On The Mooove!

A taste of home: Volleman's Dairy delivers old-fashioned farm fresh milk in a glass bottle straight from healthy, happy cows to your family table

GUSTINE – What could be better than farm fresh, locally produced, milk in a glass bottle? A taste of better times, of high quality milk from healthy, happy cows, from around the corner to your table.

It was bringing that ideal to Central Texas and the coveted American Dream that beckoned Frank and Annette Volleman from halfway around the world. With land scarcity, restricting milk quotas and manure distribution restrictions in Europe, the young Luxembourg couple knew their opportunities for operating a successful family dairy operation in their homeland would be limited, if not impossible.

In 1993, the parents of two little boys, along with many other European dairy farmers, took a giant leap of faith, embarking on a life across the Atlantic. On doing so, they left behind family, friends and a life they knew and held dear. The Vollemans chose Central Texas to settle and build their dairy operation.

Fast forward 28 years, the couple and their family-owned dairy have become a success story involving three generations. In an increasingly difficult dairy market in which the big boys in the business are filing for bankruptcy, where fashionable diets exclude dairy, Volleman’s has succeeded in expanding and developing its dairy business to include their own line of Volleman’s milk products and their own bottling plant.

Part of their success is cutting out the middlemen of bottling and distribution. The distribution of the farm fresh milk products that bears the proud family name few can pronounce, but everyone loves, stretches across much of the state, and is growing.

The Volleman family traces their dairy roots to 1890, in both Luxembourg and Holland. Prior to their move to Texas, while already dairy farming in Luxembourg, Frank read about better opportunities in America, involving large-scale dairy operations; operations large enough to include and support the entire family.

When they moved to Texas almost 30 years ago, their family already included young sons Benjamin and David. They began their Texas operation small, milking a herd of about 100 Holstein cows in the beautiful rolling hills along the Leon River in Comanche County, a few miles northwest of Gustine. They called their operation Wildcat Dairy, named for the small creek meandering through the property.

Frank’s brother, Marcel Volleman, also came to Texas in 1993 and operates another large milking operation, Sundance Dairy, which has a milking herd of 2,000 head and located near Dublin in Erath County.

Over the years, the dairy operation grew, along with the Volleman family, as they added two more sons, Andrew and Daniel. Each of the adult Volleman sons lived and breathed the industry alongside their parents since they could walk and are proficient in all areas of the operation.

As the boys finished high school, the dairy expanded. All four went on to college, before returning home to the family business of their own volition. Each received agribusiness and dairy related degrees at Tarleton University in Stephenville or Texas A & M.

The science of the dairy business has become so modern and sophisticated it doesn’t even resemble the dairy industry that Andrew’s parents knew at his age. Andrew and his brothers all studied various forms of agriculture and business in college and each have separate areas of expertise they bring to the family business. The diplomas, proudly on display in the company boardroom, are the culmination of their parents’ dream.

Their invaluable pool of knowledge was put to practice in the different areas of the dairy operation, increasing efficiency, herd health, production, distribution and marketing. The Volleman Dairy stays up-to-date with the latest in dairy technology. Everything about the cow, including lineage, health record and vaccinations, age, calving details, what she eats and daily milk production is recording in an ear chip and monitored electronically through a data base. 

As the dairy grew, succession was proactively discussed and planned – a step by step roadmap was started years ago. Each son’s natural strengths, passions and personality were researched to determine which role they would make them happiest in the organization in the future.

Oldest son Benjamin, 31, oversees the farming operations and heifer management. David, 30, manages the dairy farm operations. He and wife Anna – also part of the Volleman team – have two young children. Andrew, 26, runs the creamery process operation and does the company’s marketing. He ropes in the entire family, filming them for engaging clips on Facebook, promoting the family involvement in the business and their quality product. He and his wife Shelby are parents to a young son. Youngest brother Daniel, 23, assists with sales and calving operations for Volleman properties, and helps out his uncle Marcel.

March 4, 2021 Facebook post with the four Volleman brothers

“He has a hand in everything. He’s everybody’s boss,” Andrew said smiling, describing his father’s role in Volleman Family Farms as that of CEO. Likewise, Andrew said his mother has been an integral part of the family operation as well, handling the financial end since the early days.

David’s wife Anna, is evolving to taking over that role of Chief Financial Officer, while Annette more and more helps out caring for the family’s growing number of grandchildren – a role she definitely enjoys, making homemade baked goods and yogurts – with the family’s premium milk products, of course.

The sons live independently on various properties on and surrounding the dairy, and the family is very close-knit. They remain in contact throughout the day by phone, texting and lunch-time get-togethers. It is Matriarch Annette who cooks the large family-style lunch worth gathering around the table for.

And yes, the family all love and drink lots of Volleman milk at mealtime – the whole milk, the low fat 2%, strawberry and kids’ favorite, chocolate. Besides the delicious seasonal eggnog flavor, Volleman’s released their Homemade Vanilla mid-March. It’s marketing includes the phrase “a perfect hint of sweet. Liquid gold.”

Andrew led Chisholm Country’s reporter and photographer through every phase of the dairy operation, displaying obvious pride in his parent’s vision and accomplishments, but also pointing out the modernization and mechanization to accommodate the growing business. There were happy, contented cows everywhere – from the large, temperature controlled sheds to the milking carousel. Temperature control is important because cows stress in temperatures over 65 degrees, which affects their milk production.

Everything on the dairy incorporates the business values – local, family farm, traceability from grass in the field to milk in the glass, environmental stewardship, high quality and animal welfare. And any information the public might want to know about their quality product is on display through their Facebook Dairy Dialogues, their website and blogs.

The dairy operation is spread throughout some 5,000 acres in rural Comanche and Erath counties, most of which is owned by the family, but some is leased. It takes a large amount of land to sustain a milking herd of about 4,500 with an estimated 10,000 cattle in the entire operating life cycle, all of which happens at the Volleman Family Farm.  

The Holstein has always been the preferred breed as they are large milk producers and offer better tasting milk, said Andrew, due to butterfat and protein content. The Volleman operation is very self-sufficient. They control the quality of Wildcat Dairy herd, and ultimately their milk, by breeding and growing their own milking stock – minimizing the need to bring in outside stock – and the forage they eat.

Andrew added there are very few diseases in their herd, as cattle are seldom brought in from outside, which could allow for infection of the herd. Volleman operations include zero antibiotics and no hormones.

“Dairies are extremely careful with their cattle,” he explained. 

Nutritionists are involved in helping ensure cattle, on an individual basis, receive the proper diet and nutrition necessary for health and to maximize milk production. This begins even before the birth of the calf and extends throughout the life cycle of the dairy cow, which can be as long as 14 years.

Veterinarians are involved in the process and on-hand as needed.  In addition, each of the Volleman adult sons has advanced education in various fields of agriculture and animal sciences.

The vast majority of the property is used for the production of their own silage for feeding and to allow as much natural grazing for the cattle as possible. The family pride themselves on the environmental and sustainability of their dairy farm, which begins with a healthy respect for the land and regenerative farming practices. Careful attention is given the soil structure, what is grown and how it is grown.

Andrew describes the practice as a “giant circle of reuse” at the diary. Waste management is a goal and water is constantly reused, three and four times, as well as solid waste which is transformed to both liquid and solid fertilizer for crops, which are also largely grown on the property.

“Your operation begins with good quality feed,” said Volleman. 

Beautiful pastures surround the main dairy operation and fields contain corn, wheat, sorghum, coastal Bermuda grass, oats, and other grains. The locally grown crops are mixed and stored locally for use throughout the year. In the Mixing Station, a Total Mix Ratio (TMR) is created to include some imported staples like alfalfa and cottonseed. The TMR contains 12 to 15 ingredients to include all the feeds and nutrients needed for a healthy, efficient and profitable dairy cattle operation.

Managing TMR daily ensures proper nutrition for healthy and high-performing dairy cows. Volleman cattle are fed two to three times daily, but are allowed continual access to feed in covered barns. They are also allowed grazing in select pastures spread throughout hundreds of acres of beautiful grasses which dot the properties. 

Breeding is done through insemination on site, and sexing is used to procure the desirable female calf. The calving operation is but one phase of the life cycle in the dairy cattle stages of life. Volleman workers tend to the safe delivery of pregnant cows and the actual calving process – cows have a nine month gestation period just like humans. The calves are fed colostrum from the mother cows, which contain the very highest amounts of nutrients important to the health of the newborn calf. 

The dairy industry is one of the oldest, and one of the most regulated agriculture industries, both environmentally and in quality control. High animal welfare standards are observed and dairy operations are audited by third-parties. But no matter how much control the Volleman’s have over their operation, it is still a farm, and Mother Nature sometimes upsets the best plans and timetables.

In an interview November 2020 with Cowboy Perspective’s Neil Dudley, Frank explained how in the early years they learned to manage and prepare for Texas weather – too wet, too dry, too hot, too cold.

“The dairy business – sometimes it’s tough, but sometimes it’s very rewarding,” Frank said.

Cowboy Perspective audio podcast: Episode 23, Nov. 2020

https://thecowboyperspective.libsyn.com/episode-23-frank-volleman-ceo-of-vollemans-dairy?fbclid=IwAR189ZRJkqFHMh7vCr3vtMRz6PZOurbgB3Oaggst4cLO9IPMVnGkzO5umQ8

In addition to family members, approximately 70 employees are trained in all aspects of the operation “from start to finish,” Volleman added.

Each cow, which can weigh 1,500 pounds, generates some eight gallons of milk daily, which translates into 65 to 70 pounds. Some cows produce twice that amount. The milking process at the dairy is 24/7, in eleven-hour cycles, with an hour clean-up in between milking.

The cows are first contained in holding pens and then arranged in a huge, circular, rotating “Milking Parlor,” that slowly revolves while the cows are machine-milked. Prior to the milking the cows are checked for mastitis, their udders are sanitized and the suction apparatus is attached to their teats. Once milked, the cows exit the milking carousel and new cows are prepped for milking. Each cow is milked twice per day. The carousel allows for optimal animal and employee safety.

Oct 30 2020 dairy dialogue David talking about the milking parlor

The warm, 98-degree milk travels through stainless steel to the collection site next door where it passes through a heat exchanger and is cooled down to 35-degrees. In three enormous silos, the milk awaits transport by 6,000 gallon trucks to San Antonio for processing. There the milk is filtered of anything such as bacteria, fortified with vitamins and pasteurized and homogenized, then packaged for the grocery store.

Wildcat Dairy is a member of a Select Milk Producers, a dairy cooperative composed of some 100 family dairies. The milk leaving Volleman’s, which isn’t kept for their own product line, eventually ends up in refrigerated coolers at HEB and Kroger food chains.

Currently bottling needs require some 4,000-5,000 gallons of milk to produce a week’s worth of product for consumers. In perspective, Volleman’s milk production totals six to seven tankers daily, with each tanker holding 6,000 gallons of milk, or upwards of 300,000 gallons per week. 

“The kids are really driving the new developments,” Frank said in the Nov. 2020 Cowboy Perspective Interview. “They are keeping it moving and will take the business to the next level.”

Taking the family dream forward, production of their own line of dairy products for consumers became a reality in 2020 and has continued to grow quickly and with great success. They broke ground in early 2020 for their own 16,000 square foot bottling facility, where the Volleman Family Farms line of milk is packaged on site since February 2021.

“Annette and I are letting the reins loose,” Frank said. “We now more have the role of coach.”

The on-site bottling facility uses only a small percentage of the milk output from the dairy, but the milk in glass bottles which bears the Volleman Family Farms label contains the best milk produced by the dairy.

“We value a very clean operation.  We like things clean, tidy, and well-kept,” Andrew said describing the family business philosophy. He added the family commitment to quality is what fuels the bottling operation. 

“We focus on the highest quality product,” he explains. “The quality makes customers more willing to pay a higher premium. And the glass bottles are integral to that effort. The glass not only makes sense environmentally, but it preserves the taste and flavor profile in a way younger consumer hadn’t experienced previously. What drives us is quality and flavor.”

The use of glass bottling for their milk is also part of that philosophy as the containers are recycled rather than adding to growing landfills. The historic freeze in January 2021 brought new challenges to the diary and new opportunities as Volleman’s milk was sourced to new store shelves such as Brookshire’s that were experiencing a shortage from their normal milk suppliers. 

Andrew said the family tossed around different ideas for what the bottling operation would become over the course of three or four years. 

“We knew milk in a glass bottle fit our vision of sustainability and a high quality product.”  

The glass bottles have different stories and slogans on them, accentuating the family values and quality product. Christmas saw a Christmas wreath on the egg nog bottles. Sometimes there will be a Go Texan logo or the proud Texas icon. Some people choose not to return the iconic bottles for deposit, but use them as flower vases, loose change containers, even fish bowls.

Andrew said sales continue to grow and Volleman Family Farms product line can now be found in more than 100 locations from McKinney to New Braunfels and from Waco to San Angelo. To find a store selling Volleman’s near you, check out the website link to the distribution places: https://vollemansdairy.com/stores/. The growing popularity of the Volleman’s Family Farms bottled dairy line was recognized in March when it was named “Official Milk of the Dallas Cowboys.”

While the Volleman dairy operation is large, there are Texas dairies which are much larger. Andrew said the average dairy milking herd is about is 1,400 cows, while the Volleman’s milks some 4,500 daily. Texas milk production is increasing as the state fills the void left by other states where dairy operations are in decline due to heavy industry regulations.

Texas currently ranks number five in milk production behind California, Wisconsin, Idaho, and New York. Latest figures show that the 351 Texas dairies are good for 6.34 percent of total US milk production. In December 2020, for the first time Texas overtook New York with seven percent of the national production. If the growth continues, Texas is on the path to overtake Idaho as well.

The economic impact to Texas agriculture from dairy operations is large. The Texas Association of Dairymen reports latest figures for the dairy industry amounts to 7.86 percent total of all Texas agriculture commodity production. The dairy industry brought $2.4 billion in total cash receipts for 2019, according to TAD figures, which included some 214,000 jobs in the dairy industry and $321 million in Texas dairy exports, primarily to China.

David is presently chairman of the Texas Association of Dairies, which lobbies for the industry and promotes it. Incidentally, many names of board members show their Dutch/Luxemburg heritages, like De Vos, Osterkamp, Hettinga, De Jong, De Vries and Van De Pol.

Andrew said the family has “about all we handle right now,” but future plans include growing the bottling operations to offer more flavors, expand the milk products to butter, heavy cream, half-and-half, buttermilk, and of course to continue expanding Volleman Family Farms product line throughout Texas and beyond. 

“Our family vision is always to take the operation to the next level,” Andrew said. “We’re changing the way milk is bought, and the response has been overwhelming.”

Volleman says the family hears from customers every day. 

“Many tell us, ‘we’d stopped drinking milk, but we tried it because of the packaging (bottles) and we loved it. And now our family is drinking milk again.’” And that, Andrew said, makes his family happy, too, offering high quality milk, fresh from their farm to your table, in a recyclable glass bottle.

Photos by SIMONE WICHERS-VOSS & courtesy of VOLLEMAN FAMILY FARMS

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