Zeb Johnson milks 42 cows near Mora, Minn. Johnson purchased the farm site last summer and has spent the past year building his herd and becoming a full-time dairyman and owner of Jer-Anna Holsteins.PHOTO BY JENNIFER COYNE
Zeb Johnson milks 42 cows near Mora, Minn. Johnson purchased the farm site last summer and has spent the past year building his herd and becoming a full-time dairyman and owner of Jer-Anna Holsteins.
MORA, Minn. - Trading in a job with financial stability and long-term benefits to milk cows is not everyone's idea of career growth, but for Zeb Johnson it was the right decision to lead him down the desired path of dairy farming.
Last July, Johnson purchased a 40-acre farm site near Mora, Minn., where he milks 42 registered Holsteins.
"I was at the flourmill for three years, working nights and 12-hour days. I thought if I'm going to work this hard I might as well be doing what I love," Johnson said. "I thought I'd eventually be milking cows, but maybe not until I was 30. I worked a little harder and now I'm ahead of schedule."
Johnson's farm includes a 30-stall, sand-bedded tiestall barn and housing facilities for youngstock and dry cows. He also runs 120 acres of land for corn and alfalfa.
"This is a good farm to start out with," Johnson said. "It's not breaking the bank, but it's also not the bare minimum. I have everything that I need to milk cows, and I can improve how I want to."
The 24-year-old started his dairy herd when he was young, purchasing a 6-month-old heifer with scholarship money earned through a 4-H interview. At that point, Johnson was granted a youth loan through the United States Department of Agriculture-Farm Service Agency (FSA) to begin his dairy herd. Over the years, he slowly grew his herd to 12 milking animals, and housed them at his parents' - Zane and Janet Johnson's - 70-cow dairy near Hinckley, Minn.
Then, after graduating college in 2013, Johnson pursued careers away from dairy farming with plans to someday return to his dairying roots.
In January 2016, Johnson received another FSA loan to purchase his farm site.
"It took six months, but now look what I have," Johnson said. "It took another two months to get a cow loan, but now I have my cows. I have everything - I'm happy."
On July 15, 2016, Johnson became a property owner, and he spent the following months tirelessly preparing the facilities for the arrival of livestock.
Johnson replaced the drinking cups in front of the stalls and, to be compliant with a Grade A license, he put in a new well on the farm.
"There's not a lot of creameries taking Grade B, if at all, right now, so I needed to make sure I could ship Grade A," Johnson said. "It was a whole other challenge to find someone that would take my milk."
After reaching out to three creameries, Johnson was able to build a contract with Burnett Dairy in Alpha, Wis., where he also purchases feed.
On Nov. 19, Johnson turned on the vacuum pump for the first time.
"Everything went smoothly. I was very happy," Johnson said.
In order to fill the barn, Johnson looked towards sales of highly respected registered farms throughout the Midwest. He came across Paradise-D Holsteins in Lancaster, Wis., where he purchased 30 cows.
"I knew I wanted big cows with good feet and legs, and beautiful udders. If they were bred, producing good milk and had a low SCC, I kept my eye on them," Johnson said.
While Johnson admitted to paying more for the remainder of his herd, he hopes the genetic components will outweigh the cost.
"Instead of buying more cows and getting the same amount of milk, I wanted to buy less cows that give more milk," Johnson said. "Pagenkopfs had a 33,000-pound herd average and I wanted cows like that."
Before the herd could come home, Johnson wanted to make further improvements within the barn so the transition from one farm to the next did not greatly affect milk production and herd health.
The purchased herd remained in Lancaster until June 15, as Johnson added sand bedding to his stalls.
"It may be hard on the barn cleaner, but I don't care if it's harder on equipment or not. Once the cows are happy, that's all that matters," Johnson said.
As Johnson settles into his role as a dairyman and owner of Jer-Anna Holsteins, he is pleased with how the cows have adjusted and is looking forward to developing his herd.
"Right now, I don't have any corn silage and am still getting a 70-pound average. If I can get to 80 pounds, I'd be very happy; but I'm not going to push my cows," Johnson said. "I believe that if you keep your cows happy and healthy, they're going to produce for you."
While Johnson was able to apply concepts he learned in his dairy management courses at school to his dairy, it was the advice from his father and the help from fellow farmers that have aided in his progress.
Johnson is sharing equipment with his father and brother, Jake, and receives help from a neighbor when it is time to wrap hay.
"I have to thank everyone for helping me out whenever I need it," Johnson said. "Otherwise, it'd be tough doing it all by myself without the people standing behind me and helping me out."
In time, Johnson hopes to acquire more of his own equipment, as well as build a better housing facility for his dry cows and youngstock.
"The hardest part is making sure the bills are paid and everything cash flows," Johnson said. "I wanted to put new stalls in or add fans to the barn before I started milking, but as money comes in I'll be able to make those changes."
The past year has been a whirlwind adventure for Johnson, and with a strong herd foundation he is eager to see where dairying will take him.
"A lot of people doubted me, saying I was crazy for leaving a high-paying job to go milk cows. They thought I'd never be able to do it," Johnson said. "But, every morning I get to wake up and am proud of what I have in that barn."