September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.
Not only did they purchase a dairy farm and herd of cows and start milking on their own for the first time in their lives, they quit their jobs, gave birth to their third child, hauled countless pieces of equipment 60 miles to their new farm and managed to plant 60 acres of corn and 40 acres of oats between bouts of rain.
Yes, it's been busy, but this young couple couldn't be happier about it.
"Since I was about [1 year old], I would push toy tractors around on the floor. That's when I knew I wanted to farm," said John, who with Helena and their three children - Genevieve (3), John (1.5) and Elena (4 months) - now dairy farms near Wadena, Minn.
That tug certainly wasn't from close dairy ties. Neither John nor Helena grew up on dairy farms, but the little exposure he had was enough to get John bit with the dairy bug.
"I've just always loved cows," he said.
When the opportunity came, John didn't start with dairy cows. Instead, he purchased a bred Angus heifer when he was just 14 years old. Shortly after, he received a Holstein bull from his uncle in return for cleaning calf pens with a pitchfork.
His interest in the dairy industry wasn't always met with enthusiasm.
"When people asked me what I wanted to do, I received a lot of negativity. They would ask why I wanted to be that tied down," he said. "What I see is, who's the one tied down - someone who walks out the door to something they love everyday or someone who drives to work every day to a job they hate?"
"There aren't too many that thought I would make it this far," he said.
John immersed himself in the dairy industry whenever possible, first by taking a part-time job on a dairy farm while in high school. When he graduated, his beef herd had doubled to two cows and two Holstein steers.
"Every bit of income I had I kept saving to build up my herd and buy more cows," John said.
Following graduation, John worked on a dairy farm near Swanville, Minn., before taking a job as a carpenter for eight years.
"It was a nice job," he said. "... But then 2009 came along and I was motivated to do something different because I got laid off."
In the meantime, John married Helena in 2007 and the two started a family. Helena was working at St. Joseph's Medical Center in Brainerd, Minn., and after a short stint of unemployment, John began working on another dairy farm - for Bruce Marten near Pillager, Minn.
"I had an eye for seeing things that weren't right," John said. "I didn't know how to solve problems at first, but I kept asking people for advice and figured it out."
Baby No. 3 gave them the push they needed to begin dairy farming on their own.
"It was time to take our equity and do what we wanted to do," John said.
The Leases had been looking at farms since they were married, throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin.
"Ideally we wanted to start with someone, but [that's] hard," John said. "We went all over. We had our hearts broken a few times before things actually came through, but persistency pays off in the long run."
They found the 125-acre farm near Wadena last August and closed on it in April.
Although the dairy facility - a double-3 parlor - only sat empty one week before the Leases began using it, a few upgrades were needed. They put in a used vacuum pump and six used Milkmaster units.
To find a herd, the Leases put an ad in the Dairy Star and got a call from two brothers from Pelican Rapids, Minn., who were looking to exit the industry. The herd consisted of 64 mostly first and second lactation cows. Although John was apprehensive about the genetics - a mix of Holstein, Jersey, Swedish Red and Montbeliarde crossbreds - his attitude has since changed.
"I love them," he said. "I didn't think I would be such a fan, but these crosses are some nice cows."
They got the herd in increments to ease the cows - which were used to a tiestall - into the parlor. The dry cows came on May 12; two hours later one calved, so they had just one cow for a few days.
On May 19, the first load of milk cows came. After that, they got one load of cows each week until June 2, when the last of the cows arrived.
Even with this approach, the transition was a difficult one.
"We had 30 years-worth of stuff happen," John said. "Some [cows] managed to turn completely around [in the parlor], and one literally turned upside down."
The stress from the move caused herd production to drop from 70 pounds to between 52 and 62 pounds. SCC has been an ongoing battle, but the Leases are more than pleased with the herd's components.
"At the first pick up, our butterfat was 4.3," John said, smiling.
John and Helena handle chores together. Helena starts milking while John feeds. Then they switch so Helena can feed calves. They finish milking together.
"One thing about milking your own cows is that you can observe them so much better than when you are milking for someone else," John said. "You are with them twice a day, so I've learned a lot more about cows just in the short time we've been on our own.
With everything going on, John said one challenge was knowing where to focus his time and effort.
"The first few weeks I didn't know which way to turn," he said.
Another challenge has been moving to an area where they knew no one, although they have been slowly meeting their new neighbors. Regardless, they are enjoying their new occupation, and they are excited to become more involved as they learn the ropes.
"What's most exciting to me is bringing the kids up in this environment ... they learn that it's hard work but it pays off, and being able to work with my husband," Helena said.
"I just love working with the cows," John said.
They hope to eventually build a barn for the cows and get a better arrangement for their calves. They also hope to start raising most of their own feed, which has been another challenge. As the kids get older, they are looking forward to joining 4-H and FFA.
While it's been a long time in coming, John is finally doing what he has always been called to do: dairy farm.
"If I can do, it anyone can. You just have to [be willing to] bust your butt to do it," he said.
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