RIVERDALE — There’s a stereotype of farmers in popular culture as stodgy, by-the-book drudges uninterested in adopting new techniques and approaches.
A few minutes’ conversation with Riverdale dairyman Steve Maddox shows how that common view misses the mark. Maddox is determined to make his dairy business every bit as efficiency-minded as any other kind of cutting-edge business out there.
His creative approach to lowering costs, producing less pollution, caring better for cows and saving on electricity has garnered the Outstanding Dairy Farm Sustainability Award from the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, an organization dedicated to recognizing businesses that make sustainability and stewardship as important as profitability.
Actually, the two tend to go hand-in-hand. The brutal past five years in the local dairy industry has been a testing ground, weeding out some dairies and forcing dairy farmers to become more educated, more hands-on and more creative.
For some, the adjustments might be especially painful. For Maddox, it’s part of a long family culture of embracing new techniques. His college-educated father had planned to be an agriculture teacher, but switched to dairying instead. He was determined to experiment, to always try to improve. That same risk-taking approach has been passed on to the son.
While some might be blind to everything but short-term profit, Maddox believes the key is taking a long-range approach.
“A lot of people look for a quick return,” he said. “In dairying, nothing’s quick.”
The press release from the Center for U.S. Dairy lists projects Maddox has implemented such as duel-fuel diesel/propane water pumps that save costs and reduce pollution, a 1-megawatt solar power plant that has slashed the dairy’s electrical bills and more efficient lighting.
But there are a dozen other less-visible improvements that have produced some surprising results. Against all conventional wisdom, Maddox has reduced the number of cows on his 3,300-animal operation while at the same time increasing milk output by 20 percent.
That may seem miraculous, but it boils down to better, smarter cow care, according to Maddox. He has radio frequency identification tags on each animal that help build a complete, individualized computer database for every cow.
Essentially, Maddox is using technology to maintain the same care for the individual cows that used to be standard on small farms.
“We were one of the first big dairies,” he said. “The key is managing the cows like they’re your only cow.”
In a way, dairying is getting harder and harder to maintain as the attractions of other crops grow. Almonds and pistachios are high-profit margin crops that require minimal labor.
Dairying, by contrast, is still a 24/7/365 operation that easily turns to drudgery. For the children of dairy farmers contemplate taking over from their parents, it may seem a boring and depressing task.
Some local dairies are selling off their herds simply because the next generation doesn’t want to stay in the lifestyle.
Maddox has trained his son, Steve Maddox Jr., to always be willing to experiment with new ways and new techniques, to not be stuck in a rut.
When the torch gets passed, it’s likely that the next generation will keep things fresh.
“Keeping things interesting keeps you going,” Maddox said.
The reporter can be reached at 583-2432 and at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @SethN_HS.