There is no one size fits all approach when it comes to farming. There isn’t a guaranteed route to success. There isn’t a single practice that can bring you to the top of the ranks for milk quality. It all comes down to what fits you and your operation. As a farm who chases quality milk, and this year’s MMPA Top Quality Award Winners, the Koppenol family may know that best.
“Every farmer has his own practices,” Al Koppenol said. “When looking around, I am amazed that somebody can skip certain steps and still do a great job. Farming is a unique business because of that.”
Despite the differences, Al, along with his wife Deb, daughter Robin and farmhand Ken Raterink, know what works on their farm in Coopersville, Michigan. This past year, their herd produced the highest quality milk of Michigan Milk Producers Association with an average somatic cell count of 41,000, earning the the MMPA Top Quality Award.
“Like I said, everything doesn’t work on my farm that seems to work on the neighbors, but I find out what works and then I go with it,” Al said.
For the Koppenols, a major key to their success is enjoying their work and relying on family. With three children of their own and 10 grandchildren, hands are plentiful on the farm and farming is a family affair.
“For some of the grandkids, farming is in their blood,” Al said. “The boys will take and windrow sand. I don’t know if they’ll ever farm, but it is neat to see that they have picked up something from that. And all of them have helped us somewhat, somewhere, along the way.”
In addition to the Koppenol’s focus on family, is their reliance on faith and prayer to face the challenges that are unique to farming.
“The Lord is a big part in how the weather conducts itself for us,” Al recognizes. “If we don’t get the crops in on time or don’t get the rain we need, every year is a unique year.”
Despite the uniqueness, the Koppenols do have a couple tried and true practices that they rely on to produce quality milk. Al has two secrets to success. First, “take advice from different sources and try to be open-minded.” And second, “try to enjoy your job and by enjoying your job, you will do a better job.”
Making Proactive Choices
Al’s focus on enjoying his job lends to making proactive decisions to ensure the health and safety of his herd and employees. Happy cows and happy employees are two fundamentals for the Koppenols, and really every dairy farmer, to maximize the enjoyment they get from a job that can be difficult at times.
“I want cows that can be milked by somebody else and they’ll be done right. We also want them to be able to adapt and have sound feet,” Al said. “If they have an issue this year, they’ll have it next year.”
For example, a cow that’s slow to milk out has a higher risk of developing mastitis, an infection in the udder, and Al and his team proactively prevent problems before they happen. The Koppenols rely on a genetic servicer that matches their cows with bulls that can bring out desired traits, helping guarantee that their herd is “an honor and joy to milk.”
Finding Joy in the Process
Finding joy in the process is something every Koppenol involved in the farm has in their blood.
“When I was a kid, I would go out in the barn and I’d feed this cow a flat of hay and I’d sit there and watch her eat it. And I look back and it’s just part of me,” Al said. “I can’t tell one car from another, but I can tell my cows from the other.”
This passion for the industry and the work he does is one of the many reasons Al cites for the Koppenols receiving the prestigious award twice in the past decade. First in 2016, and now again in 2021.
“If you can enjoy it, then the rest comes too,” Al said. “I look back and I produce more milk in one day than my dad probably did in a week and maybe even longer.” And Deb is quick to interject, “And the quality can be good too!”
With their extensive history in dairying stretching three generations in the Coopersville area, the Koppenols recognize the changing times and the effect it has had on milk quality, all indicating the continued improvement in the years to come.
“If I look at somatic cell counts 30 years ago, I wouldn’t have believed that MMPA as an organization could have them down where they are, but when I look back at what I’ve done versus where my dad was, we have come a long way,” Al said. “A lot has gone in to get the somatic cell counts down and a lot will go into getting any other problems solved, but it will take tiny steps.”
Recognizing the challenges that are ahead in the industry fuels the Koppenols even more when it comes to producing quality milk.
“With all the different types of milk that they’re trying to come up with, we have to do a good job,” Al said. And with a laugh, “I don’t think almond milk has a high somatic cell count.”
With the challenges ahead, an ever- volatile market and strong legislative headwinds, Al shares this advice, “pay attention to everything you do, try to be consistent and pray.”
For those farmers looking to make a difference in their milk quality, “don’t expect it to jump from 300,000 to 50,000 in one night, because it’s not going to. It’s a slow process. You have to work at it. But, it can be done.”
Provided by Michigan Milk Producers Association