Nevertheless, he decided to stay. “There’s a higher set of values,” he says—values that felt particularly important to impart to his now two-year-old son.
As Moser gestures toward the parlor, his pride is apparent. He notes how sensors track each individual cow’s production, allowing veterinary staff to step in if lactation goes down. Efficient lights and fans reduce electricity costs. Solar panels add to the savings, too. Manure is collected and run through a separator, with solid fibers re-used as bedding and liquid waste applied to the farmland as fertilizer. That satisfies 90 percent of the farm’s fertilization needs.
Cover Crop Commitment
Those needs are substantial. Johnny Hoffman, the dairy’s crop manager, oversees 3,000 acres on which corn and hay is grown to feed the cows.
Hoffman’s family once owned a dairy here—“Hoffman Road” cuts through Oakridge’s parcels—but his father left the industry to become a land surveyor. “[He] encouraged me never to get into agriculture,” Hoffman says. “But that’s where my heart was, and that’s what I followed.” As a teenager, Hoffman worked at Oakridge and other local dairy before becoming a seed salesman and crop consultant. Now he is the crop manager at Oakridge. An early adopter of cover crops, Hoffman has a clear vision for how to serve the environment and farm at once.
“You have to focus very intensely [on cover crops],” he says. “It’s as important as your crop is. It’s not second.”
Rather than broadcasting rye and wheat seed over freshly tilled soil, Hoffman drills seeds into the ground, reaching ideal moisture levels deeper in the soil. “You can use less seed and get a better stand quicker and earlier in the season,” he says. He is also incorporating other species—crimson clover, daikon radish, purple-top turnips—whose long taproots break up the soil. He plants green, waiting to terminate the cover crop until after the corn is the ground, maximizing the amount of carbon and nitrogen released.
“If you take care of your soil, your soil will take care of you,” Hoffman says. Because the cover crops, combined with minimal tillage, have reduced runoff, Hoffman has been able to remove buffers and link once-separate fields, helping meet the farm’s efficiency goals.
Direct-To-Consumer Milk Marketing
The towns surrounding Oakridge once had so many dairies that a nearby highway was dubbed the “Milkiest Mile.” Now, though, Oakridge is surrounded by residential communities. “Every single one of our corn fields or hayfields backs up to four or five houses,” Hoffman says. That can lead to occasional misunderstandings; neighbors have complained about the smell of liquid manure. But it also offers possibilities.
Seth notes that while 40 percent of Connecticut’s milk comes from out of state, there are 25 million people within 100 miles of the farm. “Our goal is really to tap into [those] demographics,” he says, “really trying to create that connection between the farmer and the community.”
“The Modern Milkman,” a new initiative that Oakridge launched in February, delivers fresh milk directly to local homes, less than 48 hours from cow to doorstep. The milk comes bundled with fresh eggs, cheese, and other products from nearby purveyors. The opportunity to “de-commoditize” and set prices is especially important given the volatility of the industry. Like all of Oakridge’s innovations, it’s all about carrying a century-old tradition into the modern world. “We want to be farming into the next century,” Seth says, “so we need to be ahead of the times.”