Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
DERIDDER – It’s milking time at the Hill Crest Creamery, and as usual the same two cows are always at the front of the line.
Number 13 goes in first on the right side. Number 1701, first on the left.
Neither is the alpha cow of the herd of 34.
“They’re just creatures of habit,” explains owner Daylon Schmidt.
Schmidt, 22, has become a creature of habit also, milking the herd at 6 a.m. and again at 4 p.m. Cows don’t have holidays and they don’t take time off for disasters like hurricanes.
“We don’t even get off at Christmas,” Daylon said.
He also didn’t get a break after the 2020 hurricanes hit. A 60KW generator provided power to run the milking equipment, burning more than 1,000 gallons of diesel. After Hurricane Laura, the generator ran for 18 days, and 7 days after Delta.
The worst thing that could happen would be a sudden halt in milking. “If they’re producing a lot of milk and you stop milking them, they’ll get sick,” he explained.
When it comes time to gather the herd for milking, Daylon has help. Three cow dogs are used to rousting the bovines resting under shade trees and cooling off in a pond.
The dogs do their job silently. No barking allowed.
“They get in trouble if they bark” Schmidt said, explaining that stress such as loud noises might upset the cows and reduce their milk production.
A scoop of feed for each milking stall persuades the cows to enter the milking parlor. “If we don’t do that, they won’t come in.”
The milking machines and cows’ teats are cleaned before and after milking. Afterwards, eats are swabbed with a special solution to ward off bacteria.
The parlor can milk 8 cows at a time. A milking takes about 15 minutes, and currently the dairy has 34 cows to milk. “You don’t want to milk them too little and you don’t want to milk them too long.”
The herd consists of Brown Swiss and Jersey breeds, with a couple of Holsteins.
Daylon said he would like to be able to milk more cows at once, but he realizes the cost of expanding would take a while to pay for itself.
The business sells a variety of dairy products including whole milk, buttermilk, chocolate milk, yogurt, butter and cream. Their products are available at the Hill Crest Creamery, 635 Willow Branch Road, DeRidder. Several area stores carry their products, and it’s also available at farmers markets as far away as Lafayette.
Louisiana law prohibits the sale of raw milk that has not been pasteurized, a process of heating the milk to 145 degrees to kill harmful bacteria. Hill Crest products are pasteurized but not homogenized, a process that gives milk its rich, white color and smooth texture. Milk that has not been homogenized contains a layer of cream that rises to the top of a glass.
Milk from the cows is pumped into a 600-gallon chilling tank. From there, it goes into the pasteurizing machine. The temperature of the milk is constantly recorded on graph paper.
“An inspector looks at every one to see that we did it right,” Daylon said.
Following the afternoon milking, the herd is moved for the night to another pasture with better grass. In the summer, Daylon said, cows eat more after the sun goes down.
Summer forage is made up of whatever grows in the fields, Daylon said, but ryegrass provides winter grazing. He also provides hay, although last year’s hurricanes blew away his hay barn.
Cows can’t be milked year-round. Daylon said they get a 2-3 month rest each year.
A cow with its first calf at about 30 months is ready to milk, but the first lactation period usually produces a low volume.
“The third or fourth lactation is probably the peak,” he said.
Typically a cow on a small dairy such as Hill Crest can provide 6 or 7 years of production, he said, but large dairies only get a year or 2 out of a cow.
The dairy has a Brown Swiss bull, but he said usually cows are artificially inseminated.
Daylon’s father and grandpa had a dairy but it went out of business and the family started the Sunrise Catfish Farm south of DeRidder where people pay to catch catfish. His uncle owns that business now.
Daylon learned much of what he knows about milking cows from working at another dairy.
Daylon has help from Anna Decker, whose family sold the dairy to Daylon. Her experience on the farm is obvious as she skillfully handles the cows effortlessly. “This is where I grew up,” she said. “This is what I’ve done since I was big enough to milk.”
The Decker family built the dairy 37 years ago.
Daylon and Anna are Mennonites. Holdeman Mennonites, more precisely, named after John Holdeman, the American founder of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite.
Their lifestyle is marked by simplicity in dress, possessions and hard work.
The men have beards, and women wear head coverings on their hair.
They believe they should remain separate from worldly things, i.e., popular music, professional sports, fashion, smoking, television, dancing, alcohol, un-Christian books and magazines and musical instruments. Mennonites do not vote or serve in the military service or hold government office.
(Daylon requested no photos of him or Anna be taken.)
According to the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, the Highland Church of God in Christ, Mennonite congregation south of DeRidder, was established in 1937 by families from Texas who wanted to get away from the devastating dust storms of the 1930s.
They moved to cheap land in Louisiana that was deforested and undeveloped. Noah Schmidt was the first to move in June 1937 to the area south of DeRidder that became known as the Mennonite Settlement. Six other families arrived that same year, including their minister, F.C. Fricke.
In 2000, because of the Highland church’s growth, another congregation was established east of DeRidder. It is known as the Southern Magnolia Church of God in Christ, Mennonite.
Keith Hawkins, LSU AgCenter county agent in Beauregard Parish, said Mennonites have several businesses in the area, such as the Highland Growers that sells ag-related products.
“I’ve had very positive experiences dealing with Mennonites,” Hawkins said. “They’re hard working people and they do quality work. They add a lot to our community.”