Member of Distinction: Central Area — Heartland Dairy

Written by Marjie Knust
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At Heartland Dairy in La Belle, Mo., the cows are there to do more than simply make milk. They also teach people.

To owner Charlie Sharpe, they fulfill a mission he started 18 years ago when he founded Heartland Community, a Christian community for people battling drug and alcohol addiction. The dairy serves as a first step for men going through the community’s rehabilitation program.

“A lot of times we just take for granted that everybody knows something, but the truth is there are a lot of people that really don’t know anything about life, how to conduct their life, how to be productive in any way,” Sharpe says. “Most everything they do is to take something rather than give something. So, we started the dairy because it gives people jobs.”

“Virtually all of our guys in the rehab program start work milking at the dairy,” says Chris Powell, Heartland’s general manager. “We are consistently training people. That’s why we like consistency.”

The dairy’s 4,000 cows are milked in a 60-stall rotary parlor, a set-up that works well because the rotary sets the pace, Powell says. Most of the dairy’s 130 employees had never been on a dairy before they came to Heartland.

“It makes it easier when a new guy comes in to be able to say, ‘stand here,’ and the cows come to you,” Powell says.

Following consistent procedures throughout the dairy helps to keep milk quality and production high, as well as reinforce the teachings of the rehab program, Sharpe says.

“They learn that it can’t wait until tomorrow,” he says. “It has to be done today. We have to get up every day and three times a day, we milk these cows, and that’s seven days a week, 365 days a year, and it teaches these people consistency and faithfulness.”

Originally from New Zealand, Powell, who also oversees several other Heartland businesses, says his job at Heartland combines two of his favorite things.

“Helping people is one of the main things I really like to do,” he says. “When you can combine agriculture and helping people, it’s a pretty good deal.”

The dairy is currently undergoing an expansion, doubling the size of the milking herd in the next 12 to 18 months. To complete the expansion, Heartland will build an 80-stall rotary parlor in addition to its current parlor.

“We like the rotaries for the help we get because it’s good, consistent work and it’s easy to learn the process,” Powell says. “If we milk about 8,000 cows, that’s going to give us more jobs for people. We can help more people.”

In addition to expanding, Powell says the farm is also are working to increase milk production per cow from about 75 pounds per cow per day to about 85 pounds per day. The first step to achieving that goal is to begin using sand bedding.

“Cows are way more comfortable in the sand,” Powell says. “The first pen we put in on the sand, it looked like we got about a five-pound increase in production, solely accredited to the sand.”

The dairy also installed a manure separator to recycle the bedding, which is saving costs as well. Heartland also has a farming operation, which grows all of the feed for the dairy, as well as feed for the business’ goat herd. Much of the milk from the goats is used to make cheese in Heartland’s creamery. The creamery used to bottle cows’ milk, but the endeavor was not as profitable as they would have liked, Sharpe says.