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

Way up north

Missouri native sells custom harvesting business in order to dairy in Wisconsin
Tristan Swartz, Dairy producer
Tristan Swartz, Dairy producer

By By Brittany [email protected] | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

GILMAN, Wis. - At first glance, with a German last name and a herd of dairy cows, Tristan Swartz looks like he's been living in Wisconsin all his life.
His slight Southern accent suggests otherwise.
In 2013, Swartz, who grew up in Savannah, Mo., not far from Kansas City, decided to sell his successful custom harvesting business and move up to Gilman, Wis., to start milking cows. He currently milks 50 cows in a tie-stall barn.
"I was getting tired of traveling all the time," said Swartz. "I wanted to do something where I was, basically, stuck at home."
Swartz remembers his dad, David, having dairy cattle around up until he was 4 years old, milking the family's herd in a flat-barn parlor. He figures that, with his own farm, he's a fourth or fifth-generation dairyman.
"Where I grew up, it was known as the 'dairy mile' because there were 27 dairy farms within a mile," he said. "Now, there's only one. All of the small family dairies went under in the 1980s."
While milking cows seemed out of reach, it was nowhere far from sight or far from mind in his young heart. In the meantime, Swartz did what he knew best to satisfy the farming itch.
"My first time in a combine was when I was 3," he said. "We farmed 1,200 acres of row crops and ran about 50-head of beef cows."
His father had always done some custom combining, but did not travel very far from home.
By the age of 15, Swartz was in the driver's seat for himself after purchasing his first combine, and by 17, he was on the road.
"My parents dropped me off with a trucker, and six hours later I was cutting wheat in Oklahoma," he said.
Over the course of the next eight years, he traveled up and down the Great Plains from Texas to Canada, from May through September, with his growing fleet of combines and semis.
"My biggest customer was Coors. I cut their barley in Colorado, which amounted to about 5 million cans of beer," Swartz said.
During the offseason, Swartz acquired the equipment he needed to start farming on his own. By age 23, he decided to call it a day for his custom career.
In addition to being a hired hand on his close friend, Ronnie's, farm, who was blind, he also started farming 3,500 acres in a partnership.
"2012 was a hard year. All my crops burned up in the drought that summer. One day after checking my crops, I stopped in to see Ronnie. He'd been hit by a tractor, and he died," Swartz said.
Two days after Ronnie's death, Swartz's landlord gave him two options: his rent was going to double or Swartz had to leave.
"He voided the contract on me, so I left," said Swartz.
Swartz began to think about jumping into dairy farming much harder, even though getting established as a start-up dairy farm in his region was next to impossible.
Everyone from his great-uncle, a retired dairy farmer, to Ronnie's mother, Dorothy, to his own father, advised him to, in a sense, get out of Dodge.
"Dorothy said, 'If you want to milk cows, go,'" Swartz said. "Hearing her say that, especially after Ronnie died, was kind of the catalyst."
Swartz started looking at farms far from home. One in particular caught his eye near Gilman, Wis.
"The dairy industry is dead down there, and everyone thought I was nuts," Swartz said, referring to his former stomping grounds. "When I found this farm, I just hopped on I-35 and went north."
The following year, on May 28, 2013, Swartz auctioned off most of his harvesting equipment and a massive collection of antique machinery, including nine self-propelled combines, in lieu of his upcoming move north.
"Not many people came, but a friend of mine is an electrician and bought a combine for $130,000," Swartz said. "After the auction, he handed me back the keys. He just wanted to help me out."
After hauling 37 loads of machinery, Swartz was planting corn on his new farm in Gilman on May 30, and on July 6, the cows came home.
Not long after, his parents decided to call Wisconsin home, as well.
"We brought all our older Texas Longhorn cattle up here during the winter. Our friends thought we were like the movie, "Lonesome Dove," where we were driving Longhorns up to Canada," Swartz said, chuckling.
The Swartz family's first northern winter, in 2013-2014, was a season that even most Wisconsin farmers will not forget anytime soon.
"My mom kept asking why we moved to an area where the air hurts her face, and my dad was threatening to move back home," Swartz said.
Four years later, Swartz and his parents are still here. Dairying, for the most part, is going very well for the young Missourian.
"I'm 602.7 miles from my back door in Missouri, but this is home now," Swartz said.
Swartz, who grew up with milking parlors, fell in love with tiestall milking. He milks mostly Holsteins with a couple of Jerseys, and the cows are producing, on average, between 70 and 80 pounds of milk a day with a somatic cell count around 70,000.
"We're 100 percent self-sufficient when it comes to making feed," said Swartz. "We grind everything ourselves and even mix our own mineral."
Swartz is also a firm believer in intensive rotational grazing, as weather allows. During the winter, the cows eat dry hay, haylage and ground ear corn.
"The cows are so much healthier on grass, and it's been great for their feet, too," he said. "The first week of grazing was a nightmare, especially when a bear got in with the cows and made a mess, but I am a believer now."
To boost grazing ability and efficiency, he has begun to utilize some unique crossbreeding.
"I've started crossing Longhorns with Holsteins. They're the original grazers," Swartz said, referring to the adverse environments that Longhorns are often raised in. "They're deep-bodied and resilient cattle."
Swartz deeply loves his cattle and, as a result, doesn't do much culling.
"If they've been a good cow, they go to what I call the retirement pasture," he said, smiling. "The cows all have names, and they're a bunch of goofballs."
Swartz credits his dad with helping him succeed in farming.
"He said that before I could be a farmer I had to do something else first, and that was the best thing I ever did," he said. "He taught me everything I know about farming, and being an efficient farmer. It's not what you spend, but what you don't spend."
While the past year has been trying with milk prices, Swartz is enjoying his new found life as a dairy farmer way up north.
"It's not always easy, but milking cows doesn't feel like work," he said. "It should be illegal to have this much fun."[[In-content Ad]]


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