Shawhan offers personal touch to dairy cows
By PAT LAWRENCE
N ot only is Janet Shawhan on a first name basis with her co-workers, she knows all their mothers personally.
Janet and her family own and operate Starlite Dairy and Grain. Most mornings she rises at 4:30 a.m. and heads for the milking parlor by 5 a.m., where about a hundred amiable Holsteins obligingly line up for her ministrations.
“I call them co-workers because they work with me everyday and we depend on each other. They’re just like people, each one is different,” she says. “Some are all business, some like to visit, some want to love on you.”
Every cow has her teats dipped with an iodine solution, then towel dried before the milking cups are applied, then dipped again with soothing glycerin. A fresh towel is used for each cow at each milking. Janet says, “I have two washers and driers in the house and another set out here. I do laundry morning and night!” The electronic milking machines use a pulsating vacuum that simulates the effect of a suckling calf; cows empty their milk in 3–5 minutes. A sensor indicates when the milk slows down, and the milker automatically releases.
“Our cows average 78 pounds of milk a day, about 2,500 gallons a year.” Janet says. “We updated our milking parlor with a completely different system in December. It’s a double-eight — sixteen cows at a time instead of ten — and a big change for the cows. Now we milk from behind, rather than the side. Cows don’t like change but they’re getting used to the new conditions. Now the entire milking only takes about two hours. We’re finished in time to enjoy the sun rise.”
The collected milk is piped directly to a refrigerated 2,000-gallon stainless steel tank in the milk room, stored for pick-up and shipping to a processing plant. Starlite Dairy sells their milk to Dairy Farmers of America, a national cooperative that has recognized their facility as a Gold Standard Dairy for years. The milk is processed and sold by buyers that include Kroger, Meijer, General Foods, Dannon and Nestle.
Starlite is one of 2,984 dairies in Ohio. It’s home to about 200 cows, heifers, bulls and calves housed in open, curtain-sided freestall barns with rubber flooring. The arrangement maximizes cow comfort and safety, allowing animals to choose where they lay in the extensive barns and providing constant access to food and water. The feed is a Total Mixed Ration including hay, corn silage bean meal and ground corn with minerals. The composition varies according to the animal’s characteristics and is tested regularly by a professional nutritionist. High-production cows, low-production cows, dry cows, new calves, are all kept in distinct areas; all have specific mixtures formulated for their nutritional needs.
Janet says, “New mothers and any cows that need a little extra attention go to the ‘the pamper pen’. Every cow has a name and number. I can call their names faster than their numbers!” She introduces them, “Jello, Molly, Joan, Daisy, Merry, my favorite, she’s like a puppy,” and recounts their heritage. “This is Splish, out of Splash. This is Buttery, out of Butterball, out of Buttercup. We had an alcoholic line, too-Whiskey, Daquiri, Margarita and Mud Slide.”
Janet always intended to work with animals. “My father had a window covering business in Gahanna, Ohio-I built blinds as a child– but Dad was also on the Columbus Zoo board. He was proud to have been instrumental in bringing the first Bonobo monkeys to the zoo. Since we had five acres, he was always bringing animals home-a one legged crane, a domesticated deer, a llama. I grew up volunteering at the zoo and showing horses in 4H.”
She and Tom married in 1980. “We were both the youngest of four children. We met when his brother married my sister. He proposed on our first real date.” They moved into the house Tom was born in, near Beavercreek.
By the time their second son was a toddler, Janet was milking full time at the family dairy. “We bought our first farm about five miles from the homeplace. In 1983, after we paid off the farm, we bought the cows, a herd of 50–60, from his dad.” It’s a closed farm, according to Janet. “Our heifer cows remain on the farm. We only bought cows once, to increase the herd to a more profitable size, when we moved to Highland County in 1997. We have new calves year round since milk production requires that the cow be lactating from having given birth. We keep some bull calves, too. We generally rely on artificial insemination, which Tom manages, but a cow that hasn’t taken after several AI’s will be mated with a real bull.”
The family still farms in Greene County as well, about 1,800 acres total, and grows corn, soybeans, hay and wheat, but all the cows are at the dairy near Marshall. Sons Ray and Dan are an integral part of the enterprise. “They both went to mechanic’s school and are good mechanics, which has saved the farm a lot of money.” Janet is sure her grandson will join the family business. “He’s just 4, but he’s a farmer for sure. He already knows everything that goes on here.”
Still, it’s a demanding business and there’s a lot to do, from fencing to crop management to pregnancy tests, bedding pens, grinding and mixing feed and, naturally, hosing down barn floors. The freestall barn is scraped twice a day. Starlite uses pond water for the cows –they drink 40–50 gallons a day-and a manure lagoon for waste –about 12 gallons a day per cow. The lagoon contents are recycled as field irrigation several times a year. Janet says, “It’s great for replenishing the soil.”
Zeeva, the German Shepherd and two rat terriers provide supervisory support, but Starlite has just added a new full-time employee and a second part-time employee. Janet says, “It takes someone very special to work in the dairy. Milk cows are like finely tuned machines. Things have to be exactly right. We buy high quality hay from Nebraska specifically for our milk cows. They need clean, comfortable bedding, good ventilation, a safe, stress-free environment. And they’re all mothers; they deserve to be treated with respect. As long as this is our family’s farm, that’s how they’ll be treated.”
When the boys were younger, Janet says, “It was cheaper to hire a babysitter and work in the field. I used to disc all day. Now, the boys do the farming, and I take care of the cows. Feeding and bedding starts about an hour before the afternoon milking at 4 p.m. We eat our big meal at noon, so I plan a meal in the morning. After all these years, that’s still hard for me. At night, we have leftovers — or pizza!”
Electronic milking is clean and efficient, but not robotic. Milking is still a two person operation at Starlite and producing milk cows don’t take days off. Janet says,“The only vacations Tom and I had was to go to Amish Country for a day or two.” Over the years, though, she made note of things she especially appreciated during their times away. “It became my dream to build a luxury get-away cabin for other couples.” There were reservations even before construction was completed in November. She says, “I’ve spent a lot of my life talking to cows; talking to people will be fun!”
Janet expects 2013 to be a busy year, welcoming guests, keeping the cabin in pristine condition, scheduling vaccinations, veterinarians,and hoof trimmers, mowing, landscaping, and always making sure her ‘coworkers’ are healthy, happy and productive.
Two more grandchildren are on the way, plus, “we’ll be adding a new barn and maybe replacing two older barns. And I hope to get a rose bed for the cabin.” Janet is convinced the new dairy employees, one man, one woman, have the patience and consideration needed for the job. She hopes they have her gentle touch. Dairy is one of the most regulated and inspected industries in agriculture, but the most carefully monitored dairy workers may be the ones under Janet Shawhan’s vigilant eyes. “We have a little piece of heaven here. I want it to stay that way for all of us.”
(Pat Lawrence is a contributor to Acres of Southwest Ohio.)