September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.

A day in the life of the Heeren family

Unspring-like weather creates routine winter day
Aaron Mehling, who has been helping on the farm during his spring break, limes the alley way in the pack barn before letting the cows back in.<br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->PHOTO BY KRISTA SHEEHAN
Aaron Mehling, who has been helping on the farm during his spring break, limes the alley way in the pack barn before letting the cows back in.<br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->PHOTO BY KRISTA SHEEHAN

By by Krista Sheehan- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

MANTORVILLE, Minn. - Although March 20 marked the first day of spring on the calendar, the piles of snow along with temperatures below freezing and chilly winds at the farm where Nate and Kirsten Heeren dairy indicated the continuation of a different season.
"I hope spring gets here soon," Nate said.
Nate and Kirsten spent March 20 doing chores like any other winter day. The couple milks the cows and cares for all the youngstock on a farm owned by John Bierbaum near Mantorville, Minn. Of the 60 cows in the barn, Bierbaum owns half, while the other half are owned by the Heerens.
"Nate and Kirsten have a lot of enthusiasm," Bierbaum said about the young couple. "A traditional share/lease program seemed like a way for them to get into the industry. It gives them a chance to work on their own genetics and breeding for their herd."
March 20 started like many other days for the Heerens. Nate woke up at 3:45 to be out in the barn by 4 and started milking before 5:00. Cows are milked and housed in a 56-stall tiestall barn. The cows that don't have a stall in the barn are housed in an attached shed, which used to have box stalls. The Heerens converted it to one pack area bedded with cornstalks.
"When we took out the boxstalls, the cows went up in milk by 10 pounds. They have more room on the pack," Nate said.
It's also been less labor-intensive with the pack.
Nate was glad to have extra help in the morning. Kirsten, who works off the farm as an LPN, had the day off.
"I help when I can, but I'm not always here. Nate does most of the work," Kirsten said.
But Nate realized he couldn't do it all himself. After injuring his back in December, Nate hired a college student, Ben Winkels, in January to help get the chores done. Winkels works every Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings along with every other weekend.
Since Winkels had spring break the week of March 20, he was also able to work mornings. For the week, he brought along his friend, Aaron Mehling.
"They're good help," Nate said.
Winkels and Mehling arrived around 6 a.m. to start their day.
All four spent the morning milking the cows, cleaning the barns, giving the cows their total mixed ration and feeding the calves.
Heifer calves receive milk replacer while bull calves are fed waste milk.
"It would be really nice to have a pasteurizer," Nate said. "But that's a big investment."
Lately, the cows have been given more corn silage because the Heerens have been running low on hay. This year, Nate started feeding baleage.
"I love baleage. The cows are doing really well with it. This year we're going to make all baleage," Nate said.
The farm has 40 acres of tillable land, which is all used mostly for hay with a few acres of corn silage. Bierbaum owns an additional 25 acres away from the farm that is also used for forage. The rest of the feed is purchased.
Morning chores went more quickly than usual with more people to do the work and the winter-like weather. The cows normally go outside for exercise during the day, but didn't on March 20 because it was too cold. It was also the second time this year Nate didn't run the tunnel ventilation fans.
After finishing in the barn, the four cleaned up to go to a farm show in Rochester where they ate lunch and talked with vendors and other producers.
Nate and Kirsten recently celebrated two years of dairy farming on their own. On March 15, 2011, the Heerens officially started their partnership with Bierbaum. They were excited to bring in the cows they bought to start their herd, and begin breeding cows under their new prefix, For-U-To-N-V.
While Kirsten grew up on an 80-cow dairy, Nate got into farming first by his uncle, who milked cows. He then worked for a dairy farmer through high school before working for Bierbaum along with being a feed mill manager for a year.
"I like what I do, and I wanted to be on my own," Nate said about the decision to form a partnership. "I wanted to make my own decisions like what a cow was bred to or how to manage certain areas of the farm."
When he worked at the feed mill for a year, he knew he wasn't in the right place.
"I missed working with the cows," Nate said.
Even though Kirsten works off the farm, she also wanted to have a dairy.
"A life without cows is not an option for us," she said.
Kirsten said her favorite part has been taking care of the calves. It reminds her of her time on her family's farm growing up and hauling pails to calves in her little red wagon.
"Calves are the future of a farm. If they're not taken care of, the farm is in jeopardy," Kirsten said.
Nate said he likes it all - from trying to breed the next great cow to milking together with Kirsten at night.
"It's the satisfaction that you're doing something productive," Nate said.
However, their journey hasn't been without challenges. Being a young couple just starting in the industry has been the biggest obstacle.
"Being young, you have no equity. You almost have to find a farmer who is ready to retire, willing to work with a younger generation and be understanding that they might not get top dollar for their farm compared to if they went to an auction," Nate said. "It's hard for young people to find farms."
Luckily, the Heerens have had people who support them, especially other area farmers including Kirsten's dad, Carl.
"He's been a backbone for us," Nate said. "And you can't be afraid to ask for help."
Afternoon chores started again when they returned from their midday getaway. They began the routine again of mixing feed and feeding the animals followed by milking at 5 p.m.
Although they have only begun their dairying career, the Heerens have goals for what they want in the future.
"I want to have World Dairy Expo-winning cows standing in box stalls and have our farm be open for people to come look for sale consignments," Nate said.
Kirsten added, "We want a sound herd we can be proud of."
But with a growing family - the Heerens are expecting their first baby in June - the couple wants more than just to own great cows.
"A farm is a great place to raise a family," Nate said. "I want a place to call ours and be a home."

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