By Craig Moorhead

Special Feature Writer

"I'm kind of your average Minnesota dairy farmer," Doug Heintz told U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar last Saturday.

Heintz was referring to the size of his herd, with 120 to 130 cows currently milking out of a total of 150, and another 150 heifers waiting in the wings. In other ways, the Heintz Badger Valley Farm, located between Caledonia and Houston in Sheldon Township, is anything but average.

"In 2008 we installed this robotic milking parlor," Heintz told the senator as she toured the farm. She has been something of a trendsetter herself. In 2006, Klobuchar became the first woman elected to represent the State of Minnesota in the United States Senate.

"Our production really went up... we're selling about double the amount of milk now," Heintz said.

That's because the two robotic milkers, which work 24/7, seem to be agreeing with his cows. Heintz is only milking about 20 to 30 more cattle than before the installation, selling certified rBST-free milk. Every other day, a semi-tanker takes away another 24,000 pounds of fresh product.

The cows bring themselves to the robots, stand in line, and wait their turn. They're rewarded with what Heintz calls a "treat," a ration of protein pellets, while they're milked.

"Each cow has an I.D. collar on, so the machine knows who's in there, when she was milked last, and how much to feed her," he said. "It's all voluntary."

If a cow steps up, but doesn't get her treat or a milking, she wanders off again. "That's because she was milked less that two hours ago," Heintz said with a smile.

"The machine keeps track... I can check the files on the computer and see who was milked and when. It also shows the weight of the cow, how many pounds of milk she's giving, and has heat-detecting technology to track body temperature. The collar even reports on the amount of cud chewing, sensing neck muscle activity."

Dairy is absolutely vital in southeastern Minnesota, Heintz told the senator. "Here in Houston County we have the bluffs," he explained. "With the lay of the land, we have to maintain hay production. We can't have corn and soybeans on everything."

Klobuchar noted that in order for Minnesota dairy to survive, it needs to compete with the efficiencies of large corporate farms in other states.

"I'm just excited about what you see here," she said. "More and more, you hear about the vanishing family dairy farm. They (the Heintz family) have found a way to make it work, and do that with less than 200 cows.

"Otherwise, it's just going to be taken over by big dairy farms in California. That's not what we want. That's not the Minnesota way. This state was founded on small family dairy farms and when the economics changed the small farmers had to adjust. That's what he's done here, by putting in this equipment.

"Doug has had to ask himself, 'How can I still make money, still keep my family employed, and keep up with these big farms?' He's done it through technology, finding a way that's actually better for the cows, better for the environment also, with the way they take the manure and put it back into fertilizer. It's an amazing success story."

Asked about the state shutdown, Klobuchar said, "I'm hopeful that the governor and Legislature can work this out. We've always been a bi-partisan state."

Federal deficit reduction efforts could be hard on farm programs, Klobuchar said, noting the importance of dairy programs for producers. "The budget that passed in the House had $30 billion in ag cuts," she stated.

"I think that's a much larger number than we need when we look at it and compare it with other areas of the budget, so that's something I'd like to see improved... with what we do in the Senate. Ten billion in ag cuts sounds a lot better to me."

Other visits in SE Minnesota

In the early afternoon on Saturday, Klobuchar toured Tom Vavra Farms near Blooming Prairie. The farm includes mostly corn and soybeans, and an innovative new grain handling system was recently built that allows the farm to bypass commercial elevators.

Later in the afternoon Klobuchar toured the POET biorefining plant in Lake Crystal.