January 30, 2022 at 5:57 p.m.
Dairying Across America

Jerseys breed of choice for Lemos

California dairyman’s business venture a success story
Nevin Lemos poses with one of his Jersey calves on the dairy he began leasing in 2017 near Waterford, California. Lemos milks 400 cows and purchases his feed. PHOTO SUBMITTED
Nevin Lemos poses with one of his Jersey calves on the dairy he began leasing in 2017 near Waterford, California. Lemos milks 400 cows and purchases his feed. PHOTO SUBMITTED

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

WATERFORD, Calif. – At the age of 20, Nevin Lemos set out to build a herd of Jersey cattle. Rather than staying on the home farm, this entrepreneur felt the tug to do his own thing and started Lemos Jerseys in June 2017. He switched from something familiar – the Holstein – to something unfamiliar – the Jersey. 
“When getting started, I did a lot of looking to the future of dairy farming and felt like the cheese market is a strong one for the most part,” Lemos said. “I ship to Hilmar Cheese, and they pay based on cheese merit. I saw so many other advantages with Jerseys as well – from reproduction and longevity to feed efficiency and calving ease.”
Lemos farms in central California near Waterford, leasing a dairy where he milks around 400 cows. Lemos’ landlord farms the land, and Lemos purchases corn and oat from him. Lemos has three full-time employees, including a day milker, night milker and a relief person.
“This is a pretty nice place to be a dairy farmer,” Lemos said. “Water is good in this part of the state, but south of here, water can be a big problem. This year, we have a good snowpack up in the Sierra Nevada which should ensure a decent summer of water coming down the mountains.  We have open-ditch canal irrigation as all crops here rely on irrigation rather than rain.”
Lemos said high land prices are one of the challenges of farming in the area, and open ground can go for $30,000 an acre.
“We have to compete with tree farmers like almond and walnut growers,” he said. 
Lemos is a fourth-generation dairy farmer who grew up on the nearby family farm where his parents milk 500 Holsteins. The farm was started by Lemos’ great-grandfather in 1922. Although he loved Holsteins, Lemos’ heart was set on milking Jerseys. During a final project in his dairy management class at Modesto Junior College, where Lemos studied dairy science, he created a business model that would become the basis for his future dairy.
“The project inspired me to figure out how to get funds and capital to make my business dream of being a dairy farmer come true,” Lemos said. “I looked back at the plan recently, and it’s amazing how similar it was to how things actually turned out.” 
After college, Lemos took an internship in New Zealand milking cows on various dairies.
“My time in New Zealand gave me a different perspective on the international aspect of the dairy industry,” Lemos said. “I learned a whole different way of doing things.” 
Upon returning home, Lemos began leasing a dairy 5 miles from his parents’ farm. He bought first-lactation cows 40-60 days in milk – all Jerseys – in lots of 50, making a purchase almost every month for a little over a year. All cows were in the same stage of lactation; therefore, Lemos staggered his purchases to even out the herd. A herd of lactating cows helped Lemos with cashflow in the beginning.
“I had a nice young herd, and I bred back to sexed semen to build replacement stock because at the time, I had no heifers or calves,” Lemos said. 
Lemos offered a venture capital deal to his parents to co-sign on the loan to help him get the cows. In exchange, they would be a silent partner for half of the business. 
“Since then, I was able to pay off my loans and buy my folks out of the partnership,” he said. “I’m a sole proprietor now, and it’s definitely rewarding to get to that point.”
Cows are milked twice a day in a double-6 herringbone parlor and housed in a freestall barn.  Cows also spend time in the open lots outside of the free stalls.
“My stall-to-cow ratio is really good,” Lemos said. “I’m understocked, which is really nice. My landlord milked Holsteins, so I had to index the parlor to make it a little smaller for the Jerseys. I also did some things with the free stalls to make the Jerseys fit a little better. Over the years, I got that dialed in.” 
Lemos admitted going with Jerseys was a leap of faith, but things panned out in the right direction. 
“I needed to get used to the milk flow being lower than Holsteins,” he said. “My price per hundredweight is a lot higher, but the volume of milk in the tank is lower. A person switching over to Jerseys has to get used to that.”
Lemos’ 12-month average on protein is around 4% and butterfat is 5%, equating to a 13% cheese yield, and energy-corrected milk is at 73 pounds per cow per day. Pushing a 35% pregnancy rate, Lemos shoots for two or less services per conception. Reaching a point where growth has plateaued, Lemos is scaling back on the use of sexed semen and breeds about half of his herd to Angus or Wagyu. 
“I would rather have a value-added drop calf I can sell for anywhere from $50 to $75 at a day old,” Lemos said. 
Most virgin heifers receive sexed semen along with certain cows based on their genetic merit and relative value. Heifer calves are sent to a calf ranch at 2 days of age where they are raised until 5 months, at which point they are sent to another grower until 150 days with calf. 
“Looking back at my high debt load, I’m happy I was able to cash flow on a month-to-month basis and get to a point where I had enough working capital to be able to do some things with my business and not be so strapped,” Lemos said. “Being young and not having many personal bills to pay, I was able to reinvest almost all of my money back in to pay off debt which was a goal of mine going into this.” 
Lemos feeds his cows a total mixed ration containing alfalfa from southern Nevada and uses rice straw as a filler along with almond hulls, corn silage, whole cottonseed, corn gluten, soybean meal and liquid whey. He also feeds a custom mineral, calcium salts and palm fat.
“A DCAD ration is really important with Jerseys because the occurrence of milk fever is more of a concern than with a Holstein,” Lemos said. “I topdress a DCAD pellet which works pretty well, and as a result, cases of milk fever are pretty low around here.”
A business-minded individual with a passion for cows, particularly Jerseys, Lemos went after what he wanted and built a promising herd.
“You can’t wait for everything to be perfect before starting your business,” he said. “When I got in, cattle prices were pretty high, but the opportunity was there. I had a dairy to lease, and sometimes you have to chase the opportunity rather than waiting for everything to be perfect. And don’t be afraid of starting partnerships with a venture capital partner, such as a family member or neighbor. Sometimes, you can’t boot strap your way from the beginning.”
One of Lemos’ long-term goals is to incorporate robotic milkers.
“I believe that’s the way going forward and might be a possibility for me down the road,” he said. “Labor can be tough to come by, especially on a small farm like mine.”
Also, if the opportunity to purchase the dairy he is on becomes available, Lemos said he would take it. On year five of his business, Lemos is happy with his decision to farm solo and optimistic about the future. 
“Building this business has taken all my energy and focus,” Lemos said. “It’s better to do something like this when you’re young before you think about having a family. If you wait, you might not be as willing to take the necessary risks. As a kid, I was always into starting little businesses, but this is my first big venture.”


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