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

Organic is a good fit for Olsons

Taylor, Wis. producers milk 85 cows, manage 10,000 laying hens
The Olsons milk their cows in a tiestall barn. The stalls have mats with sawdust bedding.<br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->PHOTO BY BOB KLIEBENSTEIN
The Olsons milk their cows in a tiestall barn. The stalls have mats with sawdust bedding.<br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->PHOTO BY BOB KLIEBENSTEIN

By by Bob Kliebenstein- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

TAYLOR, Wis. - Paul and Judy Olson jokingly point a finger at each other when asked about the laying hens.
Whose idea was it to incorporate 10,000 laying hens into an already busy routine at their Jackson County dairy farm? Olson's Organic Acres already consists of an 85-cow dairy herd and 800 acres, approximately 600 tilled for crops near Taylor, Wis.
The Olsons hope the laying hens will provide them a nest egg as they ease out of dairy. After all, both realize they are no spring chickens. Paul is 62-years-old and Judy is 58.
Paul is the third generation of his family on the farm. In 2016, it will become a Wisconsin Century Farm. The Olsons, who celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary this past June, met through National Farmers Organization connections. Both remain staunch advocates of its founding principles.
The Olsons are certified organic through the LaFarge, Wis.-based Organic Valley (OV), which has a marketing agreement with NFO. NFO is Organic Valley's largest handler of milk.
The Olsons were one of the first organic dairy producers in the region. Since that time, the number of Organic Valley producers in the area has increased.
"We had people asking questions when we made the decision," Paul said. "That's just human nature."
The Olsons began shipping with Organic Valley in 2003. They concede paperwork associated with organic certification is extensive. But their transition met with ease with their focus on herd health and milk quality already in place.
"We were cutting back on chemicals and decided to go all the way," Paul said.
They already worked with Dr. Paul Detloff, one of OV's consulting veterinarians.
As an OV patron and with quality premiums, the Olsons receive $30 per hundred-weight for their milk out of the bulk tank. OV offers a premium price due to organic certification and supply and demand management with its producers. Both OV and NFO adhere to a similar business model to market commodities, Paul said.
The Olsons' cows are milked in a pipeline tiestall barn. The herd is 90 percent Holsteins with a few Jersey and Brown Swiss. The herd has a 17,500-pound herd average with 4.1 percent butterfat and 3.2 percent protein. Close attention to quality keeps the somatic cell count consistently around 75,000.
The stalls have cow mats with a light layer of sawdust on top for additional cow comfort. Cows and heifers are grazed on pasture for five to six months each year.
"Paying attention to details and cleanliness goes a long way in keeping livestock comfortable and producing a quality product, " Paul said.
Their feed ration consists of haylage, dry hay with a small amount of corn silage, high moisture corn and a good mineral program. Paul said kelp is an important ingredient in the ration for herd health. They feed out a few steers for their own use and for private sale.
The Olsons recently shipped their second flock of Hy-Line laying hens. Employees were busy cleaning the 50-foot by 370-foot building and prepping it for a thorough power wash. The Olsons were awaiting their third flock of hens at the end of October to resume egg production. The new barn was built on another farm a short drive from the main farmstead.
Eggs are marketed through OV. Pullets and baby chicks are raised by an Amish farmer near Hillsboro, Wis., and shipped to the Olson farm for each production cycle. Per OV requirements, hens roam freely inside a fence and around the barn's exterior perimeter. The Olsons did their homework before their investment in a new building, but there has still been a learning curve, Judy said.
The Olsons planned to use their own crops to feed the hens, but dry weather the first two years foiled that plan. They had to buy some feed, which cut into the profit from eggs.
Looking to the future, Paul sees opportunity and uncertainty in the dairy industry.
"In the last several years, there have been tremendous changes, and this trend will continue," Paul said. "It's not easy to stop some of those trends."
As National Farmers Organization national president, Paul is away from the farm a couple weeks each month upholding that responsibility, one he enjoys despite the time commitment. He succeeded Gene Paul as NFO president 14 years ago. His term expires in 2016 and he remains undecided about another at this time.
Paul makes no bones about who is responsible for allowing him time to travel the nation to fulfill his NFO duties. He credits Judy, who manages their employees along with keeping the farmstead neatly manicured in his absence. Paul makes nearly 15 to 20 trips yearly to Ames, Iowa, which is the national NFO office.
"Judy does a great job managing the farm when I'm gone," Paul said
The couple's three children, Lisa, Troy and Scott, pursued careers off the farm. Lisa works for the Austin, Minn. school district. Troy works in real estate in Dallas, Texas, and Scott is enrolled at the University of Minnesota. But all three did their chores on the farm.
Paul credits Judy's management skills. Both credit the invaluable assistance of their employees whether Paul is home or on the road. Jonathon and Liza Lechleitner are the main milkers. Scott and Stacy Rose and their family help with the laying hens and relief milking. Brothers James and Alan Ideker help with crops and equipment repair.
Judy said they were introduced to the Idekers through an affiliation with the Minnesota Land Stewardship Program. The Olsons agree all play key roles on their Town of Springfield farm.
Judy's commitment to the farm has allowed Paul to uphold his NFO leadership role, which provides him ample opportunity to travel the country. Looking ahead, both are eager for the opportunity to travel together. That would include trips to visit their three grandchildren.
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