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Farmers for the Future: Unconventional future in dairy

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.

With an operator pit and 16-swing parlor, the family can milk 180 cows in 90 minutes. With the farm's old double-6 herringbone parlor, it took the family 2 1/2 hours to milk 120 cows.

That parlor was neighbors Kent and Linda Solberg's introduction to dairy. When Kent's custom fencing business slowed down, the Solbergs considered dairy farming. "I'd seen the success Dan and Joel were having," Kent says.

The Solbergs purchased cows and milked them at the Middendorfs' farm for nearly a year. In March 2006, they built their own parlor with help from the Middendorfs and friends, and they started dairying on their own. The family has had struggles as a result of buying cows from three different herds. But the Solbergs are optimistic about expanding their 35-cow herd.

They are also quick to point out their good fortune in having a mentor like Dan, who showed them how to fulfill their dream to dairy with less costly methods. Without the unconventional methods they wouldn't be able to milk cows due to allergies. Years ago Kent was diagnosed with an allergy to cows, which causes him to become ill when near cows in a confined setup.

A bad back forced the Middendorfs' friend, Darrell Wilson, to quit milking in his tie-stall barn for six years. His daughter, Jenny, married Dan's son, James. Helping James with chores, Darrell discovered his back wasn't bothered as much using the New Zealand swing parlor.

"I thought their ideas really worked," Darrell says. "We're seeing more farmers doing things like this."

"We don't have a lot of overhead," son-in-law James Middendorf notes. He bought his cows and rented land from an uncle at age 18. When 75 acres became available near his and Jenny's parents, they bought the land. "He was only 20 and didn't need a cosigner," Dan says proudly.

James renovated a building with a New Zealand swing parlor. He keeps his cows on pasture like his father does. About 75% of the cows' ration comes from TMR. James feeds more conventionally than his father, though he added potato peelings when corn prices went up.

James' older brother, Joel, appreciates his parents' willingness to try new ideas and allow their children to make mistakes. That innovativeness led Joel to buy 115 acres next to his parents -- without the need for a loan cosigner -- when he was just 21. He keeps young stock on his land and has a partnership with his parents.

"We're experimenters," Dan says. And he is not shy about sharing his unconventional methods with other dairy producers, hosting tours and participating in low-input and irrigated pasture research. "We want to make a sustainable living and have a life," Dan says.

His goals are to have healthy cows, more time with family, and an opportunity to be involved with church and their community.

"Dan and I share a vision," Kent says, "about seeing small dairies on the landscape." Thinking outside the box, creating low-cost parlors, putting pastures to use, and finding cheap food sources will make that dream a reality.

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."

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