Member of Distinction: Western Area — Vlot Brothers Dairy

Written by Marjie Knust
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Dirk and Case Vlot both agree they are living a dream — one that started on a napkin. Partners in Vlot Brothers Dairy and Calf Ranch in Chowchilla, Calif., Dirk and Case are milking 6,000 cows and raising 30,000 calves 16 years after they sketched their operation on a napkin.

“The design for this place was actually all written on a napkin on an airplane on the way to vacation someplace,” Dirk says. “That’s how it all became a reality — from a napkin to what it is today.”

The Vlot brothers grew up helping their father, Dirk, Sr., milk 125 cows on a dairy about 10 miles from their current location.

“Our dad taught us to work hard, to be honest with our neighbors, with our friends and with our customers,” Case says. “He always told us to do our best, work for what we want, and if you work hard, it will happen. We wouldn’t be where we are today if it wasn’t for our parents showing us how to work hard and help people out.”

In 1976, Dirk, Sr., lost the family dairy. Dirk and Case attended college, and Dirk went to work for a cattle breeding company, spending 20 years as a breeder. In 1990, the brothers decided they wanted to get back into dairying.

“I just love cows,” Dirk says. “I grew up in the dairy business. I don’t mind working 365 days a year, I don’t mind that one bit. I love getting dirty.”

They started leasing a 150-cow dairy and jumped from rental facility to rental facility as they expanded their herd. They were milking 800 cows in Tipton, Calif., when they secured a permit for Vlot Bros. Calf Ranch, and their napkin sketch began to take shape.

“We built the calf ranch first,” Dirk says. “It housed 3,000 head of heifers. We got that business up and running, then built the dairy second.”

Witnessing their father lose his business made the Vlots take a strategic, slow-and-steady approach to their facilities’ growth.

“It was tough to see my dad lose all of that,” Dirk says. “That was one of the reasons why we made the decision to grow into the business vs. building a 6,000-cow dairy from scratch. That made no sense to us. We grew as we needed to grow to expand. Every time we had the financial capability to add another freestall barn, we’d add another freestall barn.”

Case focuses on the calf ranch, overseeing 85 employees and raising calves for more than 100 customers. The success of the business has come entirely from word of mouth.

“I just have always had a passion for raising calves,” he says. “It’s a good feeling having people come up to us and say, ‘you raised my neighbors’ calves, can you raise our calves?’ That’s how we’ve grown over the past 15 years.”

Case says they focus on nutrition, which begins even before calves arrive at the Vlots’ facility.

“Nutrition is the number one thing when raising calves,” he says. “And that starts on day one. You have to communicate to your customers, make sure they know when to feed colostrum, the importance of good, quality colostrum.”

Case also emphasizes following proper vaccination protocol to prevent disease and employee training. With more than 135 employees between the calf ranch and dairy, training on animal care and wellness, cow and calf comfort and cleanliness is a priority.

The brothers meet once a week to discuss the businesses, which includes a trucking business to transport calves. Communication is key, and the brothers wives also play important roles in the family operations.

“Our wives play big roles,” Dirk says. “My wife, Valerie, takes care of all the bills and billing. Case’s wife, Darcy, takes care of all the employees, as well as dealing with the trucking regulations. There is no way we could do this without them.”

Both the dairy and the calf ranch are currently at capacity, making further expansion difficult. With two sons interested in going into the business, Dirk began to look for other locations.
“Being with DFA gives me a lot of positive options,” he says. “If I wanted to go to Wisconsin, we could be involved with DFA there. To me, it is very important that if you make the decision to move to another state, you have an option for somebody to take your milk.”

For three years, Dirk traveled throughout the country to find locations for an additional dairy. After visiting sites in Wisconsin, Iowa, Texas, Idaho and Washington, Dirk and his sons, DJ and Cole, visited Nevada.

“I knew that DFA had been looking for new dairymen to go to Nevada so they can have milk for their powder plant, which is in Fallon,” Dirk says. “It just worked out that there was a piece of property available in Smith Valley, which is nearby, and we got lucky enough to be able to tie that up, plus an additional couple other ranches right next door.”

Dirk broke ground on the new facility, Smith Valley Dairy, in late 2013, and hopes to be milking 3,200 head this summer. The parlor will look nearly identical to the parlors at Vlot Brothers, which has two double-40 parallels. Smith Valley will milk on one double-50, and the herd will be housed in open corrals as opposed to California’s freestall barns.

“We’ll run the dairies the same,” Dirk says. “It will add more responsibility, but I’ll have two herdsmen in Nevada to run that facility. I’m a big delegator, but I’ll still be there every week. That’s just the way I am.”

Milk from Smith Valley Dairy will ship to DFA’s new plant in Fallon, Nev., which began operating this spring. At full capacity, the plant will process 2 million pounds of milk a day into whole milk powder for customers throughout the world.

The fact that there was an opportunity to build a dairy only four hours from his home facility with a secure local market was appealing, Dirk says.

“It would be very hard to expand where we are,” he says. “We can see the future, and that is to go to another state where milk is needed.”

Dirk will move the 2,500-cow herd he and his wife own, which is named Cowifornia Dreamen Dairy and is housed at Vlot Brothers Dairy, to Nevada once that facility is complete. That will bring the herd down to 3,500 head, but the brothers plan to build it back up to 6,000.

Case is not a partner in Smith Valley Dairy, but the brothers will continue to run Vlot Brothers Dairy and Calf Ranch together. The diversity in the dairy operation, plus being able to grow much of is own feed, allows the family to weather economic downturns.

“We grow about 4,200 acres of farm ground, and everything is feed for our facilities,” Case says. “The three businesses — the dairy, the calf ranch and the trucking business — loop together very well. The calf ranch is able to absorb some financial burden when the dairy has a rough year and vice versa.”

Through steady growth and clear communication, the Vlots have literally turned a dream into a reality.

“My dream was always to have a 2,000-cow dairy somewhere,” Dirk says. “Case’s dream, I think, has always been to have a calf ranch, and it just worked well together that I have a dairy and he has a calf ranch all on one facility.”