Jason Ihm stands near this custom dune buggy, which he restored and detailed himself. Ihm milks 90 cows on his farm near Blue Mounds, Wis. PHOTO BY KRISTIN OLSON
Jason Ihm stands near this custom dune buggy, which he restored and detailed himself. Ihm milks 90 cows on his farm near Blue Mounds, Wis.
BLUE MOUNDS, Wis. - As the sun rises on Hi-Way Holstein Ranch - nestled in the rolling hills between Mount Horeb and Blue Mounds, Wis. - on April 30, Jason Ihm sets out to begin his day, a day forecasted with beautiful Wisconsin spring weather.
Jason's first destination is the dry cow barn, where he checks to make sure no cows are calving and assists with pulling if necessary. With no babies this morning, he heads to the barn to mix feed. Jason regularly works with a nutritionist to ensure his cows are fed the best rations possible. Feed is mixed four times daily - twice in the morning and twice in the evening.
Meanwhile, in the stanchion barn, Jason's two hired men begin their days by milking the 160-cow herd, which primarily consists of Holsteins, with a few Brown Swiss thrown in the mix. Cows are milked twice a day in the stanchion barn - in a few rotations to accommodate all 90 - and are housed in a nearby freestall barn, which was built in 2013. According to Jason's metered units, the herd is averaging approximately 90 pounds of milk per day, with a 120,000 somatic cell count, 4.0 percent fat and 3.17 percent protein.
As the milking wraps up, Jason continues with morning chores by spreading manure and loading up the wagon before he starts working on the pasture fence. It's an exciting day at the farm; cows will be let out to pasture for the first time this year.
As Jason and his hired hand of nine years, Andres, mend the fence, he shares a bit more about how his story began.
While growing up on his family's dairy farm, just down the road in Barneveld, Wis., Jason developed a love for farming. But with several older brothers already helping with the workload, there wasn't much for young Jason to help with.
"I left the farm when I was 12 years old, basically," he said jokingly. "Not because I didn't get along, but because I had older brothers and there wasn't a lot of work to do with 80 cows."
A neighbor had a farm and needed help, so Jason took him up on his offer. By the time he graduated from high school, Jason had reached a crossroads.
"When I got out of high school, I thought, 'Well, I wasn't going to go to college to play baseball.' I had a scholarship, but I had to make the team to get the scholarship. I didn't want to be in debt if I didn't make the team, so I decided not to go, and a year later I went in debt a whole lot more than what college was going to cost me," he said with a chuckle. "I don't regret a bit of it, though. I love it. I love what I do. I love the location. I got lucky getting this farm."
Jason started farming in 1990 on his own, the summer he turned 18. This initial farm was just down the road from his family's dairy.
After looking for a place to rent, he couldn't find one right away, so he brought his 40 head of cows and youngstock to his uncle's, who needed help and had extra space at the time. In the meantime, the farmer at Jason's current site began raising his heifers. Six months later, Jason began renting his current farm and eventually built up the funds to purchase it in 1999. At the time, he paid more for his farm and land than anyone else in the area.
"Everyone said I'll never make it, no way," Jason said. "Then, all of a sudden five years later, the price of land went through the roof and it made me a genius."
At about 10:30 a.m., the fence is ready to be tested by the herd. Jason swings the gate around, creating a gateway from the cow yard to the lane. Slowly, the curious cows begin making their way out onto the rolling green pasture. In no time, the herd is running and frolicking about - some of the cows on pasture for the first time of their life.
For the next hour, Jason and Andres keep a close eye on the perimeter of the fence line, making a few minor updates and testing it out to make sure it's working safely. One cow in particular thinks the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, but quickly moves back into bounds when she sees Jason coming.
As the cows are settled in, it's time for lunch. Jason, a bachelor, shares that a lot of times, he likes to head into town - either to Blue Mounds or Mount Horeb - to catch a quick bite to eat and visit with neighbors. Today, he ventures to Aunt Mary's Hooterville Inn in Blue Mounds. It's Thursday, so he orders the steak special and catches up with friends while also checking out the daily markets as they're broadcast on the local news station.
Following lunch, Jason starts up his New Holland tractor and heads into the fields to begin chisel plowing. Alfalfa was planted earlier this week, and the goal is to plant corn, including some corn silage varieties, next week.
Jason currently works 350 acres of land to produce as much feed as he can; however, he doesn't have enough acres to provide for the entire herd, so he does purchase additional feed as necessary. He strongly believes that feed plays a huge role in the overall health and production of the herd.
"I make field work a very big priority," he said, adding with a laugh, "you can ask some past girlfriends that were pretty mad about not going to some weddings, etcetera. When I make hay, I make hay; I cut it all down in one day and work all night; it's just what I do. I get very consistent feed that way. [With consistent feed,] the milk production doesn't change from going to a very good feed to bad feed."
While it's still somewhat early, fields in the neighborhood have been buzzing this week as farmers take advantage of the sunny weather with above-average temperatures.
"I have 60 acres to chisel plow," Jason said. "The rest will be no-till. Sixty acres might be done by tomorrow night if I stay at it. I might work late tonight to get done."
He rents a corn planter from the neighbor, but hopes to be planting by Sunday if his neighbor is done and all goes well.
"May 1-8 is the ideal time. If I can plant by then, I'll be happy," Jason said, before sharing several wives tales of ways to tell it's time to plant.
As he makes another round with the tractor, Jason receives a call from a trucker who is delivering a load of lime to the farm.
Jason hangs up the phone and comments that cell phones have really changed farming.
"That's what's so nice about cell phones. I don't have to run in and tell him where to go and waste 15 minutes for no reason," he said.
As the afternoon unfolds, Jason continues to work in the field until about 5 p.m., when it's time to prep for evening milking.
One thing that makes the herd unique from others in the area is that it is exclusively a milking herd; bull calves are sold within the first week of birth and heifer calves are sold privately at approximately 2 months of age after weaning. Jason works with several private sellers and tries to buy from closed herds and ones that have already proven themselves, with milk production in the area of 25,000 to 30,000 pounds.
Jason shared that he loves to watch his first-calf heifers develop and see the difference that just a few months can make.
"If you get them the right feed, they'll milk," he said, explaining why he stays on top of ration balancing. "If you're off 200 pounds every mix, that's a lot. You wouldn't think it's a big deal, but it is. The cows will let you know what's going on."
As the evening milking begins, the barn is bustling as Jason's two milkers, as well as his 11-year-old nephew, Carter, and friend, Ryan Henry, join him.
"That's a lot of [the fun] of it, too," he said. "I've got really good friends that will pull in to usually say 'hi,' but will end up working for two hours. But I try to treat them great - take them out for dinner or drinks and whatever - the best I can do. A lot of it, if you're good to people, they'll be good back to you. That's how I look at it. My nephew, Carter, comes and loves to help out. I think he'll be a great asset to me this summer."
Both Carter and Henry agree that chores on Hi-Way Ranch don't even feel like work as they joke around with each other in the barn alley.
"It's like this all the time, which is what makes it fun to be around," Henry said.
Carter added that he likes working on the farm with his Uncle Jason as much as he can. His favorite part?
"Cleaning the barns," he said with a smile.
As the sun begins to set and milking is wrapping up, Jason shares what will get him out of bed for the start of a new day tomorrow.
"I enjoy being my own boss. I love being outside. I love accomplishing something. Every day you can accomplish something. Every day is different. Two days ago, I tore that fence down. You don't tear a fence down every day. That's the biggest thing," he said.
Following milking, he gives Carter a ride home - only after taking his prized Wisconsin Badger dune buggy for a spin. Upon his return home, he digs up a few more acres with the tractor, just as the moon shines brightly down on another day in the life of Jason Ihm.