Don Bennink: A dairy-industry leader and a mentor to international students at his North Florida Holsteins farm

Don Bennink, 69, is managing partner of North Florida Holsteins, a 2,400-acre dairy and beef operation in Bell. In 1980, Bennink moved his dairy herd from western New York to Gilchrist County. Until that time, he juggled two careers: lawyer and dairyman. After a trip to Florida on a legal case, he decided to move to the Sunshine State and give his full attention to farming. That proved to be the right call for both him and the dairy business. Over the years, Bennink has established himself as an industry leader – not only in Florida and across the country but also around the world for his expertise on farming efficiency techniques and livestock genetics. He was out in front with tunnel ventilation in barns to improve production and herd health. Bennink also is known for his intern program that invites international participants interested in dairy farm management to work and learn on his farm for a year.

Bennink was named the World Dairy Expo Dairyman of the Year for 2010 and received the International Dairy Foods Association’s Innovative Dairy Farmer of the Year award in 2005. He also has received the University of Florida School of Veterinary Medicine Superior Service Award and an Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Award of Distinction. Bennink joined the Florida Dairy Farmers board in the early 1980s and served as board president from 1993-1995. He also was a representative to the United Dairy Industry Association. His dairy industry affiliations include Southeast Milk Inc., where he has served as director, chairman of the Trucking Committee chairman and member of the Executive Committee; the Holstein Association; and the American Dairy Science Association.  He earned a Bachelor of Science from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and a law degree from Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in Cleveland, Ohio. He and wife Marianne have daughter Patty and son Dan.

Today, North Florida Holsteins is home to a total herd of 9,200 that includes 4,500 milking cows, along with beef cattle and steers. Dairy Matters recently visited North Florida Holsteins.

Dairy Matters: What prompted your interest in genetics and breeding Holsteins?

Don Bennink: I have always appreciated and enjoyed being around high-quality livestock. The science and economics of developing the most profitable cow to fit a particular system trips my trigger. Having many close friends with a similar interest only whets my appetite more.

DM: What steps have you taken to improve cow comfort?

DB: Moving into a hot, humid climate with a species of livestock originating in Northern Europe rapidly showed that everything economically possible needed to be done to limit the undesirable. Providing quality feed, comfortable housing, adequate cooling, proper milking and minimal stress are very challenging, but very rewarding.

DM: What do you find rewarding from the foreign-intern program?

DB: Seeing the change in the trainees from when they begin the program until they finish is very satisfying. But the big exhilaration for me is visiting them after they return to their home. We take great pride in the fact that the majority become real leaders in the industry within a few years of returning. The influence this group of people has had is unbelievable and amazes everyone who witnesses their progress. We host about eight interns at any one time, and they stay for one year. Most have four-year degrees or veterinary degrees when they come. We’ve had more than 200 since the program started in 1991. They have been from every continent.

DM: What are the biggest challenges today of being a dairy farmer in Florida?

DB: Having people in the localities where dairy farms are located realize the contribution the businesses make to the region. That is underemphasized. Getting local support to accommodate dairy farms and farmers is not always easy. This includes the school systems, sometimes law enforcement, county commissions and other officials and organizations.

DM: What do you see in the future for dairy farmers?

DB: I think there is a good future for the “hands on” talented dairy farmer. This is the one who is out there day to day staying in touch with what is going on, but goes in the office and evaluates the moves that will add to profitability.

DM: What is the most satisfying thing about being a dairy farmer?

DB: Putting together a team of people who make the biological adapt to the mechanical in a way that is sound economically. That is an achievement to be proud of.

DM: What would you like the non-farming public to understand about the dairy industry?

DB: Non-farm people that I run into, whether it be on airplanes or those who visit the farm – are unbelievably naïve about agriculture. The soap-opera presentation of cable news is very destructive. People don’t realize how hard farmers, particularly dairy farmers, work. They over simplify what is involved in feeding our and the world’s population.

DM: Why did you decide to become a dairy farmer?

DB: Although I had no family resources, the desire to work with fine cattle and agriculture in general made all the hard work and lack of funding nothing but steep hills to climb.

DM: When you are not working, what do you do in your spare time?

DB: I have a fishing hole out back that sees me for an hour or two a week. Developing the fish population is as much fun as the fishing. Spending time back on horseback is a desire as we get a couple of young geldings broken. Keeping up with world and national affairs largely by reading the Wall Street Journal daily is a part of my psyche. Discussing or debating these topics with informed individuals intrigues me.

DM: If you were not a dairy farmer, what would you be?

DB: I would probably still be a farmer, but with another species of livestock like beef or pork. Growing up in the Northeast in a dairy farming area pulled me toward dairying. It might be different if raised elsewhere.