Big message. Big impression. Ponderovey Dairy is real farm-city deal.

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 By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine feature

GLENDALE, Ariz. —  It’s been said that, “When you want something done, give it to a busy person.” And if that person is curious and likes to tinker, then so much the better.

Whoever coined the phrase must have met Paul Rovey.

The Watusi cattle horns gracing his office door are draped with dozens of lanyards holding meeting nametags as evidence of his participation on many boards, including chairmanship of Dairy Management, Inc. (DMI) for the past 11 years and service as president of United Dairymen of Arizona (UDA).

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At home on the farm, however, the conversation turns to the cattle at Ponderovey Dairy, which is located within the city limits of Glendale, Arizona, just three miles from Cardinal Stadium. Paul loves cattle and he takes every opportunity to be a good neighbor, to strengthen opportunities for future generations, and to tell the story of dairy and agriculture in ways that make a lasting impact on the public. His prized herd of Watusi cattle help him do that.

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An impromptu visit in November started off touring the dairy with administrative manager David Merdick.

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I quickly saw why Paul is an avid alumna of the livestock judging team at the University of Arizona. While a truck parked by the office trailer bore the license plate “UDR K OS”, the assortment of livestock here was remarkably organized.

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On one side of the busy road are the milking herd of just under 2000 Jersey crossbreds and the farm’s young calves. On the other side are the silos, commodity sheds, dry cows, some of the heifers, 30 head of beef cattle, and the prized herd of 90 Watusis.

A closer look revealed two Buffalo in the cattle corrals, and a flock of 300 ewes (with their seven guard-llamas) grazing pasture strips around them.

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There’s a lot going on at Ponderovey. August 2012 marked 100 years for the Rovey family to be farming and dairying in the Grand Canyon State. Their greatest challenge, says Paul, has been “the encroachment of the city. We have to do a perfect job to maintain that equilibrium.” 

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Ask what gives him the greatest satisfaction, and he smiles: “Seeing my kids getting into the business and seeing them build their interest and technical skills and opportunities.”

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Paul and Deborah Rovey have five children. Traesa, Tamara, Eric, Mark and Brett are the fourth generation in Arizona, and the third generation on the farm started by Paul’s father.  Eric and Brett are involved in the 1500 acres of crops, mostly located west of Glendale.  Mark manages the cattle and sheep. And Tamara works in the farm office where one of her responsibilities is to source and purchase feed ingredients.

This year, the Roveys went back to farming the land belonging to other family members. The land had previously been leased to others to grow feed the Roveys then purchased for their livestock.

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“One-third of those acres were being planted to cotton, but we were in need of feed,” Paul relates. “That didn’t make much sense when we owned the land and could be making feed for ourselves and our fellow dairymen.”

Today, they grow their own forages, including corn and sorghum for silage, as well as alfalfa and Bermuda grass. They bag barley, cottonseed and silage.

The dairy has certainly grown and changed since Paul’s grandparents — Albert and Minnie Rovey –settled in Phoenix in 1912 just after Minnie gave birth to twins back in Illinois. Doctors said she had tuberculosis and would not survive six months in the Midwest climate. So they headed southwest to start a new life in sunny Arizona. They farmed in what is now downtown Phoenix. Paul’s father, Emil, was born four years after the move to Arizona. Albert died when Emil was 12 but Minnie lived to be 96.

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In 1943, when Emil Rovey returned from college, he bought the current dairy farm location and married Paul’s mother Helen. Paul is one of nine children. As he grew up on the Glendale farm — nine miles northwest of Phoenix — he developed a passion for the dairy and knew it’s what he wanted to do. He bought the dairy from his father after returning from the University of Arizona in 1978. That’s when the Ponderovey name came into use.

“When I was dating my wife, her mother would call us the ‘Cartwrights’ (from the television show ‘Ponderosa’),” said Rovey in response to a question about how the dairy got its name. Like that famous television family, the Roveys are involved in the farming and non-farming communities and have found various ways to ‘give back’ at the local, state, and national levels.

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Ponderovey Dairy isn’t fancy, but it’s replete with purposeful innovations. Curtained and non-curtained cooling systems, as well as a Saudi-style barn, are three ways they provide shading and cooling to the Jersey dairy cattle in the corrals. Cow comfort is also important in the parlor, so the old double-16 parallel was upgraded with automatic detachers and rubber flooring.

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While the Roveys grew their dairy herd over the past 30 years, the dairy infrastructure in Arizona was also growing at an even faster rate.

“Our strong infrastructure is UDA, which is an incredible cooperative,” says Paul. “We also have tremendous dairymen in this state. It’s hard to milk cows in Arizona, so our dairymen are some of the fittest around.”

In the past 20 years, dairies have sprung up to the south, and Arizona has become the state with the largest average herd size at 2000 head.  By comparison, California’s average herd size is around 850 head, and the U.S. average is 175. The largest herds in Arizona exceed 10,000 head. The state’s 90 dairies produces 2% of the nation’s total milk supply. In addition to cheese and innovative dairy proteins, UDA serves the fluid milk market in Phoenix.

Utilization is roughly one-third fluid milk, one-third cheese and one-third powder. If they have excess milk, it’s not easy to truck it anywhere else, according to Rovey, so UDA has created ways to balance their own market. Their percentage of total production going for export is “really high” because they chose to develop markets off shore. In 2010, the UDA cooperative was named Dairy Exporter of the Year.

“The swings in production from summer to winter are tremendous here,” says Paul. Summer temps can reach 115 to 118 degrees Fahrenheit, and there is humidity here in July and August.

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The Ponderovey dairy herd of close to 2000 cows is primarily Jersey and Jersey crosses, but only about 10% of the dairy cattle in Arizona are Jerseys.

“We were milking a little over 2200 cows at one time and then we sold 240 head,” notes Paul’s son Mark who manages the dairy herd and other livestock at Ponderovey. “The day after selling those cows, our milk volume was down, but two days after that, we shipped more milk than when those cows were here. We were making more milk with fewer cows, so now we make it a point to stay below 2000 to avoid overcrowding.”

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This has enabled Ponderovey Dairy to sell 700 to 800 head of Jerseys for dairy replacements annually.

“Everyone wants Jerseys. They make good quality milk for cheese, and I like their temperament,” says Paul, noting they also have 250 Brown Swiss and a few Holsteins.

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Breeding and herdsmanship are son Mark’s priority, and his commercial husbandry is top notch. All dairy and beef animals are bred A.I., and freeze branding is used for identification instead of hot brands.

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The market steer project is something Mark has taken keen interest in. Using the Jersey cross as his base, he incorporated Maine Anjou and Gelbveih to produce some award-winning junior market beef at county fairs and the Arizona State Fair.

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“We can grow steers for FFA and 4-H by using A.I. semen to improve our base of cows,” Paul explains. “Our focus is to provide affordable project calves and give kids the opportunity to show animals they can make money on, so they learn a lot and come away with a real positive animal experience.”

On the east side of the valley, for example, is Sunshine Acres, a boys’ home with an ag program. Paul explains how opportunities to show market steers and market lambs can change young lives and plant seeds of good will for animal agriculture.

In similar fashion, the flock of sheep developed when Paul started supporting the county fair auctions.  After buying and selling to the resale pen for years, Paul decided six years ago to be the resale buyer on the ewes. He started bringing ewes home to graze the odds-and-ends pastures of alfalfa and Bermuda grass that were too small to harvest efficiently with the big equipment used on larger fields.

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The flock is mainly Suffolk and Hampshire, producing youth show lambs and also commercial market lambs that are in high demand for the ethnic market.

Being inquisitive by nature, Paul Rovey takes an obvious interest in everything going on around him. He prides himself on looking for better ways of doing things and admits he serves on boards largely because he “sticks (his) nose into things and asks questions about doing things better.”

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He’s a fan of win-win solutions. One example at the farm is his decision many years ago to stop selling dairy bull calves off the farm. Instead, they are harvested at birth and the meat is frozen for the Condor project at the Vermillion Cliffs. For more than 12 years, Ponderovey Dairy has supplied food for the project that is bringing back the population of California Condors from near extinction with a clean and consistent food supply. Today, the number of bull calves born at Ponderovey Dairy is on the decline due to the use of sexed semen.

Through his milk promotion service chairing the board of DMI, Paul sees firsthand how important it is to tell dairy’s story and to show animal well-being on the farm.

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Dehorning is another win-win example. The Roveys use lidocane to numb their dairy and beef cattle at the site of dehorning. “It’s so simple and cheap, and it just works beautifully,” states Paul, adding that the use of lidocane has “helped our bottom line.”

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With proper restraint and the lidocane, he says the now pain-free procedure can be handled by one individual instead of multiple employees.

Perhaps the part of the farm that made the biggest impression was the Watusi herd. These grand bovines are prized for their large diameter horns. Their ancestry goes back 6000 years to Africa, and they are often referred to as the “cattle of kings.” At Ponderovey, however, the Watusi steers are named for Civil War Generals, except for “Little Guy,” the seven-year-old steer Mark Rovey has trained to ride in parades and FFA events.

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“Once you have hold of their horns, you can pretty much do what you want,” Mark explains, noting the Watusis are born with a half-inch horn nub and can add about a foot of horn growth annually. While horn span (tip to tip) reaches an average 7 to 8 feet. Ponderovey has some that span 9 to 11 feet.

One of the Rovey herd originals — and a family favorite, the late Gen. Beauregard — had horns that spanned nine feet. He was trained to kneel so people could get on and ride. He was trained to stand on a pedestal and to walk into a modified top-off Cadillac where he would ride passenger-style with head and shoulders (and horns) exposed beside the driver in parades and other events. Mark said it took 20 minutes to train him to walk into the modified Cadillac.

“There have been none quite like him,” said Paul wistfully about the prized steer that lived to age 10. “He was golden.” General Buford was another well-trained crowd pleaser, and lived to 22.

General Buford was another well-trained crowd pleaser, and lived to 22. At the farm office, Paul pulls up photos on his iPad of the late General Beauregard, one of the farm’s original Watusi cattle. The Roveys had trained him to be ridden and to stand in a modified open-top Cadillac for parades. Beau did 70 events a year for four years before he died, including visits to many schools throughout the region .

General Buford was another well-trained crowd pleaser, and lived to 22. At the farm office, Paul pulls up photos on his iPad of the late General Beauregard, one of the farm’s original Watusi cattle.  Beau did 70 events a year for four years before he died, including visits to many schools throughout the region .

Today, it’s General Longstreet and “Little Guy” that are the Ponderovey ambassadors for agriculture. The Watusis have been a fixture at the farm because Paul loves how their breeding program has produced offspring with different colors and markings and because the family enjoys training them and taking them to public events.

At elementary schools and FFA events. Mark says the Watusi cattle “are a good way to start a conversation about agriculture.”

“Whether we are talking about milk cows, or beef cattle, or anything about agriculture, these steers are big, and they make a big impression. People want to have their pictures taken with them,” Mark explains. “We roll that enthusiasm right into a conversation about agriculture and where their food comes from.”

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Adds Paul: “When you can make a big impression, people remember what you said. The Watusis really capture that attention.”

The message Mark takes to town today, like his Dad before him, is also what he enjoys most about life on the farm… “the satisfaction of providing safe, affordable, nutritious food for America.”

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