Milking R Dairy combines new technology with old-fashioned values to help provide Florida with a safe and sustainable food supply.
OKEECHOBEE – Milking R Dairy combines new technology with old-fashioned values to help provide Florida with a safe and sustainable food supply.
Sutton Rucks is a fourth-generation Florida dairy farmer. His great-grandfather moved to Florida in the 1920s. At first, he and his sons worked on dairy farms in the Miami area. In 1933, they leased land to start their own dairy with 35 milk cows which they hand milked. Around 1947, his grandfather bought a farm in Deerfield Beach. They milked cows at midnight and noon. Since they did not have refrigeration, they took the milk directly to the processor. In 1956, with land prices on the coast area rising, they sold the 200 acre farm in Deerfield Beach and were able to buy 1,200 acres in Okeechobee County. They were later able to add another 1,200 acres, which they used to raise beef cattle.
Over the years, “there’s been a lot of learning,” Rucks explained on a tour of the dairy on Jan. 13. They have found ways to improve the dairy herd, increase milk production and better protect the environment.
In 1986, algal blooms on Lake Okeechobee focused attention on nutrient content in runoff from dairy farms. New regulations required dairies to recycle water on the farms and prevent nutrient-rich runoff from leaving the property.
A series of ditches captures runoff, which is recycled on the property for irrigation. A 100-acre retention pond can hold water up to 3 feet high for 300-acre-feet of water storage. In 2004, they added a free stall barn, in which cows recline on beds of sand. While the barn was initially designed to manage the nutrients in runoff, they found keeping the cows cool and comfortable also benefited the cows. Now all 1,500 mature dairy cows on Milkin R reside in free stall barns.
“We virtually created our own ecosystem,” he explained. While some runoff may leave the property for short periods during heavy rain events, about 95% of the rainfall is captured. He said they are working on retaining 100% of the rainfall on the farm. All water used on the farm is recycled water or captured rainfall, he added. They don’t pull freshwater from any other sources to irrigate the grass or other crops they raise as cattle feed.
Rucks said about 65 to 70% of the cattle feed is grown on the farm,
Every year brings both new challenges and opportunities.
Farm tours for school children inspired the creation of their own ice cream so the tour could include a dairy product. When the covid pandemic hit, the tours stopped, and at first they wondered what to do with the surplus ice cream. Posting on social media resulted not only in the sale of the frozen treats, but also a new revenue stream in selling ice cream to the public. They have since added sales of their own milk – bottled at a processing plant in Clewiston – and sales of their own beef.
Milking R milk is a little different from milk you find in the grocery store, Rucks explained. Most processed milk removes the butterfat and then adds some back. Whole milk in the grocery store contains 3.25% butterfat. The processor used by Milking R does not separate the milk. It is pasteurized and homogenized but it’s not as processed as much as standard whole milk. That means the flavor is a little richer and sometimes, a little cream may rise to the top. Milking R Whole milk has about 3.8% butterfat.
Rucks said their long term goal is to have their own processing plant in Okeechobee.
The dairy is now open to the public three days a week: Thursday from 2 to 6 p.m., Friday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The dairy has a separate maternity barn where the cows give birth. Rucks explained about 60% of the calves are dairy breeds. The dairy breed heifers are sent to Ohio to grow up, and return to Florida when they are about 9 months old. It’s cheaper to ship the calves to the grain than the grain to the calves. The bull calves go to Texas to be raised as beef cattle.
For their first calves, young dairy cows are bred with beef cattle such as Angus which produce a small calf. About 40% of the dairy herd (the lower producing 40%) are also bred with beef cattle. These crossbred calves are destined to become part of the beef cattle herd.
Calves destined for the beef herd are raised on the farm with automatic machines that dispense milk. A tag in the calf’s ear sends a radio signal to the computer that controls the flow of milk. Each calf is given 9 to 12 liters of milk per day, depending on their age and size. To keep the calf from overeating, the milk is dispensed 3 liters at a time. The computer can tell which calf is at a feeding station, how much milk the calf has already had that day, and if a calf is due for feeding.
A big change at the dairy is coming this year with the addition of a rotary milking parlor. Milking R’s current milking parlor can milk 28 cows at a time. The new rotary milking parlor, currently under construction, will milk 54 cows at one time. In a rotary milking parlor, cows load onto a carousel, where they are checked, sanitized, hooked up to a milking machine and then rotated. The cows are milked as they ride around the circle on the carousel. As the milked cows depart, new cows are loaded.
Rucks said his father was usually a person who liked to “keep it simple,” and hated automation but when he saw a rotary parlor in action, he wanted one someday for the Rucks dairy.
The Milking R rotary parlor will be third of its kind in Florida. Rucks said cows seem to like the rotary milking parlors. "We don't take the milk from the cows," he explained. "The cow gives us her milk." If a cow is stressed, her milk production decreases. It's important to keep the cows calm and content.
Rucks said like most farmers, he wants the land and the business to stay in the family for future generations. Technical innovations help keep the farm profitable, protect the environment and provide a safe and healthy food supply for the American public.