I’ve said this before, and I’ll probably say it again — one of the best parts of working as a reporter for AgriNews is the opportunity to meet awesome Illinois farmers and, especially, to visit their operations. I recently toured River Valley Dairy, where a family is focused on raising outstanding Jersey cattle.

As I steered my car up the winding driveway, it only took a few minutes to notice that the Sauder family’s attention to every detail is obvious. The well-manicured farmstead with a group of white buildings is quite a beautiful sight.

The dairy herd started because a couple of the kids were interested in the dairy business, so it began with a few cows as a 4-H project. This small start has developed into a 240-cow Jersey herd and the involvement of all seven of Gregg and Cindy Sauder’s children.

The family members graciously provided a tour of their operation during the Dairy Technology Showcase, organized by the Illinois Milk Producers’ Association.

The Sauders obviously planned well in advance for people to visit their operation by building a viewing room with large windows for the robotic milkers. This provides visitors the opportunity to watch the robots in action without disturbing the cows in any way.

The freestall barn has the capacity for 300 cows, and the Jersey cows are milked by four Lely Astronaut A3 robotic milkers. Gregg Sauder noted that this barn is designed to run on cow time.

“Part of the reason we went to robots is we want cow health to be superb,” he said. “There are no people in there rushing cows.

“The speed cows go through their life cycle is at least half the speed you and I move cows,” he added. “If you’re moving cows at your slowest, that’s twice as fast as she really wants to go.”

Cows have the opportunity to enter the robotic milker throughout the day whenever they desire.

“There has to be at least six hours in between milkings,” the dairyman explained. “Our cows are averaging 2.9 times milking per day.”

In the freestall barn, the stalls feature gel mats, which are new technology that has been out about 18 months, and sawdust is put on top of the mats.

Cows are fed twice a day, and the robotic feed pusher runs every hour on the hour to push up feed. In addition, the manure scrapers run every three hours.

After spending the first couple of weeks in individual pens, calves in the calf barn move to group pens that are equipped with robotic calf feeders. The calves are identified by ear tags by the feeder and fed the appropriate amount of milk replacer.

The show barn features 20 box stalls for the herd’s show cows. Various types of banners and trophies on display at the farm indicate the quality of cattle raised by the family.

“We have two concepts for our herd — we have a show herd, and we are also focused on genomics,” the dairyman said.

Since the herd is at the stage of buildup, they sell very few calves. However they do have about 20 bulls in stud.

“We pull hair samples to check genomics,” Sauder said. “The boys have a very good handle on the value of these bulls and heifers before we do marketing.”

This dairy operation is an excellent example of a family farm that places a high priority on providing topnotch care to each and every animal at the farm — just one of many located throughout the state.