September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.
Instead of suffering a volatile market, Bill Hedstrom of Hedstrom Dairy near Kalispell, Mont., has plans to market his milk independently through a creamery he and his family are in the final stages of completing.
"We are going to start bottling our milk on our own to stabilize our price," Bill Hedstrom said.
Hedstrom is no rookie in the world of niche markets. When he and his wife, Marilyn, began dairying in 1973, they bottled raw milk produced by their 20 cows in glass bottles and sold directly to consumers. They did this until 1984, when Montana passed an ordinance against the sale of raw milk. At the time - milking only 20 cows - it did not make economic sense for them to put in a pasteurizer and continue bottling, Hedstrom said, so they began selling to a local creamery.
In 1993, the Hedstroms were pushed out of their original facility by housing encroachment and moved into a stanchion facility near Kalispell, located in the Flathead Valley 65 miles south of the Canadian border and five miles from Whitefish, Mont. It didn't take the family long to upgrade the stanchion barn to a sawtooth parlor, which was later converted to a double-six herringbone parlor.
Today, the Hedstroms milk around 150 cows in what they call a double-13 parringbone parlor, a parlor they designed and built themselves in 1994. The cows stand side-by-side at a 70 degree angle. A bar at the front of the cows keeps them in place with no separation between the animals; they are milked between their legs.
"Half the fun of dairying is building everything ourselves," Hedstrom said. "[The parringbone] is a very quiet parlor and is a cross between a herringbone and a parallel. It is low maintenance and was inexpensive to put in. We did the engineering and work ourselves and tried to pay attention to what the cows liked. Cow behavior is a major factor in good production."
Growth of the Hedstrom Dairy herd has been completely internal. The Hedstroms use 100 percent A.I. and raise their own replacement heifers.
"Having an isolated herd has really helped on health problems because you don't bring anything into the herd," Hedstrom said. "It sure pays."
The herd is housed in a freestall barn with sand bedding.
"I've found sand is the best type of bedding, and I've used everything," Hedstrom said. "It drains good, it's low maintenance and the cows like it over everything else."
It also helps in cleanliness. With all of this, the Hedstroms have been able to boast a SCC of around 100,000 for the last several years.
"We have a very low SCC," Hedstrom said. "This is due to cow comfort and a lot of patience. We treat our cows like our pets."
With the exception of vaccinating for Bangs, the Hedstroms use no conventional medicines on their dairy. However, they are not organic, due mainly to a limited grazing season.
"We have more cold days so we have a shorter pasture season," Hedstrom said. "That's the major reason we are not organic; we don't have the growing season."
Instead of raising crops, the Hedstroms purchase all of their feedstuffs - including corn from the Midwest, local barley and local hay. The 80 acres that Hedstrom Dairy sits on is divided between the farmsite itself and pasture lots for the dry cows and heifers.
"We feel by purchasing our feed we can select for better feed ... and we can concentrate on the cows," Hedstrom said. "I used to rent land but either the crops got shorted or the cows did, so we found it was more economical to buy our feed."
This is one major difference between Hedstrom Dairy and other Montana dairies.
"Most of the other dairies have acreage, but most of them were inherited so they had a land base to work with whereas we are a first generation farm," Hedstrom said.
There are approximately 75 dairies left in Montana, including several operated by Hutterite colonies. But near Kalispell, Hedstrom Dairy is one of only two within a 100-mile radius. This makes dairying in Montana quite a challenge.
"We are 300 miles from the closest processing plant," Hedstrom said. "Freight alone can eat us alive."
While they do have one John Deere dealership nearby, dairy equipment dealerships are farther away, in Bozeman and Great Falls, Mont.
"We use email for parts and pieces," Hedstrom said. "We have to be our own nutritionist and service everything on our own."
Another challenge has been working with the quota system that Montana put into place nearly 25 years ago. While it protects from overproduction within the state, it makes it difficult for new producers to start up.
"I think [the quota system] stymied the dairy industry in Montana," Hedstrom said. "Because of the costs involved, it's held Montana producers back."
Once they get their creamery up and running, Hedstrom said they will sell their share of the state's quota.
The idea of the creamery itself - which will be called Kalispell Kreamery - came from Bill and Marilyn's son-in-law, Jared Tuck, who returned home from a tour in Iraq one year ago and was having a hard time finding work. When a joke was made that he could always come back to the farm and milk cows, Jared and his wife, Mary, brought up the idea of starting an on-farm processing plant.
"So what we've done is create an on-farm job for our family," Hedstrom said.
With the idea in mind, the family toured a few different on-farm plants in Colorado and California before coming across a producer who was looking to sell his processing equipment. The Hedstroms eagerly seized the opportunity. Once the construction of the plant was underway, Mary and Jared worked on building a market for their up-and-coming product.
"We've been getting phone calls from people wanting to get in on our local product," Hedstrom said. "It's mushroomed; everyone's pushing for local."
Word of their business even reached Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who invited the family to join him for breakfast a few weeks ago, when he was in the area.
The Hedstroms plan to sell three main products at their creamery: low-fat (two percent) milk, whole milk and non-homogenized cream-on-top whole milk.
Today, the Hedstroms are within weeks of beginning to bottle their own milk, as they go through the final stages of testing the equipment and passing inspections.
While Bill and Marilyn will continue to manage the cows and the books on their operation for the time being, Mary, who currently works as a school teacher, plans to eventually take over the herd. Jared will manage the creamery business.
At this point, the Hedstroms plan to stay at their current size and see how things go with their new market. If all goes well, expansion is not out of the question.
"We believe it's value-added," Hedstrom said of their new venture. "We found that 30 years ago. We did well when we were bottling our own milk."[[In-content Ad]]
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