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Herd Managers: The Hands Behind the Operation

By Paulette Swallow,
Sustainable Ag Coordinator

Any rancher will tell you, day-to-day operations on the ranch include countless duties that must be completed, and many of these crucial tasks are done by a herd manager, who might also be the owner of the ranch, a family member, or a specially trained and hired individual. Every day, herd managers must milk their animals twice a day - at the same exact time, plan for their animals to graze on pasture, and supplement their animals’ time off pasture with customized nutritional plans or “rations” made from feed comprised of hay and sometimes grain. The herd and milking barn must also be carefully cared for, including attention to the  animals’ health and nutritional needs, and following procedures for pre- and post-milking twice daily. Other responsibilities include reproduction management, which entails recording birthing records of calves, assessing progress of future births, and establishing pregnancy rates in cows.  Typically, there are also employees to supervise, and records to update in the office.

Bob Giacomini, who has milked cows for decades on his Point Reyes dairy farm, Giacomini Dairy, has employed a herd manager as part of his ranch operation for years. Bob initially created the position for a hired hand that had been with the dairy for a long time and knew how the ranch was run; he just grew into the position. Bob was able to hand over more responsibility and decision making which gave him a little more time to spend with his family, and in rare circumstances for most ranchers, even take a vacation. Bob found a lot of value in having a herd manager on his ranch and has since maintained this position. Over the years Bob has had a few different herd managers work at his ranch. He feels the dairy is like any other business and needs this crucial management position. When his dream came true of creating a farmstead product, “Point Reyes Blue”, much of his time would now need to be delegated to the creamery and the “Fork” culinary facility, which both reside on the ranch. According to Bob, having a herd manager allows him to put his attention where it is most needed at any given time. It also has allowed him to spend needed time off farm , “I can leave the ranch for one night or a month straight and I will have someone else that can deal with things, because no matter what – the cows need to be milked.”

Brannon Areias is the current herd manager for Giacomini Dairy. When I arrived at the Giacomini Dairy to interview Brannon he was in his office which sits directly above the milk barn and his pup Bella lay curled up quietly on the floor next to his desk. We talked about his role as herd manger on the ranch, and as he readily answered my questions, he had one eye on his computer screen where he inputs information into a data base that keeps track of the milk production and health of each animal.. When I wrapped up our interview, he abruptly popped out of his chair and announced it was time to go to the barn and check on a cow that was about to give birth..  I watched Brannon assist the momma cow into her own corral and asses that things were coming along smoothly. It was apparent to me that he is in his element and truly has the best interest of his four-legged “clients” in mind!

Brannon is a graduate of California Polytechnic State University and grew up on his family’s dairy in Los Banos. He is the third generation of his family to be in the dairy business. Brannon’s heart was led to Sonoma County by his wife Jenna and their daughter Alexa. Fortunately for Brannon, although he is not working on his family’s dairy, he is able to keep doing what he knows and loves. As a herd manager for the Giacomini’s, Brannon has come to have a great appreciation for the difference in the dairy practices he grew up with in the Central Valley and what the Giacomini’s have created at their Point Reyes dairy. He admires the efforts to be as sustainable as possible, which he views as “something to be very proud of.” Brannon explained, “I also like that we don’t have a creamery dictating our milk prices” since the majority of the dairy’s milk goes directly into making their own farmstead cheeses,  “so our cows are always able to pay for the feed they use.”

Toluma Farms, a sheep and goat dairy, and home of Tomales Farmstead Creamery, has found great benefit in having a herd manager. As the vision of a farmstead creamery unfolded, ranch owner’s Tamara Hicks and David Jablons realized they needed to hire a herd manager to help run their daily operations, allowing them to focus on their new creamery and the corresponding business they were building.

I also talked with Elizabeth Bijorklund, herd manager for Toluma Farms, to learn more about her role. Elizabeth explained that after graduating from Chico State University in animal science, she knew she was wasn’t done with her education so she took her ambition to Minnesota State where she earned a Master’s Degree in animal science and minored in sustainable agriculture. It was there that Elizabeth first got the idea to become a herd manager in the dairy industry because she felt that sustainability was very important in the industry, making it a perfect fit for her.

Now as a herd manager, Elizabeth oversees the milking, feeding and general health of the livestock, as well as managing seasonal employees. She has a few goals in mind for the future, including strengthening the genetics of the flocks she works with, expanding the sustainability of ranch operations, and growing her own feed. When I asked Elizabeth the favorite part of her job, she said, “I really love the animals, especially the personalities of the goats, they are all about social interaction, and I never expected to love them so much!”