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

City kid turns cow man

Johnson finds career in dairy farming
Heifers rest comfortably in an open lot on Johnson and Fischer’s farm. They put in this lot and others when they purchased the farm to serve as winter housing for the heifers and feeder steers.<br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->PHOTO BY JENNIFER BURGGRAFF
Heifers rest comfortably in an open lot on Johnson and Fischer’s farm. They put in this lot and others when they purchased the farm to serve as winter housing for the heifers and feeder steers.<br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->PHOTO BY JENNIFER BURGGRAFF

By By Jennifer Burggraff- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

HUTCHINSON, Minn. - As a kid, the closest ties Bryant Johnson had to the dairy industry were his grandparents who were retired dairy farmers. Lack of connections, however, haven't stopped this city kid from becoming a dairyman.
Today Johnson (25) owns and operates a 65-cow dairy farm near Hutchinson, Minn., with his fiancée, Jamie Fischer. It's been an uphill battle, but they are right where they want to be.
"Life is good," Johnson said.
Johnson grew up in Litchfield, Minn. His first hands-on dairy experience came when Deb Heuer, who with her husband, Steve, owns Desthaven Holsteins in Litchfield and works at the Litchfield Middle School, asked if he wanted to show one of their heifers at the Meeker County Fair. He did and found he had a passion for bovines.
"I like working with cows; it's a lot easier than working with people," Johnson said.
What started as a 4-H project turned into an eight-year stint working for the Heuers and showing their cattle.
"From there, I worked for everyone in Meeker County, it seems like," Johnson said with a smile.
Following high school, Johnson attended Ridgewater College in Willmar, Minn., for a degree in dairy management. He graduated in spring of 2008 and took a position as an A.I. technician with Select Sires. During this time, Johnson kept his eyes open for an opportunity to begin dairy farming.
That opportunity came through Manfred Akerson of Pennock, Minn., who sold his herd of 35 registered Jerseys to Johnson in spring of 2009. Johnson rented Akerson's barn for one year before moving the herd to a rented facility near Paynesville, Minn. There he partnered with a dairy farmer hoping to phase out of the industry. Unfortunately, things didn't work out, but it was a learning experience.
"I don't think I have the right mentality to be in a partnership," Johnson said. "... It was time to find a more permanent situation."
Johnson and Fischer found a farm site that met their criteria - close to family, sand-bedded freestalls and the option to graze - near Hutchinson, Minn., and purchased it last October. The 10-acre site included a freestall barn with 48 stalls, a milking facility, hay shed, hog barn and other outbuildings.
Before moving the herd to the new farm, Johnson and Fischer made several changes. First and foremost was updating the milking facility. The farm housed the first robotic milker installed in Minnesota, and while they had the option to buy the robot, they opted not.
"We decided to pull it out," Johnson said. "I like milking my own cows."
In its place, they put in a single-6 flat parlor. They also revamped some of the outbuildings, including converting a hay shed to a heifer barn and the hog barn to a calf barn, and they put up a lot of fence, Johnson said.
"I like open dirt lots for winter, and Dad loves to fence," he said, laughing.
Today, Johnson and Fischer milk 65 cows on their farm, raise their replacement heifers and raise the bull calves as feeder steers. Johnson does the majority of the milking himself while Jamie, who works full time off the farm as a nurse in Paynesville, does the calf chores. It's been a bit of a lifestyle change for Jamie, who grew up on a beef farm, but it's one she enjoys.
"Beef are easy. Dairy [cows] need you every day," she said. "[But I enjoy] being outside with Bryant and the cows."
They currently purchase all their feedstuffs but plan to cut down those costs when they begin grazing their herd on 40 acres of rented pasture this summer.
Entering the dairy industry as first generation farmers presented challenges beyond finding a good herd of cattle.
"Finding a place to milk [was difficult]," Johnson said. "You just can't find a herd of cows and milk them in your back yard."
There was also the financial aspect.
"You save up for years but it's a huge undertaking," he said.
Johnson was able to secure a Young Farmers loan through the Farm Service Agency for the cattle and equipment, as well as another loan for the farm itself. To help with the financial end of things, Johnson and Fischer have learned a few tricks to bolster their income. These include focusing on herd reproduction, components and somatic cell count. Their current conception rate is 1.5 services per conception. Rolling herd average sits at 16,600 pounds with 5.0 butterfat and 3.9 protein, and SCC has dropped to around 100,000, aided in part by the sand bedding and switching to triangle inflations.
"That was the best thing we ever did," Johnson said of the inflations. "Squawking has been eliminated, SCC is down and the cows milk out a lot faster ... Lowering the SCC to 100,000 has made the payment on the farm."
Owning their farm versus paying rent has also helped cash flow, but that's not the only benefit.
"It's really nice to make the improvements you want to make and be doing it for yourself," Johnson said.
Eventually, Johnson and Fischer would like to grow their herd to 80 cows with a 60-pound tank average and good components. They also hope to find cropland to rent so they can raise their own feedstuffs. As a hobby, they plan to get more involved in showing their cattle.
"We both enjoy it," Fischer said.
To other young people looking to enter the dairy industry, Johnson and Fischer said to take things slow and never give up.
"Ask a lot of questions to everyone you talk to ... Every place you walk onto, take the good and the bad," Johnson said.
For him, having not grown up on a dairy farm, questions ranged from nutrition to finances and everything in between. It all comes down to doing a very good job with your cows, he said.
"You treat your cows good and they will treat you good," Fischer said, agreeing with Johnson.
The young couple is learning as they go and making dairy connections wherever they can. It's far from the city life he grew up with, but Johnson is no less the dairyman for it.
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