By Joel McNair
Colfax, Wisconsin — “I’ve enjoyed farming all my life.” With that statement, Chuck Flodquist may be speaking for quite a few veteran dairy graziers who would love to keep living the life.
But reality eventually comes calling. At retirement age, and three years past a back injury, Chuck recognizes he won’t be running his grass-based dairy forever. The 400-acre farm is a great place to grow grass and milk cows, and the steep slopes are better kept in forages than corn and soybeans.
Chuck and his wife, Karen, say it would be great to have a younger person work into the business and eventually own and operate it as a grazing dairy. But their own children are pursuing other careers, and none of their employees over the years has expressed an interest.
Which is where the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship (DGA) and 23-year old John Richmond II enter the picture. Now operating in six states, the DGA is a program that attempts to link established dairy graziers with younger people who view grass-based dairy as a viable career rather than just a means to a paycheck. It offers a formal professional training program that has been approved by the U.S. Department of Labor.
Two years after meeting and deciding to work together through the DGA, and a year-and-a-half into their two-year master/apprentice experience, both Chuck and John believe they’ve found what they were looking for.
John, a 2015 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, sees this place and this relationship as his avenue for fulfilling a farming dream. Chuck sees this young man as his means of easing into retirement while keeping his life’s work intact. While nothing has been finalized, by sometime next year John may well be working here under a lease, share or some other agreement that could lead to eventual ownership control.
If there was ever a farm that was made for dairy grazing and dairy grazing alone, it is this one. The hills are covered with very good silt-loam soils, and there is just enough flatter ground to allow alfalfa and corn silage to be grown in rotation. “Around here, it’s considered flat ground if a round bale will stay put,” Chuck explains. Tree lines offer winter shelter for outwintered dry/bred heifers and for the spring born calves, while fall calves have a three-sided shed.
Chuck moved here from North Branch, Minnesota in 2001. He had been milking cows since the 1970s and grazing since 1992, but was losing too much rental land in a rapidly urbanizing locale.
With its good-size land base and farmstead buildings near the center of the property, Chuck knew almost immediately that he had found a new home in this western Wisconsin locale. The barns weren’t state of the art and he has never used the upright silos (two of them were torn down to provide room for calf pens), but overall this place and his business outlook were a near-perfect match.
Says Chuck, “I’m not as much in the dairy business as I am in the forage harvesting business. What makes money for me is having a one-person (milking) parlor and having the cows harvesting their own feed.”
Ten years ago he engineered a New Zealand-style, DeLaval-equipped, swing-15 parlor and accompanying holding area within the old stanchion barn. Originally designed for 18 cows on each side, the facility has had to make due with 15 units due to difficulty in getting that many cows squeezed onto the platforms.
Charles and John in parlor
The new parlor included concrete feed bunks fed by a grain bin, flex-augers and drop tubes. Later he installed indexing to most of the bunk space so the cows know where to stand, which he says has helped with crowding issues. Cows exit through “chop” gates and a single return alley going past the holding area, with access to a palpation rail.
Chuck says it works fine as a one-person parlor, milking 75 cows/hour with take-offs, and full pre- and post-dipping. Summer and winter herds have peaked at 150 cows through the years, meaning that milking requires around two hours. “It’s still fun to milk in here,” he adds.
During the grazing season the cows generally consume 8-12 lbs./day of a ground corn/mineral mix in the parlor. That’s dropped to 4 lbs. in the winter when 25-30 lbs. of corn silage is fed along with baleage in the freestall barn, as well as in bale rings outside during the day on protected paddocks. Kelp is also offered, and Chuck says that and Udder Balm are why no antibiotics have been used on milking and dry cows for the past 10 years.
The original Holsteins were crossed with Minnesota dairy grazier Art Thicke’s Ayrshires, NZ Ayrshire and Holsteins. More recently Fleckvieh, Swedish Red, Montbeliarde and Normande and North American Holstein genetics have been added. From these breeds Chuck has been selecting for cows carrying more weight while also promising calving ease and good feet and legs.
Artificial breeding is employed for six weeks, with clean-up bulls used for the following three weeks. Anything not bred by then is culled. Says Chuck, “I call this Mother Nature’s selection plan.” He says the herd generally averages 14,500-15,000 lbs. for 300-day lactations.
Pastures are a typical Upper Midwest mix of orchardgrass, bromegrass, alfalfa, white and red clovers and meadow fescue. Chuck regularly adds seed with a no-till drill after a hard grazing, choosing fall seedings if there’s enough moisture and early spring drilling when there isn’t.
While he’d like to see more of an alfalfa component as drought insurance, a series of wet years has instead promoted white clover. Chuck applies a small amount of nitrogen to corn silage but none to the rest of the farm. Turkey manure is also applied to corn silage ground.
This, along with not needing antibiotics, would seemingly point toward organic certification. But at this point Chuck isn’t looking at a transition because he wants to stick with no-till corn. “I’m still trying to figure out organic no-till,” he explains. “I’ve come to the conclusion that tillage is worse for the soil than Roundup.”
Leader-follower grazing is important here, with biseasonal calving and the relatively large herd sizes making it work. The milking herd is turned into new pasture that has been rested 28-32 days through most of the season, with tighter rotations in the spring and hayfields being brought in during the fall to lengthen the recovery intervals.
The milking herd, usually 100-200 cows, creams the forages for 12 hours in temporary paddocks created with polywire. The follower herd of dry cows and bred heifers comes behind 12 hours later to graze the residual forage.
Chuck likes to leave one break between the two herds, explaining that “polywire is not a perfect separation.” It means that each break is being grazed over the course of 36 hours.
Chuck estimates that with half the farm too steep for mechanical harvest, leader-follower is his most effective means of controlling the forage. He is quite willing to leave more grass for soil building when growing conditions are favorable, and he is ready to provide hay when it’s too dry to fully feed the follower herd.
He thinks leader-follower is the most efficient way to feed two different groups of cattle. “I’m offering two classes of feed this way: milk cow quality and dry cow quality. And I’m not having to start any equipment to do it.”
He also figures the ground is too steep and the elevation gains too great for piped paddock water. The follower/dry cow herds are allowed back to the barnyard for water once a day both summer and winter, which Chuck says requires about 10 minutes of his or John’s time with the aid of a well-developed lane system. He doesn’t believe that milk production is suffering, although the milking herd is also let back to the barn in the midst of the hotter days.
Chuck says he has always targeted 150 cows because that was about the number needed to keep his hillsides under proper control.
Such a herd size has also provided enough scale to hire a full-time employee. “I’ve hired a lot of people over the years and it’s been a learning experience, but in general I’ve had good luck with help,” Chuck describes.
But none of these employees ever seriously considered making a career on this farm. As time passed, Chuck and Karen started looking at their options, which were limited by the reality that this was not a good row-crop farm. “I figured we could find a middle-aged guy who wanted to expand the dairy,” Chuck explains.
They were mulling their options when the DGA came along a few years ago. Chuck contacted Joe Tomandl III, a Medford, Wisconsin dairy grazier who serves as the program’s executive director. He was soon approved as a “master grazier” eligible to work with an apprentice through the DGA program.
As a master grazier, Chuck is eligible to contact anyone who has agreed to be included in a list of prospective apprentices on the DGA website.
Finding an apprentice
The first couple of phone contacts didn’t bear fruit. But then Tomandl told Chuck about a young man he had met at a career fair at the university in River Falls. John Richmond II was just entering his senior year when Chuck called. John, who majored in agriculture management with a dairy emphasis, visited the farm and got to know Chuck and Karen, Very soon the two parties decided that they wanted to work together.
“It just clicked,” Chuck describes.
“I came out in the fall (of 2014), and it was just beautiful,” John says. “We had similar interests, and the way he runs his farm is close to the way I want to farm. We could see that it could work pretty well. This was the kind of farm I could foresee myself being on and hopefully working into.”
John didn’t come from a farm, but had worked on relatives’ farms growing up. He also worked at a couple of fairly intense confinement dairies during his college years, but watching online videos was about as close to a grazing dairy as he had come. Still, visiting with Tomandl at that initial career fair got him excited about the idea of using the DGA as a launching pad for his dairy career.
“I knew I didn’t have a direct way into a dairy farm, and I knew I wanted to graze,” he describes. “Joe told me that I should graduate, but for the next year I basically had tunnel vision toward getting on a grazing farm.”
John, who graduated with student debt, received decent job offers from a couple of confinement dairy/cash cropping farms. Chuck essentially matched this and offered to pay the rent on an apartment in town.
DGA’s wage minimum is $8 an hour, which has proven to be a barrier for some farms. Chuck offered more than the minimum. “I’ve always believed that you have to offer a decent wage,” he explains.
Says John, “He definitely went out on a limb for me.”
So far, the limb has not cracked even though the DGA requires that Chuck be something more than a boss and John to be something other than the normal employee. Much of this comes down to Chuck explaining the “why” of things ranging from pasture allocation to milking technique to breeding and financial management.
“There is more of a commitment on my part,” Chuck says. “I make a point of explaining why I’m doing things.”
“We’ve taken a lot of slow trips around the farm on the four-wheelers, just talking about things — why they’re being done the way they are,” John describes. He says he’s starting to take on more responsibility than he had at previous dairy jobs.
Adds Chuck, “Last year there was a lot of explaining. Over the last six months, it’s been more of a discussion. Now I like to get John’s opinion on various things.”
DGA Masters must ensure that their apprentices achieve competency in the wide variety of skills listed in the program’s job book. Chuck says that this part of the program might be ignored if it weren’t for some oversight.
Which in this case is provided by Mary C. Anderson, DGA’s education coordinator for western Wisconsin and a grazing veteran herself. Mary schedules monthly farm visits to discuss their progress in meeting the program’s objectives and to address any other concerns or questions. Scheduled for an hour, the meetings usually stretch to two or three hours as the discussion branches out in different directions.
“She forces us to go through the job book and answer the questions. Otherwise it would just gather dust,” Chuck acknowledges. “There needs to be someone who says ‘you’ve done this, now you’ve got to do this.’”
Adds John, “It seems like she can relate to everything we do.”
While he has completed most of the 3,712 on-farm hours needed to finish the DGA program, for a variety of reasons John has not gotten far along toward gaining the required 288 classroom hours. While his college experience may allow him to test out of a few of the classes, he will have to pay for the credits.
“I agree that the classes should be a requirement, and I plan to get on it this winter. I hope to be done next spring,” he explains.
At that point, John would likely have completed his DGA apprenticeship, graduating to a “journey dairy grazier” status indicating to prospective employers that he has the training and skills required to manage a grass-based dairy.
In John’s case, the journey may be very short. “I will most likely be staying here,” he says.
In the meantime, Chuck says he intends to inform John about the risks of investing too heavily in equipment and borrowing money under the assumption that interest rates will always remain low. “What I’m focusing on now is the long-term business part of it. I’ve already made some of those mistakes,” he explains.
Making the transition
How any transition happens has yet to be decided, and Chuck says he’ll have to meet with his accountant to discuss the potential avenues. DGA also has a business advisor who will meet with the two to assist with planning.
Would such a transfer have taken place without the DGA program? “It would have been hard,” Chuck responds. “Otherwise I probably would have had to find someone to just come in and buy me out and force me to retire overnight, which is something I didn’t want to happen.”
Adds Chuck, “I feel confident that John will take over here.”
Joel McNair serves on the DGA board of directors.
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