Sustainable, Modern & Profitable Dairying – the Natural Way
As published in the Fall 2019 Purebred Dairy Breeders' Magazine.
Rivendale Farms and Genetics
Winding down a narrow treelined back road in Western Pennsylvania, one does not expect to suddenly see covered wagons off in a field on the right and a cream-colored barn up on a hill to the left with a greenhouse below. What you find further when you turn into the drive, go past the greenhouse and up the hill are laughing little boys and an old horse barn that has been remodeled and stands full of exceptional Jerseys. The tranquility of the scene and the warmth of the family of staff envelops you. Welcome to Rivendale Farms.
Rivendale, established in 2015 by Thomas Tull, is not just any dairy. The barn that currently houses 18 elite cows is just the beginning of an enterprise that is the result of an ongoing dream of Mr. Tull. Along with those 18 beautiful Jerseys, winding up and over the hill, past tranquil ponds, black swans and ducks, is an ongoing building project that currently houses a growing 250 head of high performing Jerseys known as their production herd. Past that and down another winding lane is a greenhouse that grows everything from green beans to herbs to sunflowers. And those little covered wagons? Those are movable chicken coops for Rivendale’s egg producers.
“Thomas Tull grew up around farm land and was always drawn to it,” states Christine Grady, Rivendale’s General Manager. “He and his wife Alba are also very passionate about healthy food, whole food and sustainable farming. They wanted to create a farm that could produce the very best products possible, not only for their family, but also the broader community. Preserving farm land and farming sustainably is also very important to them.” The Rivendale motto is Natural Farming – Modern Techniques.
“We farm naturally and sustainably, our crop production follows entirely organic methods, though we are not certified organic. The robots and high tech are deployed primarily in the production barns for milking and feeding. Smart tech is used for ventilation and temperature control in all of the barns as well as the greenhouse,” stated Grady.
Tull, who established and sold Legendary Productions prior to relocating to the Pittsburg area, has several business interests in the region. This includes a minor ownership in the Pittsburg Steelers as well as a recent investment the Milk Shake Factory located in Pittsburgh.
The farm itself is run by approximately 20 employees that are a small portion of the large team enabling Rivendale to be self-sustaining in the volatile agriculture industry. Christine Grady leads the farm team which consists of Susanna Meyer, head of Crop Production and Rodney Rankin, a former Arethusa manager, who manages the dairy. Tom Palchak is head of product development for the dairy products and was originally with the Penn State Creamery for many years.
The herd managed by Rankin and his family is in an ongoing, fast-paced growth pattern. Rodney said, “I met him [Tull] at this property on August 4, by the 14th he closed on the farm, and we started milking eight Jerseys here on August 27. Eleven months later we moved the first cows into the production barn, and in six more months completed the heifer barn. Now, a full two years later, we have completed a calf barn that houses almost 60 calves and will be completing a dry cow/calving barn in the near future.”
Rodney and his stepdaughter Kim Ceresna manage the cows in the elite barn as well as the show strings; but the dairy is a full family affair. Kim’s husband Dan manages the production barn. Rodney’s wife Linda is manager of the calf barn, and his daughter Lisa oversees the heifer barn.
Dan is on call through his smart phone and notified by the technology if something is amiss. This can be a notice from the milking robots or the vector feeding system. The current 130 plus head in the production barn are milked in three Lely robots and fed by the Lely Vector. The vector can measure the feed left on its path through the barn, refill and mix the TMR in the “kitchen” and feed as necessary. Baleage, silage, minerals and hay are all fed through the vector with a protein pellet fed in the robots. The production herd is currently averaging eighty pounds of TMR per day per head and pellets are fed based on individual production. The herd averages over 60 pounds per day with a 4.9% butterfat Rodney and Kim stated.
“Mom pretty much designed the calf barn,” said Kim referencing her mother, Linda. Calves are housed individually and rotate through the 30 plus pens to eventually five box stalls for group housing before moving to the heifer barn. Cows are calved in the heifer barn currently, and calves moved to the calf barn immediately, where they are fed a replacer colostrum. From there, they are fed pasteurized whole milk. Calves are given a 22% starter feed, water and hay within days, before moving to a 16% grower and weaned at 90 days. “We are going to need to expand the calf barn soon as well,” stated Rodney. “We are currently averaging five calves per week right now,” said Kim, “and in December we have over 30 due and another large group due in March.”
From the calf barn, heifers are grouped and move up through the pens in the heifer barn which is managed by Lisa. Once they have moved through there and calve, they are relocated to the production barn which currently has two groups: a group of A2A2 producers and those that aren’t. “One of our goals,” said Kim, “is to convert to all A2 except for maybe a few elite cows and performers. We are selling some of our A1 and A1A2 producers and concentrating on replacing them with all A2. We are dedicated to producing the best product we can.” The A1 milk will be separated into another tank and added to the milk from the elite barn in the future with the A2 milk being used solely for Rivendale products.
“We are fortunate that we are not dependent on the fluid milk market,” said Rodney. Currently all of the Rivendale milk is processed at Turner Dairy for Rivendale recipes and formulas. This includes chocolate milk, sour cream, whole milk, soft serve and hard pack ice cream. Rivendale holds contracts with the Steelers and the Pirates to provide chocolate milk for recovery drinks for the teams, as well as eggs and produce. All of the soft serve ice cream at PNC park is Rivendale soft serve and contracts for hard pack ice cream at the Steelers stadium have recently been signed along with providing products for the Penguins as well.
The dairy is also going to be supplying the Milk Shake Factory. “We also supply to a number of restaurants and food service customers as well as a number of the best restaurants and clubs in the Pittsburg area receive our dairy products, vegetables, eggs, maple syrup and honey,” stated Christine.
Even the byproduct of manure is being composted and reused by the farm, local landscapers and others. “We really don’t have to worry about overflow as it goes out the door pretty fast,” said Kim.
The Stars of Rivendale
As for the cows themselves, although the elite herd are the stars, Kim stated that the production herd is not full of just average cows. Many have deep pedigrees from purchases from the herds of Van De Jerseys, Lyons Jerseys Waverly Jerseys and Underground Genetics. “We wanted them for a solid foundation and breeding base for the production herd,” said Aaron Eaton, Rivendale’s Director of Genetics. They are now seeing the results of their breeding program develop. “Most of the breeding decisions are based on type. We see what’s out there at the shows and sales and decisions are made from those,” said Kim.
The goals for the herd are ambitious as well. “We will continue to grow and ultimately put in another robot or two,” stated Rodney. The overall goal will be to reach 600 total head with a max production herd around 350 to supply all of the product demands.
And don’t forget the elite herd. That’s on the five-year radar too. “Our goals are the Premier banners,” said Rodney. They were second in the running for Premier Exhibitor at Expo in 2017 with stars like MB Lucky Lady Feliz Navidad-ET, the 2017 Intermediate Champion; Elliotts Blackstone Charlotte-ET, Reserve Grand Champion and Wala Premier Mistee, the Expo Junior Champion now VG-88 and fresh. Both Feliz Navidad and Charlotte also took home banners from the Royal Winter Fair in 2017.
This year looks to position Rivendale as a contender in the show ring again. Feliz Navidad is due any day and Charlotte is due to calve within a few weeks. Other well-known Rivendale-owned cows coming into their own right are Townside Tequila Response R EX-91 MAX and Crossbrook HG Dixie-ET EX-94 MAX as well as Feliz’ daughter, Campbell TB Excitation Felicidad, who just scored VG-88 as a Jr. Two. The Intermediate Champion of the 2017 Royal, South Mountain Santanas Spirit-ET EX-91, is another favorite currently at Dr. Matt Iager’s being flushed for international interest. They will have a few heifers this fall carrying the Rivendale prefix hitting the tanbark trail that they are excited about.
The demand for Rivendale genetics is growing. Homeridge Tequila Viv EX-92 recently sold in the Arethusa Splash, and picks of flushes from Feliz and Charlotte have sold well in the Equinox and Triple T sales this year for the farm. Many of the cows have embryos available, including Chilli Premier Cinema-ET, the All-American Jr. Three, 2016 Res. Intermediate Champion and Hon. Men. Grand of Expo who has Venue, VIP and Change Up embryos as well as Dixie who has embryos by Fizz.
They have plans for all those calves due in December and March along with hitting the tanbark hard these next several years. “We plan to be at all the shows this year with a large string at both Madison and the North American International Expo in Louisville,” said Rodney, “and we’re planning to host a sale within a few years. We are working towards further developing the show families and adding in some genomic genetics too,” said Rod.
And to help with these goals, they have enlisted Aaron Eaton as director of genetics. Eaton contributes to mating decisions, finding new gems to add to the elite herd and developing marketing plans for the future sale.
“One of the focuses for the sale will be the Feliz Navidad family. There will be limited offerings from her through the next several years as we build towards the goal of a sale in May of 2020,” said Eaton. “She is such a tremendous cow with a great pedigree and offers so much. We are really excited about the opportunities she and her offspring will present. She is out of the 94-point brood cow, Marleau Comerica Fabienne an All-American and All-Canadian honoree. There will be offerings from our other stars as well, but she will play a dominant role in this plan.”
The most recent purchase, and sure to become another future brood cow at Rivendale, adds a genomic factor to the farm. RiverValley Citation Lovely is the #1 PTAT cow of the breed and scored VG-89 at two years. She is also the #1 Jersey Udder Index (JUI) cow of the breed at 44.2 and carries a Jersey Production Index (JPI) of 124. Her Hired Gun son is headed to ABS. “Lovely adds a diversity to the herd as well as international interest,” said Eaton. “She will be on an extensive flush program in the upcoming months, along with her A2A2 Barnabus daughter that we were also fortunate to get.”
Another goal being worked toward, according to Eaton, is the development of a line of sires from Rivendale in the next several years.
Kim said, “It’s what we know, it’s what Thomas is dedicated to, providing quality products, providing quality cow care and comfort through modern technology and natural farming, and of course doing it in high caliber fashion.”
Tull has put together a team and model to successfully provide quality products through natural and sustainable farming processes with a very modern technical twist. These people and Jersey cows he brought together will most certainly keep the Rivendale name in the dairy headlines for quite a few years to come.
Editor's Note: Since the publication of this article, Rivendale Genetics has won the Premier Exhibitor Banners at both the World Dairy Expo and The Royal as well as capturing Grand Champion banners at both shows with Felice Navidad and Vivian! Kim and Dan have also welcomed a precious baby girl, Ember, since this article published.