June Featured Farmer: Mike Frey
June Dairy Month provides an opportunity to celebrate the efforts of dairy farm families in South Dakota and across the country. Open houses, breakfasts on the farm and special events highlight the work that Mike Frey and thousands of other dairy farmers do every day all year long.
Mike and Sara Frey and their sons Dylan (16) and Colin (13) own and operate a dairy farm near Claremont, South Dakota, northeast of Aberdeen. They milk about 200 registered Holstein cows, and raise calves and heifers, as well as crops. Mike’s parents Kenneth and Janet are retired, but continue to help out on the farm whenever possible as well.
Mike works to constantly improve nearly every aspect of the farm, with his primary focus on keeping the cows healthy and comfortable.
Mike recently shared his story and answered questions from guests at the “Know Your Farmer” dinner in Aberdeen. The dinner was hosted by South Dakota Farm Families and is one of a series of dinners and crawls held each year designed to give food lovers a chance to sample creative dishes from top restaurants and talk directly to the farmers or ranchers who made the meal possible.
“We had some really good conversations during the dinner,” he said. “Even people who grew up on a farm or have family members who have farmed were really interested in some of the newer trends in agriculture and what we’re doing to care for animals and natural resources.”
One of the topics they discussed were the number of things that modern dairy farms do to provide comfortable housing for cows, including freestall barns, 24 hour access to food and water, and clean sand bedding, which all lead to healthier animals and better milk production. In addition, they talked about how manure is a resource that farmers use in crop farming, allowing farmers to boost soil nutrients while purchasing less commercial fertilizer.
“Farming continues to change, even compared to 20 or 30 years ago.” He said. “It is important to share what we do so our neighbors and community members understand what we’re doing and that our first priority is caring for animals and land.”
Mike also hosts field trips for local elementary schools at the dairy and has been active in dairy programs to speak to local civic and community organizations about his farm and the dairy industry.
The Freys have made a number of changes to their farm over the years, including a freestall barn with individual stalls and sand bedding. The sand is comfortable for cows to lay on and it also keeps them cleaner, which leads to better health and higher quality milk. A milking parlor allows them to milk 16 cows at a time.
Cow comfort isn’t just about investing in new facilities, however. The biggest impacts can come from focusing on small management changes that add up over time.
“We’ve worked hard to do a better job of designing and mixing the feed rations to make sure cows get the nutrition they need,” said Mike.
Another important part of Mike’s focus is the cows themselves. Mike maintains a registered Holstein herd, meaning that records about each cow are maintained on the farm and submitted to a national association. There are herd registries for all the major dairy breeds in the U.S. Holstein Association USA maintains ancestry, identity, ownership and performance information on more than 22 million Registered Holstein cattle. In fact, the association has maintained records that trace back to the original 8,800 Holstein animals that were imported to the U.S. from the Netherlands from 1852 to 1905.
The registry and Mike’s recordkeeping allow him to track individual cows and families of cows through his herd and their lives.
“We have the pedigree and ancestry data on all of our cows,” he said. “It is rewarding to see how well families perform over the years.” He also noted that maintaining the quality of the cows in a dairy is also a way to help manage through times when dairy prices are low.
As much as Mike takes pride in the cows on his dairy, he’s found that the most important rewards for life on the farm are the values it instills in the next generation..
“The most valuable part of being on the farm is the work ethic we are able to teach our kids,” he said. “They are involved in all aspects of the farm and are hopefully developing skills that will help them in the future.”