DeWit''s American Dairy Journey

January 15, 2009 06:00 PM

Ambition, hard work and careful savings fueled Harry DeWit's journey from his father's 32-cow dairy in Holland to the big-sky country of Texas.

DeWit knew early on that it was impossible to expand the family farm or buy his own dairy in heavily populated, regulation-riddled Holland. In 1985, as the last year of his college studies approached, he left for New Brunswick, Canada, to work on a dairy. Fourteen months later, DeWit returned to Holland to complete his studies in animal science. A day after finishing his exams, he went back to Canada, this time to milk cows in Ontario.

By 1987, DeWit was headed to Escondido in Southern California, where his Canadian employer had relatives who owned a dairy. Within six months, DeWit had progressed from milker to herdsman. He emerged from that experience with expanded dairy knowledge, a growing savings account and an introduction to his future wife, who was visiting from Holland. He and Margret were married in 1992.

That year, friends helped DeWit get a job as a herdsman in Stephenville, Texas. Six months later, his employer offered to build a corral and lease DeWit 150 spaces on his dairy if he'd stay on as herdsman for another year. DeWit agreed, buying 150 cows to begin dairying.

In 1993, DeWit leased a drylot dairy near Stephenville. He began milking 250 cows. The owner expanded the facility, allowing DeWit to boost his milk cow numbers. By 1996, he was milking 750 cows.

Still looking to possess his own dairy, DeWit explored sites in Michigan and Indiana. In Ohio, he found dairy property he liked; he even applied for a 3,000-cow permit. But local opposition was so strong, he withdrew the application. "I told my wife that life's too short to put up with opposing lawyers and citizen groups,” DeWit remembers.

Meanwhile, DeWit had expanded his dairy leasing arrangements near Stephenville. He was now dairying at three sites and milking 2,150 cows, but none of the dairies was his own.

Then, in 2001, he started to look in West Texas. "I liked the open spaces and the opportunities and knowing you can grow your own crops here,” DeWit says.

He found a 640-acre site near Friona and in 2002 began building his High Plains Dairy. By summer, he had ended all his Stephenville leases and moved his cows, equipment and employees to Friona, along with Margret and their children.

"A lot of people ask me how long it took me to get used to the area,” DeWit says. "It took me five minutes. It's home.”

At his new dairy, DeWit put in freestalls for 60% of his milk cows. He built open-lot housing for the remaining 40% as well as for the dry cows. He also constructed a special-needs barn. In 2004, he added a heifer facility and calf hutches. By late 2006, DeWit was milking 3,200 cows 3X -- and preparing to build more freestall barns.

Then he visited a South Dakota dairy and got his first look at a cross-ventilation barn. "I was so amazed at the way it worked,” DeWit says.

He returned home, changed his freestall plans and instead built the cross-ventilated barn in early 2007. Because it was a good year financially –- his 2007 milk prices reached a high of $20.66/cwt. -- DeWit also added a manure separator, silage pits, a new shop and hay barns to his dairy operations. That year, DeWit brought all his cows into the new cross-ventilated barn and boosted his milking string to 4,400 cows.

Today, the dairy is expanding its office space, once the domain of wife Margret. She's now cut back her time there to one day a week, and two employees now handle office duties.

The oldest DeWit children, Ryan, 14, and Jake, 13, have worked on the dairy for the past three summers. They've cleaned water troughs, swathed alfalfa fields, fed calves and, this past summer, milked cows in the rotary parlor. The youngest DeWit children, Kim, 9, and Cody, 7, have some time before they too begin to learn firsthand what it means to work on High Plains Dairy.

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