September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.
"[I left] to figure me out," she said.
She got a degree in child and adult care and education, moved to Florida and then got a teaching job in Fargo, N.D. In doing all of this, what she found was her calling to come home to the family dairy farm.
"I missed the lifestyle ... the actual hands-on work," Kirckof said. "I love living in the country, working with the animals and my family."
Things haven't gone quite as planned, but Kirckof is now living out her calling as a dairy farmer.
"It's very rewarding to be a dairy farmer," she said. "You really get to see what you put into it."
She's certainly been putting her all into it. Since July 16, 2012, Kirckof - the daughter of Mark and Kara Kirckof - has been milking up to 71 cows in a shiny new 80-cow tiestall barn on her parents' farm near Brooten, Minn. With 10 heifers set to calve in September, she'll have the barn full in no time.
It's a new chapter in the four-generation farm's 87-year history that saw tragedy when the Kirckofs' 66-cow tiestall barn burned to the ground on Sept. 29, 2009, taking nearly three-fourths of the milking herd with it. It happened just months after Kirckof returned home to pursue her dairy calling, and just one month after starting classes at Ridgewater College for dairy management. Two weeks later, the farm shop also burned.
"I finally figured out what I wanted to do and it was gone," Kirckof said. "It was an awful month."
After talking with her parents, it was decided to hold off rebuilding the dairy until Kirckof finished college. In the meantime, she took a job milking cows for Hamborg-Freese Farms near Sunburg, Minn.
"I was young and it's a big commitment," Kirckof said of postponing rebuilding. "I decided to finish out school and see if my heart was still in it."
Two years later, it was. Kirckof knew dairy farming was the only lifestyle for her.
After touring over 300 farms during college, Kirckof was well-prepared to plan her own facility.
"I saw what worked and what didn't work," she said. "I knew what I wanted."
She tossed around the idea of a parlor, but chose a tiestall barn that allowed more individual attention to her cows. The new barn was designed with cow comfort and Kirckof in mind.
"I set it up as Shaina-friendly as possible," she said. "If I'm the only one here I have to be able to do things and not wear out my body."
This included aisles wide enough for a skid loader to go through and an attached commodity shed where feedstuffs can be loaded into the TMR mixer with a skid loader and a conveyor runs them into a feedcart. A manure pump replaced the old gravity flow system to keep maintenance to a minimum, and although 80 cows is a step up from the previous 66-cow herd, it's small enough for Kirckof to handle alone. Eight automatic takeoff units are available for milking.
"I can do everything myself," she said.
The new barn was set on the same site as the old barn. Construction began in mid-April - after securing a Beginning Farmers Loan through FSA - and included the barn and commodity shed, remodeling existing pole barns to better house heifers and young calves, and pouring cement around the barn and a path through the cow yard.
Although a tiestall barn, it's set up similar to a freestall barn. Kirckof chose 4- by 6-foot one-legged comfort stalls with 2-inch rubber mats. The stainless steel pipe that holds the chains for the cows at the front of the stalls doubles as the waterline for the drinking cups. Extended-day lighting on timers and tunnel ventilation on thermostats were added to maximize cow comfort.
"I wasn't going to cut any corners on cow comfort and ventilation because if the cows aren't comfy, they won't do anything for you," Kirckof said.
By July 16, the barn was ready for cows, though finishing touches - such as the curtains on the west end of the barn - still needed to be made.
Kirckof's herd came from several sources. She purchased 25 heifers from Hamborg-Freese Farms - offspring of the Kirckofs' original dairy herd that had perished in the fire. Eleven cows came from sales barns. The bulk of her herd, however, was a 57-cow herd she bought from a retiring farmer near Bellingham, Minn., over 100 miles away.
"The transition went really well," Kirckof said. "It was exciting. Stressful, but at the same time a huge weight lifted off of my shoulders. I had a lot of support and tons of help."
Things have been going well for Kirckof since she started dairy farming. Within two weeks the cows were up to a full ration and now have a 70-pound tank average.
"I milk more for pounds than components," Kirckof said. "I like seeing milk come out of the cows."
Chores can be handled by one, but Kirckof is rarely alone in the barn. Her mom helps with milking and Mark does the feeding. Her boyfriend, Shawn Dingmann, also helps when he's able, along with her siblings - Chantel (18), twins Dalton and Desiree (11), and Tanisha (9).
"The kids are a huge help. They're out here every single morning and night," Kirckof said.
As Kirckof learns the ropes of her new career, she's implementing ideas and strategies to improve her herd, including artificial insemination and DHIA testing.
"I think it's very important to know where your cows are at," she said of DHIA testing. "I really want to work toward a low SCC. My goal is to be the lowest in the county."
Kirckof does most of the breeding herself, focusing on feet and legs and rear teat placement.
While she owns the dairy, Kirckof's parents own the 1,240 acre crop farm it sits on. She currently buys the majority of her feed from them, but hopes to one day own enough land to support her herd. By that time, she will be working side-by-side with her brother, Daniel, who plans to transition into the family farm after finishing classes at Wyoming Technical College for diesel mechanics.
Beyond that, Kirckof simply hopes to live a happy life, raise her family on the farm and be successful as the fourth generation on the Kirckof farm.
"I chose the farm life for the lifestyle. I don't think there's a better way to raise a family," she said. "... The fact that I'm the fourth generation - I'm very honored and proud. Not only did I do this for myself, but I hope that once I'm done, my kids can come into it and take it where they can."
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