Dairy farming starts with a simple lesson: Cows are cows. Their basic needs never change and as a farmer, you must meet these needs at every turn. Dave Ribeiro, Land O’Lakes member-owner and principal owner of Rib-Arrow Dairy in Tulare, California, says this important lesson, which he calls “Cow 101,” has been passed on for almost 100 years on the farm in his family.
Dave’s grandfather taught his son the “hows” and the “whys” of cow comfort. Dave’s father then passed this knowledge down, and Dave has since taught his own sons.
“Our history is generational on the farm,” says Dave. “Our family and all of our employees try to pass on everything we’ve learned so we can continue to grow.”
This idea of generational learning is a theme you’ll find time and time again on Land O’Lakes member-owners’ farms across the country. Farmers everywhere think in terms of generations, of taking care of their land and animals so their farms will be in business for another 100 years and beyond.
If you ask Dave, he will say that his farm’s past and future success goes back to his family’s emphasis and reiteration of “Cow 101.”
From first to fourth generation
The lesson really started when Joe C. Ribeiro, Dave’s grandfather, came to California from the Terceira Island in the Azores archipelago. After milking cows for six months, he started Ribeiro Brothers Dairy in 1923 with his three brothers. Over the course of three more generations, the family has branched into their own separate dairies, renaming, regrouping and always putting their cows first.
Dave and his father, continuing the family entrepreneurial spirit, made the decision to build Rib-Arrow Dairy in 1994.
This is the farm Dave’s kids call home. Today, the farming operation milks about 1,500 cows, three times a day, and grows corn, wheat and alfalfa. And with the next generation, it’s about continuing the legacy Dave’s father and grandfather set for all of them.
“I owe so much to my dad for building this and believing in me,” says Dave. “And now, with my sons, they really have to figure out, ‘How can we do even better? How can we build on what we already have?’”
Start ‘em young
Dave got a crash course in “Cow 101” when he started feeding cows at seven years old. He was surrounded by knowledgeable workers and had to quickly learn the ins-and-outs of farming. Cameron, Dave’s son, also started helping on the farm when he was young. In fact, he first learned to milk cows in the pregnant and nursing unit because he was too short to milk any of the others.
“I worked a lot on the dairy as a kid,” says Cameron. “I learned a lot from my grandfather and also from our employees. Some of our employees have been working here longer than I’ve been alive, and I feel like they are a part of the family.”
A recent graduate of Fresno State, Cameron helps with the cropping side of things. His brother Tyler, Dave’s oldest, graduated from Fresno State in 2010 with a degree in agribusiness and helps oversee the dairy operations. Dave’s daughter, Gabrielle, is also pursuing Agriculture Economics at the University of Nebraska.
At home, Tyler and Cameron are making a great team on the farm already.
“My brother is really passionate about the dairy side of things, and I’m much more passionate about the agriculture and crop side,” says Cameron. “That’s really worked out well for us.”
The era that each Ribeiro generation has lived through has had a direct impact on the way each approaches the business.
“It wasn’t long after my grandfather started the dairy that the Great Depression hit,” says Dave. “He was worried about losing everything and held on really tight. My dad’s generation was much more one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake—grow but be cautious. My generation was a little less of the foot on the brake and more push, as long as you’re aware of your surroundings.”
Those differences in generations have helped propel the Ribeiros forward past the challenges they’ve faced in the industry, including a harsh environment following the recession of 2007-2009.
“My brother Tyler and I came in when the dairy business wasn’t doing well,” says Cameron. “It was right around the recession—and it’s really forced us to think differently about how we approach the business and figure out new solutions.”
And though the dairy business is still quite volatile, the changes that Dave, Cameron and Tyler have made in the business have already help cut down on production costs, without reducing quality. They’ve improved components with the milk and gained premiums. And they still make sure the cows are taken care of.
The longevity of the farms can be also traced to the management style, which runs in the Ribeiro family. Dave remembers having detailed conversations with his dad and grandfather whenever there was a disagreement. Dave calls this “browbeating.” To find solutions, they sit around and talk a topic to death, and Dave makes sure Cameron and Tyler are a part of that discussion, too, sometimes for hours.
“My dad has been in business for years and years. He’s really taught me that 90 percent of farming is in preparation,” says Cameron. “I like to think I’m very progressive and my dad is a little safer. But there are situations where that’s reversed, and we flip-flop. No matter the issue, we talk it out first.”
But there are some small differences between the way Dave and his sons think and approach issues. A generational gap, some might say.
“I come from an age of encyclopedias, when you had to dig and wait for information,” says Dave. “But my sons can pull out their phone and understand some concept before I’ve finished my sentence. I think my generation had more patience, but their generation has new capabilities.”
“I’ve loved being able to work with my dad and brother so closely because it has really built our relationship personally, as well,” says Cameron. “We’re making positive changes as a team.”
Working side-by-side has taken their relationship from one of learning as a child, to one of starting the important discussions. Cameron and Tyler contribute to conversations, add ideas and still learn as they go. And of course, they make sure to repeat “Cow 101” lessons in their everyday discussions with employees and others, now taking on that teaching component.
“One the best things of having my sons here is to see history continue and hear the same words out of Tyler and Cameron’s mouths that I heard from my grandfather and from my dad,” says Dave. “That warms my heart because my grandfather and father gave us this opportunity, and it’s up to us to carry that on.”