Brad Cowan figures that his 680 dairy cows are some of the least productive in the state.
Since moving to Astoria and leasing the Seppa Dairy from Mike and Jeanne Seppa in 1999, Cowan has eschewed farming gospel, which pushes for maximizing milk production per cow. Instead, he's turned his emphasis toward pasture and herd management.
By breaking the rules, the Cowans and Seppas are finding prosperity under the old adage that sometimes, less is more.
"Brad is willing to think outside the box," said Mike Seppa, who is still active in the farm his family started 88 years ago. "He takes risks, but they're calculated risks."
Under the approach, which Cowan learned by studying dairies in New Zealand, cows are allowed to graze rather than exclusively being fed expensive grains purchased or harvested by farmers. The energy expended by the roaming cows means they produce less milk, but their low yields are offset by money saved on decreased labor and feed costs.
The key component of this philosophy is the ability to milk a lot of cows very quickly so they can graze as much as possible. And that's exactly what their cows have been doing since the Seppas installed a rotary milk parlor in February 2004.
The parlor, which looks like a horizontal Ferris wheel, is one of six among the state's more than 330 dairy farms, said Eric Paulsen, the food and safety supervisor at the Oregon Department of Agriculture. The parlors have been around since the 1970s he said, but the technology was only recently perfected.
Since installing the device, the Seppa Dairy has gone from milking 350 cows in 5.5 hours, to 680 in less than two.
How it beganRotary milk parlors were more than a half a century away when Finland-born Mikko Seppa moved to Astoria in 1902 after working as a silver miner in Telluride, Colo. In 1917, he purchased the present-day farm property near Seppa Lane and Lewis and Clark Road, and started a beef, dairy and grass seed farm.
Mike Seppa's cousin, Hugh Seppa, took over the farm in 1958, with Mike joining him in 1965 after serving in the military. They processed and sold their own milk until 1988, when they began selling it to the Tillamook County Creamery Association. The dairy's milk production stopped in 1996, when Hugh retired and they sold their herd.
Mike and his wife, Jeanne, raised heifers on the property until 1999, when they were approached by Brad Cowan and his wife Melody about leasing the property.
The Cowans had run a dairy in Puget Island, Wash., and had been employing New Zealand-style pasture management techniques since the early 1990s.
Without the space or resources to expand their own farm, the Cowans worked out a deal to lease the Seppa property. The Seppas agreed to provide the infrastructure by investing $2.1 million to expand the herd, increase the farm's acreage and install a New Zealand-built rotating milk parlor.
BustlingWith the arrival of the Cowans, the Seppas were happy to see their dairy up and running again.
"We both certainly enjoy the Cowans moving here and helping our farm come back to life," Mike Seppa said.
Today, the farm again bustles with activity. Twice a day, the cows are herded to the parlor. An automatic dispenser drops a mixture of corn and barley into blue buckets inside the 60 individual stalls fixed to the rotating platform. No prodding is necessary to get the cows aboard as the over-eager animals shove their way on.
Each cow makes a full rotation in eight to 10 minutes before leaving and making way for another. While getting the animals on the platform is a cinch, getting them off sometimes requires a blast of cold water.
The parlor requires three workers. One sanitizes the cow's udders as they enter, another attaches milking devices and another removes the devices and re-sanitizes the udders when the cows exit.
Milk exits the facility and enters a 6,000-gallon tank where it's chilled to less than 47 degrees, before it's sent to the Tillamook cheese factory.
Success storyThe changes have reinvented the 88-year-old farm with stunning results.
The farm's milk yield per cow is low, relative to other dairies, but the Seppa dairy still produces a lot of milk. Melody Cowan estimates that the dairy will produce between seven and eight million pounds of milk in 2005. And Brad Cowan said profit margins are as strong as ever.
"My production is lower because I'm not pushing the cows," Cowan said. Rather than confine the animals, feed them expensive grains and maximize their milk production, they're put to pasture as much as possible.
"The cows come up, get their business done and then get back to the field," Cowan said. "In confinement farms they figure a milking parlor should run 24 hours a day. The cows are couch potatoes. All they're there for is to consume and make milk. They do produce far more per cow, but I think this is a lot healthier for the animals."
Cowan's business model requires intricate management of the farm's 500 acres, which are divided into 60 to 70 parcels. The cows graze for 12 hours on single plot, and then are kept off for as little as two weeks, or up to 60 days, depending on the season.
"You graze no grass before its time," Brad Cowan said. "It's like growing a lawn. And you do it all with cows."
And what makes the method work are the inherently low operating costs.
"My feed costs as a percentage of our milk check are far lower than the typical confinement dairy," Cowan said. "The high production, high input farms usually have at least 50 percent or more of their gross going right off the top and right into feed. We're more in the 20-percent range."
The dairy also saves money by having a minimal labor staff. The Cowan's teenage daughter, Marika, helps out year-round, along with three full-time employees and three part-time workers.
"If we were a confinement farm, the cows would be locked up all the time and we'd have three times as many employees, and we'd be hauling manure constantly," Brad Cowan said.
"We'd have three or four times as many feed trucks coming in and then we'd have to be harvesting everything we grow."
Cowan's philosophy is to have the cows follow their natural herd instincts, while simultaneously doing most of the work.
"So basically, my cows are my tractors," he said. "They're doing the feed harvesting and they're doing the manure hauling."
Pitching inThe Cowans are also helped out by their semi-retired landlords, Mike and Jeanne Seppa. The couple still lives nearby, pitching in where they can and visiting the dairy almost daily.
In addition, Jeanne Seppa still works three days a week at the North Coast Christian School in Hammond, and Mike Seppa is actively involved in the community as the Clatsop County Farm Bureau president.
But after milking cows 365 days a year for three decades, they've managed to take some long vacations for the first time.
"It's been very, very nice," Jeanne Seppa said.