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Farmers for the Future: Unconventional future in dairy

Agriculture.com Staff 09/05/2007 @ 2:24pm

Content after a late supper of homemade chicken noodle soup and banana bread, the men start swapping recipes. "Potato peelings," Joel Middendorf says. "It's the cheapest feed."

Neighbor Kent Solberg agrees. Potato peelings helped him get through when milk prices were low.

Joel recalls the winter he and his father, Dan Middendorf, were running out of hay. With the encouragement of a consultant, Joel and Dan fed their cows a ration of beet tailings, ground corn, corn gluten, linseed meal and hay.

This discussion is one of many the men share in developing low-cost but sustainable grass-based dairy farms near Bluegrass, Minnesota. This unconventional approach to dairying made way for two of Danís sons, James and Joel, to start farming and has encouraged an in-law, Darrell Wilson, and Kent Solberg to get back in the business.

With 33 years farming experience under his belt and an innovative spirit to guide him, Dan has become a leader to a new way of dairying. His guidance has not only helped his two sons get started in farming, but also has influenced at least two neighbors to get back into diarying.

This change from adhering to high-cost, conventional dairy practices to a lower-cost, grass-based operation wasn't without its challenges. Dan and wife Rosie sold their original 150 acre farm in central Minnesota and relocated to the 160 acres of sandy soil that make up their present operation.

In this new location, the Middendorfs found all the features they wanted: A warm pasture for wintering cows, an irrigation system, and a house in the center of the property so the family is always near the cows. Plus, there was plenty of inexpensive land in the area to buy or rent to grow feed crops.

Before the move, Dan was using conventional dairy methods to turn out one of the top herd averages in Minnesota. "We were producing a lot of milk but not making a lot of money," he recalls.

High vet and feed bills kept pace with the high milk output. "We threw the cows outdoors," Dan says, after studying grazing and grass-based dairies in New Zealand. His 25,000-pound herd average dropped in half. But his vet and feed costs dropped even more. This prompted Dan to switch to organic practices.

The Middendorfs' herd is also anything but conventional, featuring a mix of crossbreeds including Normande, Ayrshire, Holstein, Milking Shorthorn, Swiss, Jersey and Norwegian Reds. The Middendorfs seek cows with heavy bones, thick hides, good feet and legs and good udders that can withstand harsh winters.

Instead of feeding for volume, the Middendorfs feed for high milk components. They average 4 1/2% on fats and 3 1/2% on protein.

And their unconventional approach to dairying is having a definite impact on their bottom line. When the Middendorfs were part of a business management program, their milk production was in the lowest 10% of the group. But their income per cow was in the top 10%.

In addition to an intensive rotational grazing system, the Middendorfs built an inexpensive New Zealand-style swing parlor to cut costs. Using tubing and other basic materials, average New Zealand parlors cost about "the price of a pickup," Dan says, or about $20,000.

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