Vierra Dairy - Show Ring Champions and So Much More! - Cowsmo

Vierra Dairy – Show Ring Champions and So Much More!

This article was a feature in our Late Winter 2022 issue written by Kathleen O’Keefe. Since going to press, the ‘Amplify at Vierra Dairy Sale’ took place and an astounding average of $14,297 on 162 lots was achieved!

Peter & Maia are thrilled to be raising their twin girls, River & Reagan, as the 5th generation of the family on a California dairy.

It’s been a big splash! The entry of Vierra Dairy into the show ring pool has been a cannonball of astounding results. In a very short time, high-type and show enthusiasts have heard Vierra Dairy announced as the owner of numerous class winners and champions, including the Grand and Reserve Grand Champion at the International Jersey Show in 2019. They equaled that feat last year in Madison, again exhibiting Grand and Reserve, and adding the Junior Champion Jersey title as well – a historic and unprecedented accomplishment by one show string.

And while the ringside has been accustomed to hearing the Vierra name during the Jersey show, 2021 saw the family operation add partial ownership in a couple of high-profile Holsteins to their line up – Oakfield Solom Footloose-ET EX-94, named Reserve Grand Champion of the International Holstein Show, and Ms Beautys Black Velvet-ET EX-95, the winning 5-year-old at Madison.

This prominent entrance has turned heads, as has their leap on to the top GJPI male and female lists. How did a dairy that primarily milked grade Holsteins until 2015 make such a dramatic jump start into the genetic heart of the Jersey breed?

It’s not long into a conversation with Peter Cipponeri, who along with his wife Maia, manages the dairy operation in Hilmar, CA, that you learn the wide-ranging goals for the family’s dairy business. The dairy herd itself is now at 6,000 cows (3,000 Jersey and 3,000 Holstein), and general manager Eddie DaRocha oversees the day-to-day operation. Maia’s parents, Matt and Maria Swanson, hold the reins of a number of family enterprises. It’s quickly evident how a strong entrepreneurial streak emphasizing forward thinking and a dedication to excellence colors all of their decision making.

Deeply rooted in the California Central Valley, Vierra Dairy originated in the 1940s when Tony and Angie Vierra, like their parents, milked a herd of grade Holsteins. They eventually settled in Hilmar, and over the decades, the herd grew and the farm expanded to 1,500 acres. Their son Anthony and his wife, Marie, were at the helm for much of this growth before passing the reins to their eldest daughter, Maria, who became the fourth-generation Vierra to oversee a dairy.

In 1988, Maria married Matt Swanson, who hails from a family ingrained in this rich agricultural region of California since the late 1800s. The Swansons were one of the premier turkey breeders in the state in the days when the bronze-breasted turkey was the commercial variety of choice – even President Truman had a Swanson-bred bird during his White House tenure. While the Swansons have founded and expanded other businesses and have moved away from turkey breeding, they still own a number of turkey ranches.

Fifty years ago, Matt’s father, Rick Swanson, founded Associated Feed & Supply Company, Inc., which has matured into a leading animal feed manufacturer, with a full line of conventional and organic feed products for a variety of species. The company has dealers throughout the west coast states and additionally in Idaho, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona.

The passion for production agriculture, obviously, is a motivating factor for every endeavor undertaken by the family. When they made a change in 2016 to begin shipping their milk to the locally-based Hilmar Cheese Company, they quickly recognized the value of adding Jerseys to the herd, as the processor pays a premium for high component milk.

Madison 2019 was just the beginning of the purple banner culture for Vierra Dairy. LtoR: Rick Swanson, Matt Swanson and Peter Cipponeri. Photo © Cowsmo.

While they hadn’t been at the forefront of genetics with their Holstein herd, the family saw the advantage, and future potential, in buying registered Jerseys from high-production cow families that had been successful in commercial dairy operations. Wally Lindskoog, breeder of the prominent Holstein sire, Arlinda Chief, was Matt Swanson’s great uncle. Before he passed away in 2003, Lindskoog expressed his admiration for the efficiency of the Jersey cow and thought they would be the future of dairying in California. Matt remembered his great-uncle’s desire to work with the Jersey breed, and that had stayed in the back of his mind. There’s no better place than the Central Valley to find Jerseys that have been proven in a commercial environment, and the family found much of their initial foundation stock in the region.

They then turned their focus to purchasing some high-genomic heifers from around the country as they implemented the next step in their Jersey journey – building a genetic breeding program based around a group of elite-tier individuals. They determined that using embryos would be the fastest way to transition from a Holstein herd to a mixed Holstein and Jersey herd while also maximizing genetic gains. With the caliber of donor dams they were tapping, it wasn’t long before the AI studs noticed that Vierra Dairy was drafting quite a lineup of future genetic stars, and they came calling to assist with the venture.

After a number of ‘first dates’ with several of the larger bull studs, the Vierra operation found a long-term partner in Semex. “We really found a similar sensibility with Semex,” explains Peter Cipponeri. “They’re a company that’s looking to the future and how our industry is changing with technology. We believe their Immunity+ data has been validated in large commercial herds, and their ai24 heat detection and technical platform has been of great value here.”

Milk & Honey Vaden Fern was purchased in the 2020 Best of Triple-T & Heath Sale and went on to be named All-American Junior 3-Year-Old for Vierra Dairy in 2021.

Beyond that, Semex handles the genomic testing for the herd through their Elevate platform, and provides a home for the high-genomic bulls produced from the Vierra breeding program. Peter oversees that program and consults regularly with individuals at Semex. “It’s been a fantastic relationship – I visit with Jay Shannon regularly about finding solutions with technology. He, along with Brad Sayles, was instrumental in helping get our program off the ground. Vierra Dairy is where we’re at today because of Semex. Jonathan Merriam, who incidentally is president of US Jersey, is our Semex sire analyst. He lives right around the corner from our dairy, and is the head of the Vierra Dairy account for Semex. Because he has his ‘boots on the ground’ right here, he’s been a huge help in taking things to the next level,” notes Peter. “They’ve all really taught me so much about how to run the genetic operation.”

That program is bearing fruit as a number of high GJPI bulls carrying the Vierra prefix are at the top of the index lists and populate the Semex sire catalog. JX Vierra TheBoss {6}-ET is being syndicated through their upcoming Amplify sale and ranks #2 for JPI at +179 with 850 CM$. Vierra Pretenders-ET at +157 GJPI is a popular new Chief son. Vierra Tenpenny-ET at +139 was used heavily and has high ranking sons, Mediator and Mayor, at +161 and +163 JPI who happen to be maternal brothers to TheBoss. Additional popular Vierra bulls like JX Vierra Sinatra {4}-ET and JX Vierra Clapton {4}-ET are siring the next generation of sought-after bulls like JX Vierra Santana {5}-ET by Sinatra with 26.5 JUI and Jx Vierra ZZTop {5} by Clapton with +156 JPI and +784 CM$. Progenesis Madison demonstrates the success of genetic selection at Vierra Dairy. Not only is she the dam of TheBoss, Mediator and Mayor, her top four sons (by three different sires) who will soon be available average +165 JPI, +755 CM$, + 10.5 JUI, +0.1 DPR, +1083M, +59F, +47P, + 1.4 PTAT.  Vierra genetics are ranking among the elite on both male and female genetic lists.

The family hasn’t developed the program to turn a quick buck. “We have a really patient team. We’re want to be here 20 years from now, not just in and out in three years,” emphasizes Peter. He traveled to World Dairy Expo in 2017 and was impressed with how the Sauder family at River Valley Jerseys had developed their vision. “They had it all – the show string, the bulls, the image and marketing,” he remembers. “We came away from Expo that year wanting to develop our own version of that – to build a memorable, high-quality brand.”

Vierra Dairy joined the Holstein club with their purchase of Oakfield Solom Footloose, Reserve Grand Champion at Madison and All-American 4-Year-Old in 2021.

In the interest of making sure breeders had the maximum amount of information about their sires, every bull mother in the program gets pictured, classified, and an official milk record. That’s no small commitment as over 750 donors are flushed annually – resulting in over 500-plus viable embryos each month. Knowing their IVF program was ramping up to that level, Vierra Dairy partnered with Boviteq in April 2021 to establish a satellite facility in Hilmar.

With the genomic program gaining traction, they wanted to build a more balanced genetic portfolio and started considering investing in some high-end show cattle to bolster the type side of things. Their friend and fellow Jersey breeder, Hank Van Exel, advised them to contact Nathan and Jenny Thomas in Ohio, as he considered them the best in the business and had owned show cattle with them in the past.

It turned out to be a game-changing recommendation, and a business relationship that turned into a friendship. Nathan and Jenny help assess which cows they should buy, and then take care of the ten best show prospects at any given time at their Triple-T Holsteins and Jerseys establishment in Ohio. “The only way we buy a cow is if Nathan buys her for us,” emphasizes Peter. “They’ve found us some incredible show winners on a very reasonable budget, and then we trust them to take the very best care. That’s the part of the business they know best, and we take their advice on which ones to show, which ones need more time, and which ones have moved past the best part of their show career.”

Vierra Dairy handles the reproductive side of the type program and makes about 100 heifer calves a year from those special type cows. “We transfer 30-50 embryos every three months to correspond with the show dates, and that usually results in about 15-30 calves a quarter. The type calves are housed at nearby Boviteq California, where we have Renee Pierick overseeing their progress and development. Nathan comes to Hilmar every couple of months to sort through the calves, and we make a plan for each – which special ones head to Ohio, which are earmarked to sell, and which ones will enter our herd here,” Peter explains. “We bring the dry donors here, the show cows that have finished their careers, and any heifers calved in that don’t look like they’ll get to the ‘first team’ on the show string. We’ll make some more embryos from those cows, and that keeps the numbers manageable for Nathan and Jenny in Ohio.”

It’s been a system that has yielded incredible results. Bri-Lin Valson Spritz EX-96% has carried the Vierra Dairy flag and is now a two-time International Jersey Show Grand Champion – both in 2019 and 2021. By her side last October stood Summer Breeze Tequila Gayle EX-91%, the Intermediate and Reserve Grand Champion. Add in the Junior Champion, SVHeaths Kid Rock Jaden, and a total of six class winners at the show, and you can see how they easily captured the Premier Exhibitor banner at the show, as they also did in 2019. They had four class winners at the All-American Jersey Show in Louisville, KY as well, so it’s not a big surprise that they were the leading exhibitor of All-American nominations in the 2021 All-American Jersey contest.

Peter credits his father-in-law for having a definite philosophy for the kind of cows they want to purchase. “He only wants the great ones. He has a stunning guitar collection, for which he only buys the very best and rarest guitars because that’s what always has value. He sees the cows the same way.” Matt has placed the final bid on some cows that Peter and Nathan thought were too expensive. “We were at the Triple-T & Heath Sale in 2020, and though we all loved Fern, we thought she had gone too high. Matt kept bidding until we owned her, and that turned out to be a great decision,” laughs Peter. Fern – Milk & Honey Vaden Fern-ET EX-91% – won the Junior 3-Year-Old class at Madison and Louisville this year on her way to All-American honors.

It’s the same story with Oakfield Solom Footloose-ET EX-94 at the Duckett Holsteins Summer Selection sale in June 2021. She got into rarefied air price-wise, but Matt was determined that Vierra Dairy would own her. Again, it proved to be another prescient decision. With Duckett Holsteins and Tim & Sharyn Abbott retaining part-ownership, Footloose sailed to a win in the 4-Year-Old class at Expo and was named Reserve Grand Champion of the International Holstein Show.

The historic World Dairy Expo Champion trio LtoR: Summer Breeze Tequila Gayle, SVHeaths Kid Rock Jaden and Bri-Lin Valson Spritz. Photo © Julie Ashton.

That leads to the question of what the Vierra Dairy plan is for their Holstein venture. Peter states that it’s to mirror the Jersey program. “We have big aspirations for our Holstein program as well. Holsteins were always part of the scene at Vierra Dairy, and now we are investing in them as we did in the Jersey herd. We’ve purchased some high-genomic individuals and want to build the genetic program to make high bulls and heifers, and to have some type females to sell.”

Will they ever get to the point where they have ‘enough’ show cows? Peter notes that they stay very open-minded for the next opportunity. “We will always have a spot for the right young cow. We try to add two good young cows every year and then have patience to see how they develop. If you buy the right ones and care for them in the right way, they keep coming back. We’re now showing cows that have been at that top level for three or four lactations, and that’s a really satisfying feeling,” he says.

With all of the reproduction work happening, it doesn’t take long before the pens are full. Turning to marketing and further development of their brand, the Vierra Dairy crew decided the spring of 2022 would be the perfect time for a sale – specifically on Saturday, March 5th. “We wanted to have an event that headlined the very best cattle, and that would bring people out to the sale. We want people to have a chance to get to know us better and to see what we’re trying to accomplish here,” elaborates Peter. “It’s going to be a two-day event with three meals served each day. On Friday, we’re going to have all-day tours and an open house. On Saturday, we’ll have the cattle viewing and then the sale, which will feature 30 genomic lots, then 60 Jersey and 60 Holstein live lots.”

There will be a post-sale concert with Dillon Carmichael, an artist signed on the family’s Riser House record label. What’s that? Their own music company? That’s right! Peter sheds the light on another family enterprise. “My father-in-law’s passion for music is unrivaled. He took the chance to start a record label, signed an artist named Mitchell Tenpenny, who had the great fortune to have a #1 hit with ‘Drunk Me’. ” Headquartered in a beautiful building on Nashville’s famed Music Row, the location is a good jumping off point each year when the Swanson family of companies partners with Semex to host the Nashville Dairy Experience.

Beyond their cows on the dairy and the singers in Nashville, family businesses are evolving to keep pace with technology and the changing environment for agriculture in the coming decades. Gathering their experience as dairy producers and the information gained from their years in the animal nutrition industry, they established the Milc group, which is a platform for cloud-based software that can help drive efficiencies on dairies of any size with herd monitoring, feed management, employee training, herd management, pulsation monitoring and more. Because it is cloud-based, it vastly reduces the implementation cost, and makes it feasible for smaller dairies to benefit from technology previously marketed to larger operations.

Even with all the entrepreneurial growth opportunities and the massive number of daily details to handle with the herd, Vierra Dairy is, at heart, still a family business with a love for cattle. “Our twin 3-year-old daughters, River and Reagan, are the fifth generation on a California dairy. Even at their age, they love to go help feed and lead the show calves with Renee,” smiles Peter. “That’s the future we’re building and that we’re looking forward to.”

They also try to be a good member of the community by offering public tours of the dairy. They maintain a large and active social media presence where they strive to be transparent, and to arm consumers with facts about concentrated agriculture, and how it can feed a growing world population. Peter advocates the family’s goal for their whole dairy operation. “We try to deliver the great message about milk and dairy products – what a fabulous nutritional product it is. And, most of all, we try to be good stewards of what God has entrusted to us.”

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