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Dietitians visit SheeKnoll Farms

By Janet Kubat Willette

Date Modified: 04/28/2012 9:49 PM

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ROCHESTER, Minn. — Dietitians with questions about milk quality had the opportunity to talk directly to milk producers during a visit to SheeKnoll Farms near Simpson.

The Minnesota Dietetic Association, which held its 94th annual meeting in Rochester last week, included a pre-convention tour to the multi-family

dairy farm. Dietitians earned four continuing education credits for the dairy-themed afternoon, which also included a virtual tour of a Kemps plant.

Carolyn Hudson, a registered dietician with Midwest Dairy Association, is also president of the Minnesota Dietetic Association.

"We're very proud of her and dairy farmers should be, too," said Donna Moenning, senior vice president of integrated communications for Midwest

Dairy Association.

Hudson has worked for Minnesota Dairy for seven years and has been involved with the dietetic association for 14. She's been on the board of

directors for five or six years.

Hudson helped arrange the 2012 conference and wanted to include the dairy information because dietitians have a lot of questions about cow

care, organic milk and antibiotics in milk. Consumers ask those questions, Hudson said, and she wanted her fellow dietitians to have answers from knowledgeable sources.

There are about 3,000 dietitians in the state and more than half, about 1,700, belong to the Minnesota Dietetic Association, Hudson said.

Dietitians work in hospitals or other institutions, in retail environments or in educational settings. Some are educators.

Some of those involved in the association have farm connections, but many don't. The pre-conference tour was a way to educate dietitians about the people behind the dairy products they consume, Hudson said.

"We were happy to be able to share our farm with consumers," said Jeannette Sheehan.

The tour included a visit to the milking parlor, compost-bedded barn and calf-raising facility at SheeKnoll Farms. The farm was started by James Sr. and Helen Sheehan in 1965. Today, brothers Robert, Jerome and Jim and their families operate the farm.

Three members of the third generation of Sheehans have thus far made the farm their career: Jim's sons, Steve and

Ben, and Robert's son, Andrew.

"Take care of the cows and they will take care of us," is the SheeKnoll Farms philosophy, engrained in the family by James and Helen.

The family owns two dairy facilities in Olmsted County. One site has a 230-cow barn and milking parlor; the other site houses 55 cows.

As the dietitians shuffled through the barn with blue paper boots on their shoes, tour guide Jim Paulson, a regional Extension educator who

specializes in dairy, stopped them to talk about the cows' diet.

Cows always have food in front of them, he said, and they like eating the same thing every day.

A nutritionist works with the Sheehan family to put together a mix of feeds to maximize milk production, but also taking into account the cost of different feedstuffs. Feed cost is about 50 percent the cost of producing milk, Paulson said. Each cow consumes about 103 pounds of feed per day.

The ration may include alfalfa, soybean meal, corn gluten, dried distillers grains, corn silage and haylage. Vitamins and minerals are also


"We feed much more precisely than we eat," Paulson said.

Most of their alfalfa is harvested as haylage, Jeanette Sheehan said.

They buy their dry hay.

Moenning told the dietitians to listen to the cows. Quiet cows, she said, are content.

They addressed the question of pasture v. barn. Their cows prefer indoors, especially on a hot summer day. Insulation in the roof, fans and misters

provide a more comfortable environment on hot days than a shade tree in the pasture.

Another dietician wondered where the feed bunks were. The Sheehans explained they used to have feed bunks, but they caused more waste. Now,

Ben Sheehan said, they push the feed up to the cows three or four times a day.

A dietician asked how cows keep flies off them if they don't have tails.

Paulson said the goal is to minimize flies on the whole farm. Also, increased air movement keeps flies from sitting on cows. Tail docking also keeps cows cleaner.

He emphasized that cows are social animals and prefer to move together, likening heifers to kindergartners or first graders just adjusting to


In the calf barn, Ben Sheehan discussed their calf care procedure. Calves are fed mother's milk for two to three days, followed by milk replacer.

Calves are weaned at 60 days. They have access to free choice water and calf starter. The calves wear coats when it's cool to keep them from burning too much energy staying warm.

Hudson said the group of dietitians who toured the farm will in turn educate their clients and others they work with.