Dairy Farming's Pit Bulls
By Brian DeVore
When you’re wallowing in the pit of despair, it helps to know that others have preceded you and survived. And for John and Heidi Wise, they have another pit-beater: they didn’t exactly jump in without giving it some careful forethought. After more than a decade of classes, working with mentors, business planning and searching, the couple has finally launched a dairy farm in northwest Wisconsin. And yes, they’ve done their share of pit-slogging.
“You’re not prepared for how long those days are going to be,” says John on a recent November morning during a break from morning chores. “Sometimes I didn’t take time to eat those first few months.”
In 2010 the Wises bought a 160-acre farm, built a milking parlor in the 1920s-era hip-roofed barn, established rotationally grazed pastures on hilly land, and began producing milk from a 60-cow herd. Unfortunately, the cows they bought were accustomed to being milked in a stanchion type system, rather than the herringbone-shaped pit parlor the Wises had built. They often had to be literally muscled into place to be milked.
Then came the winter. November brought a 17-inch snowstorm and the Wises didn’t even have equipment to plow out their driveway for the milk truck. By December of that year barns in western Wisconsin were collapsing under the weight of record snowfalls. To top it off, the Wises ended up calving in January and February outside.
“Oh boy, did we get a wake up call,” recalls Heidi. “That first year was horrible.”
Things looked up in 2011 as they got their rotational grazing system better established and the cows adjusted to the parlor. But then the Wises added more cows to the herd to bring it up to 80 animals. It turned out those new additions to the herd weren’t trained to deal with rotational grazing paddocks. It became routine to wake up to livestock wandering the rolling hills of the farm.
“They wrecked our interior fencing system so we ended up losing our rotational grazing and had to start buying hay too early,” says Heidi.
To paraphrase an old saying, there will be days (and months) like this.
John and Heidi were reminded of that at one of the first Farm Beginnings class sessions they attended back in 2002. The Farm Beginnings course, which the Land Stewardship Project has been offering since 1998, has become a national model for providing wannabe farmers with training in innovative business planning, marketing and goal-setting, among other things. Farm Beginnings is also known for its use of established farmers and other agricultural professionals as class instructors. The Wises remember when veteran dairy farmer Dan French talked specifically about how they would find themselves in that infamous “pit of despair,” and how through a combination of goal-setting, careful planning and some good old-fashioned sweat equity, there are ways of scrabbling out of that pit with your sanity, and farming aspirations, intact.
Years of preparation
One thing that’s helped the Wises deal with the adversity of launching a farming enterprise is that they’ve waited a long time for this opportunity. They have plenty of “life experience”—another way of saying they aren’t the stereotypical young beginning farmers. John is 47 and Heidi 45. They grew up in the Twin Cities, and both had careers before they started looking seriously into farming over a decade ago. Besides taking the Farm Beginnings course, they’ve also sought out on-the-ground farming experiences as much as possible.
In 2001 and 2002, John was mentored by Dan and Cara Miller, who raise grass-based beef in southeast Minnesota. Dan has extensive experience as a Farm Business Management Instructor, and John learned the basics of not only setting up a rotational grazing system and handling large animals, but business planning and enterprise analysis.
The Wises’ original plan was to raise grass-based beef, but after taking a mini-course on dairying, they switched their goals to milking cows. The Wises felt dairying would allow them to still raise cattle on grass with minimal inputs while maintaining a regular cash flow.
But they knew beef and dairy farming were two different animals, so to speak. So in 2007 and 2008, John and Heidi worked on Roger and Michelle Benruds’ dairy farm in Minnesota’s Goodhue County. The Benruds graduated from Farm Beginnings’ inaugural class in the late 1990s, and since then have set up a grass-based milking operation. The Wises spent weekends and evenings getting firsthand experience in everything from milking to artificial insemination.
They even did what Heidi calls a “milk camp” on the Benrud operation—spending a week straight helping with calving.
“It was a baptism by fire,” Heidi says.
In just over half-a-year, the Wises were confident enough to do relief milking while the Benruds went away on a family trip. The experience provided invaluable nuts-and-bolts skills, but it also showed John and Heidi that dairy farming was something they were willing to try fulltime.
In fact, they were so serious about starting a farm business that in 2005 Heidi quit her job. “Then my job was to figure out how to write a business plan,” she says.
They also spent several years looking for a farm via the Internet as well as through newspaper advertisements and word-of-mouth. Heidi and John were picky, and although they didn’t visit every one, seriously considered over 100 different farms over the years. Such a thorough search can become overwhelming and wracked by emotion, so the Wises developed a “criteria sheet” they used when considering farms. Listed on the sheet were such elements as “community,” “condition of the land and house,” “reason it was being sold,” etc. They then graded each farm based on these criteria.
“It really helped—instead of always going with the gut feeling,” says Heidi. “I think the highest score ever was 75 out of 135. None of them were perfect.”
In the midst of their search, the Wises’ son Peter was born, giving the family a sense that some decisions about the future needed to be made relatively soon.
“We didn’t expect it to take this long,” says John. “We did say if we don’t find anything by the time I’m 50, we’d give up.”
Power of networking
In a sense, the Wise farming operation is a blend of two opposing strategies when it comes to the day-to-day, as well as long-term, operation of a business.
Before launching their farming enterprise, Heidi worked in corporate communications, where she learned the value of planning ahead. Posted above their kitchen table is a 120-day planner that notes everything from calving dates and feed deliveries to doctor appointments and family visits.
Before he started farming, John had managed a Japanese garden at a community college in the Twin Cities, a specialized job that had him working solo much of the time.
“My whole adult life I worked alone. I didn’t want anyone touching anything,” he says with a laugh. “I’m the kind of person where nobody does anything good enough for me. Peter will learn that as he grows up, and we’ll have that typical farmer-to-son hate-each-other dichotomy going on.”
This “go it alone” attitude has served the Wise farm well on those long days and nights when elbow grease and grit are the only options for keeping things going. But John has also learned the value of networking with others in troubleshooting a fledgling business.
Soon after they bought the farm, a local University of Wisconsin Extension educator helped set up an advisory team for the Wises. Besides the Extension agent, the team consists of a grazing consultant, a nutritionist from the local feed mill (who also happens to dairy farm) and the Wises’ banker. The Benruds also belong to the advisory team. The advisory group meets with the Wises every-other-month (the Benruds join the meetings via telephone) to discuss where the farm is at and to go over options for dealing with issues that have come up.
Heidi says the advisory team can offer a third-party “neutral” perspective on issues she and John are locking horns over as spouses who happen to be business partners.
“I think in some ways the advisory team saved our operation, because we were so mired in the day-to-day that we weren’t spending the time thinking about where we were going to go with our business,” she says. “These guys never pressure us, but we do have to defend our decisions.”
One thing John was finding increasingly hard to defend last year was his commitment to do his own fencing work when the new cows made a mockery of their rotational grazing system.
“I can do this—just get off my back,” was John’s reaction to suggestions from Heidi that he didn’t have time to manage the farm and get the new fencing up in a timely manner.
But the advisory group pointed out that delaying action on this problem was costing the farm money and the wire-stringing needed to be hired out.
“They said you have to get your fencing set up, and you need to hire it done,” recalls Heidi. “You are losing production because of this situation. That really helped to have a third-party tell us that.”
Now that the fencing is done and the grazing system is back on track, John admits his do-it-yourself attitude was in the end financially and emotionally taxing.
“Sometimes the advisory team says something you don’t want to hear, but usually they are right,” he says.
And he concedes another point when it comes to the shortcomings related to just working day-to-day without looking up: developing a business plan, something emphasized in the Farm Beginnings course, has helped them look past short-term financial shortfalls and keep their eye on long-term goals.
“We have not been making money yet, but we’re doing pretty close to what we projected, and without knowing that things will get better financially, I don’t know what we’d be doing,” John says while providing a tour of the farm. “Without financial projections showing us where we’re going we’d be thinking about pulling the plug before we lost everything.”
Now or never
There are still some hard days, but the Wises have been able to catch their breath enough lately to think about the future. One idea is to start a “farmstay” business. A few yards from the house is a former machine shop that was made into a small residence for the mother of the farm’s former owner. The Wises see this as a perfect place for people to stay on the weekends and get a “real farm experience” while enjoying the other recreational offerings in the area—they farm a few miles from the town of Chetek, which is located on the popular Big Six Chain of Lakes.
True to her passion for planning ahead, in preparation for the day when the farmstay enterprise is off the ground—sometime around 2014, they hope—Heidi has put her communications background to good use and already launched a website for “A Wise Choice Dairy and Farmstay.” She also chronicles the farm’s weekly activities on Facebook.
It’s no surprise Heidi has the farmstay enterprise all planned out. But in a nod to John’s philosophy of jumping now and asking questions later, she concedes they wouldn’t be where they are at today if their farm dream had been all plan, and no action. Sometimes one must be willing to jump in with both feet—even if they land you in a bit of a pit.
“You’ve got to prepare yourself to go through some tough stuff, but if you prepare for everything, you’ll never step up,” says Heidi as she, John and three-year-old Peter stand outside their dairy barn with the cattle in the pastures behind them. “Eventually you have to step off the cliff.”
—A version of this story appeared in the No. 4, 2012, edition of the Land Stewardship Letter. For more information on Farm Beginnings, see www.farmbeginnings.org. More information is also available by calling 320-269-2105 in western Minnesota or 507-523-3366 in southeast Minnesota. For more on Farm Beginnings in other regions, click here.