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Donnelly Tours Kuehnert Dairy, Hears Farm Bill Input

by Holly Hahn Yoder

Published: Friday, July 14, 2017

Scrutinizing the computer screen, Sen. Joe Donnelly listened intently as Nathan Kuehnert explained how the information on the computer helps keep his Holstein herd healthy. Donnelly was at one of his stops on his Farm Bill Listening Tour at the Kuehnert farm near Fort Wayne last Thursday. As a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Donnelly has been meeting with different Indiana agricultural stakeholders since January to prepare for the writing of the 2018 Farm Bill.

Earlier at the Kuehnert farm, Donnelly (D-Ind.) met with a number of Indiana dairy farmers in a private session.

"He probably did more listening than talking. It was good. He needs to get out and see real people," stated Kuehnert.

Immigration, school nutrition programs and the Margin Protection Program (MPP) were all topics addressed in the meeting. One of Kuehnert's biggest concerns was the MPP, an insurance program for dairy farms. In his view, the MPP is a failure. Dairy farmers paid in, but few received any return for their money, said Kuehnert.

"We are not asking to get rich. When milk prices get to a point where we can't pay our bills, that's when we would like to see some help," said Kuehnert.

Donnelly, Kuehnert and Indiana Dairy Producers president, Brian Houin, answered a few questions in a short press conference before Donnelly left for his next appearance. Immigration was the first topic addressed by the trio.

A few years ago, Republicans and Democrats in the Senate passed an immigration bill that would have secured the border and, more importantly for the agricultural sector, provided a steady source of workers, asserted Donnelly.

"We would have people come back year after year or, in the case of the dairy farm, they could stay year- round. I am hopeful as we move forward, we can get that kind of immigration bill. We have a template. We have a road map and that is what we need to follow," said Donnelly

Kuehnert and Houin agreed.

"We are way different than a lot of industries. We have to work weekends, we have to work holidays. We work 365 and 24/7, so it's hard to find people that want to do the type of work that we have on dairy farms. Having some sort of immigration reform would be hugely beneficial," added Houin.

The Kuehnerts had so much difficulty finding laborers that they made a decision to install the robotic milking system three years ago. It solved their labor shortage but also increased their production by 15 percent.

Another pressing issue for dairy farmers is the decline of fluid milk consumption. One of the reasons for this decline is the requirement in school nutrition to have only skim milk available.

"Let's face it, milk with a little bit of fat tastes a lot better than fat free," said Kuehnert.

Kuehnert said that he would like to see 2 percent flavored milk back in the schools but is satisfied that 1 percent milk will be allowed in schools this fall.

Donnelly is confident that this farm bill won't be derailed by legislators who would like to separate the nutrition programs from the agriculture components of it.

"We have a lot of urban legislators who want to make sure there is a good nutrition program in place. On our end, we want to make sure that in that nutrition program, that they are drinking milk, that they are eating fresh vegetables," said Donnelly.

If the farm bill has components that are mutually beneficial with both urban and farm lawmakers, it is easier to get consensus and get a bill passed, stated Donnelly.

NAFTA was also on the mind of the dairymen and women.

"As NAFTA is renegotiated, we need to have a NAFTA that works out for not just the manufacturing sector but the agricultural sector as well," said Donnelly.

Not all of Donnelly's day on the dairy farm dealt with legislation. Donnnelly got a taste of dairy farm life, thanks to Kuehnert. The senator marveled at the sophistication of the robotic milking system. In a viewing and meeting room above the cows, Kuehnert showed Donnelly how the biometric ankle bracelets, which monitor the cows' vital signs, sends information to his computer. In turn, Kuehnert monitors this information to detect possible problems and allows for early intervention in case of illness.

Downstairs, Donnelly watched as a cow came into the robotic milking stall. The cow's udder was cleaned by the robot, and lasers determined the location of each teat before placing the cups on each one. Keuhnert explained how the milk from each quarter is monitored for not just milk flow, but also somatic cell counts and the quality of the milk.

Kuehnert put Donnelly to work spraying water on the stall floor to clean it up. Then, Kuehnert showed Donnelly how the lasers are calibrated every two days. Donnelly calibrated the lasers and was able to check the accuracy of his calibration when the next cow came into the stall. He also sprayed disinfectant on certain parts of the robot as well.

Not only did Donnelly perform barn tasks in front of the dairy men and women, but it was obvious to them that he loved the product they produced. All afternoon, Donnelly quenched his thirst with multiple bottles of milk. He even asked for a bottle on his way out to his car.

"Joe is also a big milk drinker," said Kuehnert with a smile.

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