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Raising happy cows

At his family farm in New Jersey, Zack Vander Groef sees his job as a way to steward the land

Photo by Amy Lewis

Raising happy cows
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Jael pokes her black nose between the metal head-lock bars at Vander Groef Family Farms and licks up a mouthful of carefully concocted feed. Large fans roaring under the red barn’s roof keep her and 99 other Holstein cows cool in New Jersey’s summer heat, while a veterinarian in tall olive-colored rubber boots confirms each cow’s pregnancy with an ultrasound. Just 6 miles down the road in Wantage Township, N.J., invasive sumac plants and the skeletal remains of a barn are all that’s left of a former dairy farm.

Those two New Jersey dairy farms are two parts of a worldwide trend stretching back to 1935. Herd size has tripled, but the number of dairy farms has decreased 20 percent every year. New Jersey now has only 47 dairies, down from 500. For 27-year-old Zack Vander Groef, it’s a job that allows him to fulfill the Biblical call to cultivate the earth.

More than 97 percent of dairy farms in the United States are owned and operated by families like the Vander Groefs. Twice a day, before breakfast and dinner, Vander Groef, his father, and his two brothers hook up seven cows at a time to the milking machine in their gleaming milking parlor. Each cow produces 8 to 10 gallons of milk a day.

A plate cooler chills the milk as it wends its way through pipes to a tank in the next room. Every other day, a commercial milk processor picks up 2,100 gallons of milk and delivers it to a cheese­making or bottling plant.

The Vander Groefs employ a nutritionist to assess their cows’ milk output and make needed dietary changes. They grow their own feed, except for some brewer’s grains and waste sugar trucked in twice a month. A crop consultant helps them determine what to plant on their 500 acres, and no-till farm practices retain soil nutrients from last year’s stubble and cover crops.

“I don’t know how someone can be a farmer without believing in God, because everything we do requires faith,” Zack’s wife, Rianne, says.

She takes to social media to bridge the gap between farmer and consumer. On Facebook and Instagram, she posts day-to-day farm activity photos, featuring lots of children and cows. She uses these platforms to tell the story of how a gallon of milk gets from the cow to the store.

COVID-19 food shortages in grocery stores drove some people to take a more active role in their food sourcing. They wanted to know where their food comes from, and Rianne’s storytelling helped answer their questions. Some customers drive from New York and neighboring communities to buy milk, beef, and other local farm products from a red farm store at the end of the Vander Groefs’ driveway. They like talking to real farmers.

Real farmers rely on happy cows. One indicator of a cow’s happiness is longevity. Vander Groef says Iris, his high-school 4-H show cow, still lines up for milking twice a day.

His dad started the farm with only eight cows. Now 35 years later, the Vander Groefs have 200. Dairy farming is a hard way to make a living, but Vander Groef said it suits him: “What better way to be stewards of the land than to use it to feed people? … It’s a challenge, but it’s a fun challenge.”


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