At the heart of Oklahoma’s farmlands are families like the Van der Laans. Passionate, resilient and teeming with love for the dairy cow, the Van der Laan family is no stranger to hard work or hardship, and they carry the strong, unbeatable spirit that defines Oklahoman farmers.
The Beginnings Of A Dairy Legacy
It all started with 40 cows when Pieter and Anita Van der Laan married and today, it has grown into the second-largest dairy operation in Oklahoma, producing 380,000 pounds of milk daily. But their story is one that actually started long ago in the Netherlands, where Pieter’s grandfather traded cows.
“The way I’ve always been told is he bought some cows and wasn’t able to sell them, so he had to start milking them,” says Pieter Van der Laan.
Anita also came from generations of dairy farming, so together they were able to quickly expand their own farming operation initially started in Texas. In 2002, they moved to Frederick, OK with 800 cows.
“There are people that ask you why you spend so many hours on the farm and how can you do it? You have to understand, it’s just an enjoyment,” Pieter says.
That’s not to say it’s easy. The Van der Laans have had their share of struggles including two tornadoes that ravaged the farm in 2011.
“With the first tornado, it was horrible cleaning and rebuilding,” Pieter says. “Then the second one that was classified as an EF-4 was just a disaster,” hitting the farm with 166 to 200 mph winds. Afterward, almost 200 people arrived to help organize, treat and feed the distraught animals.
“If it wasn’t for our neighbors, it would have been much worse,” he says.
Instilled with faith and optimism, the family rebuilt, only to face destructive droughts the following years. “The past four years have been dry – the driest I’ve ever seen it – and it’s been hard to get enough feed for the cows,” he says, despite growing 4,800 acres of feed crops on the farm. “There are a lot of worries, but Oklahoma is a good place to dairy, and we make it work.”
Raising The Happy Cow
Even during tough times, the family remains focused on cow comfort. By utilizing free-stall barns, the cows can roam freely on comfortable rubber mats and eat whenever hungry – all in a controlled climate. They also rest on fresh sand, which inhibits bacteria growth.
Priding themselves on cleanliness and having won several awards for this accomplishment, the Van der Laan’s facilities follow an efficient, health-conscious process for milking 4,500 cows three times each day. Without ever touching human hands, the milk is transported to Hiland Dairy Foods bottling plants before arriving at local grocery stores.
“It makes you feel proud,” Pieter says, “to see our product on the shelf. Especially since people around here understand the hard work that goes into it.”
Looking To The Future
With three children, the couple looks forward to a new generation leading the farm. Eric, their oldest, returned in May 2015 after graduating from the University of Oklahoma with his MBA and a BA in Animal Science. “Pursuing my MBA degree was a decision to gain a better understanding of business strategy, finance and management that I could use to help ensure the future success of our family farm,” Eric says.
However, just like his ancestors, love for the cow is key and it’s this passion that will ensure the family’s dairy legacy carries on. “One of my favorite things is going out early in the morning to the fresh cow barn and checking on the newborn calves. For all of us at the dairy, it’s always amazing.”