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Ag Entrepreneur: Gradual growth gives a foothold

09/02/2010 @ 9:40am

Growing the dairy in planned, affordable steps is creating a way for Andy Hendrickson, 31, and his brother, Dan, 28, to farm near Cambria, Wisconsin.

With their parents, Neal and Pam, the Hendrickson brothers milk 150 cows and grow 800 acres of crops.

Andy showed an enterprising bent for dairying as a high school sophomore. A neighbor’s call for help helped create Andy’s Milking Service.

“A friend of the family asked me to milk cows for him,” says Andy. “I did that, and other dairy farmers heard about it. Milking for neighbors turned into a full-time job in the summers.”

He often milked during weekends and before school, too. Andy continued relief milking through college, paying for most of his four-year agribusiness degree that way.

While he helped out at home as his schedule permitted, the labor needs of the family’s dairy matched available manpower. At the time, they milked 60 cows, and workers included Andy’s father, grandfather, and brothers.

“When I started college, I didn’t plan on coming back to the farm,” Andy says. “But the more I was away from it, the more I realized dairying was what I wanted to do.”

Andy returned in 2001. To make financial room for him, Neal added 30 cows to the dairy. They renovated their stanchion barn to hold 70 cows and converted an old free stall barn to house the extra cattle.

A few years later Dan decided to dairy full time as well, and the family expanded again. They built a 140-cow free stall barn, allowing them to milk two drafts of 70 cows in the stanchion barn.

“The additional cow comfort was unbelievable,” says Andy. “The cows produced a lot more milk, and the barn quickly paid for itself.”

Yet the rapid payoff required long hours. “There were three of us working from 5:30 in the morning until 10 at night,” Andy says. “There wasn’t much time left for family.”

To reduce labor and to boost quality of life, the family built a double-eight parallel milking parlor. Andy now has more time to spend with wife MacKenzie and 1-year-old daughter Tessa.

The farm has endured even during the last price downturn for milk. “For the most part, we have continued to cash-flow and have been able to cover expenses,” says Andy.

Minimal investment in equipment and minimal land debt have helped them do so. “Our farm has been in the family since the early 1920s, when my great-grandfather purchased it,” says Andy. “When each generation sold the land to the next, they’ve been fair in terms of the price and interest rate they asked.”

The Hendrickson family is now researching best ways to transition ownership in the present economy.

“Young farmers today need help from the generation before them in order to get into farming,” says Andy.  

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