Retiring from a life of farming
Banses sell cows after 47 years
Lester and Donna Banse stand in their milking parlor Feb. 24 on their farm near Caledonia, Minnesota. At the peak in the couple’s career, they were milking 160 cows. PHOTO BY KATE RECHTZIGEL
CALEDONIA, Minn. – Lester and Donna Banse were married April 5, 1975. A week later, they started dairy farming and had been ever since for 47 years.
“One thing we’re proud of is that we started out with nothing. He didn’t have a family farm, and I didn’t have a family farm,” Donna said. “Even though the family came and helped, we basically just did it on our own. There were times people didn’t think we were going to make it, but we did. We’re still here.”
Donna and Lester milked 16 cows on their dairy in Houston County near Caledonia until Feb. 26 when they sold the last of their herd. The family has milked up to 160 cows and most recently were milking 40 cows. The family also owns 100 tillable acres and rents 300 acres for corn, soybean and alfalfa.
The Banses knew from a young age they wanted to farm.
“When I was 14, my older brother got married and took over the family farm, and I had to move to town with my parents,” Lester said. “I hated it in town, and so I always knew I wanted to farm someday.”
“After high school, I went to tech school for one year to be a medical secretary, worked one year and decided I would rather farm so I quit shortly after we got married,” she said.
After their wedding, the Banses rented a farm with a 30-stall tiestall barn by Ridgeway. They were on that farm from April 1975 to October 1976.
“We rented it on shares,” Lester said. “Donna had an aunt and uncle who lived up there, and they knew of this farm that was for rent, so that’s how we found it.”
A year and a half later, the Banses decided it was time to move home and found a farm for sale near Caledonia. The farm, however, was different than what the Banses were used to.
“It was only set up for 18 cows, and it had a Grade B inaccessible milkhouse,” Lester said.
So, shortly before moving to their current site in November 1976, the Banses remodeled the barn by adding 30 stalls. They milked in that setup until 1990.
“This farm also had the house, the Quonset, a couple of corn cribs and a chicken house,” Donna said.
“When we moved here, we put in a barn cleaner and then along came the pipeline,” he said.
They remodeled and improved the farm site over the years. They built a pole shed and put up silos in 1978. In 1990, the couple added 26 more tie stalls to the milking barn so it was a 56-stall facility, built a machine shed in 1994, put in a double-8 parallel parlor and a 135-stall freestall barn in 1999, a calf barn and a new house in 2006 and a shop in 2014.
“Those first couple years before we put in the silos, we put up thousands of small square bales,” Donna said. “Then when we switched from a tiestall to a parlor and freestall barn, that was nice. It was much easier on the knees.”
The Banses raised three kids on the farm – Matt, Melissa and Mitchell – who all helped when they were in high school.
“Dairy is a good lifestyle for the family if you want to teach your kids how to work and have responsibility,” Donna said.
One of the Banses’ biggest accomplishments was surviving the high interest rates of the 1980s. They worked with interest rates of 18%-20%.
“When interest rates were high, I learned how to do my own rations, and I bought every ingredient as cheap as we could,” Lester said. “Since 2004, we have had a nutritionist do that, but now I know what he’s talking about.”
Other challenges the farm went through were finding labor and low milk prices.
“When the milking prices weren’t great, the more milk you sold the better off you were and the easier it was to pay the bills,” Lester said.
“You used to be able to put an ad in the paper and get immediate responses but lately that hasn’t been the case,” she said of a shortage of labor.
The family was able to find some part-time help over the years, but the Banses wanted to spend more time with family.
“It was fun to watch our kids grow up playing high school sports,” Lester said. “But we wanted to watch our grandkids and take them on fishing and boating trips too.”
So, on Nov. 23, 2020, the Banses sold 120 cows to a Mennonite family near Riceville, Iowa, whose barn burned down.
“They were able to build back right on the same site,” Lester said. “It was a nice fit.”
Since then, the Banses milked 40 cows on their farm until the timing was right to sell the remainder of the herd.
“We had feed we had to get fed and now that’s kind of dwindling down,” Lester said. “It’s just kind of time to get out.”
Lester and Donna agreed that age is also a determining factor in their decision.
“When you get to your upper 60s, you just don’t have as much energy as you did when you were in your 40s,” Lester said.
However, for a young person in farming, the Banses have advice.
“It’s hard for a young person, especially if they don’t have a family farm to get started or a family that can help them financially,” Donna said. “It takes a lot of money nowadays.”
“You have to really be dedicated,” he said. “You have to be willing to farm without worrying about how much time off you are going to get.”
After selling their cows in February, the Banses plan to travel more, go on more car cruises, spend time with their grandchildren and participate in tractor pulls.
They will miss the responsibilities of dairy farming but are grateful for the experience they had in the industry.
“I’d do it all over again,” Donna said.