July 8, 2023 at 8:00 a.m.
Mark Klaphake/Dairy Star
Jill and Lanny Salmen stand in the milking parlor June 15 at their farm near Wolf Lake, Minnesota. The herd milked there is a combination of three herds, each with a separate owner.
WOLF LAKE, Minn. – On May 16, after wintering at Duane and Tyyni Salmen’s farm near Wolf Lake, about 100 cows from three separate herds were ready for their biannual migration.
100 acres of pasture awaited them five miles away at a second site where the Salmens’ son and daughter-in-law, Lanny and Jill Salmen, live with their four children. Another partner in the operation, Scott Makela, was on hand to help load and transport the cows. Using two trucks and cattle trailers, the process of moving the cows was set to begin about 9 a.m. and end by 3:30 p.m.
After moving back and forth each fall and spring for 17 years, the Salmens said the cows know their routine and seem to enjoy it, especially the return to summer pasture.
“We will milk a little early on moving day,” Lanny said. “Then Dad and Scott will each grab a truck and trailer and start moving cows while I give the parlor a really good washing and make sure it is all nice and clean. Then we start hauling equipment.”
The wash panel, pulsator control box and main control panel all move back and forth from barn to barn. The milkers and takeoffs move too. Only bulk tanks come in duplicate, one at each site.
The herd is a combination of three individually-owned herds, each herd having a certain color of ear tag. Lanny’s 60 cows wear yellow, Scott’s 42 wear green and Duane’s 12 wear white.
The cows are Holstein-based crosses with Brown Swiss, Montbéliarde, Fleckvieh, Normande, Swedish Red and a little Jersey.
“Our cows don’t look like the neighbors’ cows,” Duane said.
At Duane’s site, with its enclosed freestall barn and certified manure pit, the cows are milked during winter in a swing-7 parlor. At feeding time, baleage bales are unrolled and a TMR feed mix made up of corn silage, grain, and mineral supplements is dumped in the barn’s feed alley. During the summer months at Lanny’s site, cows are milked in a swing-14 parlor. Besides grazing on pasture, they receive their total mixed ration ¬right on the ground in the pasture.
“My place, where we keep the cows for the winter, is maxed out at 100 cows with the barn and the facilities,” Duane said. “In the summer (at Lanny’s site), we can milk more because we can put the cows outside.”
The unique partnership between the three farmers is successful through a finely tuned agreement that they said works well. Lanny began partnering with Duane in May 2003. Scott joined in December 2016. In both cases, the expectations and financial agreements were clearly spelled out with an escape clause worked in.
The first partnership between father and son came when Lanny was milking cows for a dairy farmer in Alaska. He had moved there for an adventure.
“Dad asked if I wanted to buy some cows and move in and start farming with him,” Lanny said. “The agreement was he would have his cows and I would have my cows. I would buy all my feed from dad.”
The agreement also included the opportunity to give a one-month notice if the partnership was not working and either wanted out. As the farm operations progressed, they updated the agreement.
“I bought a baler and started renting some land,” Lanny said. “The written agreement was that I could run crops according to the value of equipment I had invested in the farm, but then I would still sell my crops to dad, and we had a method of dividing it up with the number of cows we had.”
The amount of feed used was recorded each day. Every month they would calculate the final bill.
“For example, if dad had 45% of the feed and I had 55%, we would split the feed bill according to the cow’s numbers on the monthly DHIA testing day,” Lanny said. “We would split the milk check according to the percent of milk you produced.”
They split the feed bill for heifers and dry cows by percentages as well.
“You are paying your share of the feed bill at all times (monthly),” Lanny said. “I have a fairly detailed Excel spreadsheet, so I can do it pretty easily now. It used to be a full day of scratching paper, but now I can do it in a couple of hours.”
The Salmens were certified organic in 2008. By then they had worked out a pasturing routine. The idea had been to build a summertime parlor at Lanny’s site so that they could run more cows in those months and then dry off cows for the winter so that they would freshen in the spring. This would ease things for the freestall barn at Duane’s site.
When Scott joined the partnership in 2016, the Salmens simply drew up a similar agreement.
“I started working for Duane when I was 12 years old and all through high school,” Scott said. “Afterwards, I had my own herd of cows in 2005 to 2006, but that didn’t work out. Then I went into construction, but I just really like cows and not having to wear a tool belt.”
When he joined the Salmen partnership, he began buying cows 10 at a time, still working full-time in construction for a while and working weekends at the Salmen farm sites.
Lanny said having Makela join the partnership made sense.
“It was no risk since Scott was financially separate,” Lanny said. “We had the same agreement that Dad and I had. If it wasn’t working out, he could take his cows and go.”
By this time, Duane wanted to slow down a bit anyway, and he dropped his cow numbers.
“Scott doesn’t own any land; Lanny owns this place here, and I have the other place,” Duane said. “Scott rents the pasture in the summer and then buys feed in the winter.”
They calculate pasture cost based on number of cows, and that gets paid out each month.
“I think we have it broken down pretty well,” Lanny said. “The nice thing is each year a person can go back and look at the numbers and ask if these numbers are working out. We can say the cost of this or that has gone up or down and so we go up or down accordingly.”
Lanny’s site has 130 acres of pasture with around 90 acres under irrigation, and Duane’s has 130 acres of pasture. Between what they rent and own, they have a total of 600-700 acres of cropland.
“We keep the cows on pasture from May through the end of September/early October and shoot for about 40% dry matter coming from the pasture,” Lanny said.
The pasture at Lanny’s site is divided into four main paddocks that are divided into small paddocks using polywire fencing so the herd can be rotationally grazed during the growing season. The cows and dry cows pasture there and are moved every day. Calves are pastured at Duane’s site. Calving is done seasonally in the spring and in the fall.
The jobs for the operation involve family members of all three partners. Lanny’s wife, Jill, does the bulk of the milking and manages the parlor. Their four children are home schooled and help with milking as well. Lanny takes care of equipment, including repairs, and focuses on crops.
“We plant silage corn, oats, barley, wheat, rye, triticale, and clover mix grasses for hay that we bale and wrap for baleage,” Lanny said. “This year we also did sunflowers as a cash crop.”
Scott and his wife, Cassy, have three children. Cassy helps milk cows while Scott manages the joined herds.
“If they need help in the field, I go help, but otherwise I primarily take care of the cattle,” Makela said. “I feed the cows out in the pasture, and after they are done eating their silage, I move them. In the winter, I go to Duane’s (site) and feed.
Although Duane is less active today, he stays involved.
“Duane helps with fieldwork and wherever he is needed,” Makela said.
Duane’s wife, Tyyni, also helps.
“I probably haven’t milked a cow in two years, but up until we went down to 12 cows, Tyyni milked every Tuesday and Thursday evening and every third weekend,” Duane said. “So, she has been the cow milker.”
With a flexible, yet clear agreement, the three families operate well together and allow each other to have time off from farming, sometimes by choice, other times by necessity.
“When I had cancer, I went a whole year without doing any work, but everyone else covered the job,” Lanny said. “If we have a (Salmen) family get together, Scott can cover the milking so we can go to a family reunion or whatever, and if he has a family event, (Salmens) are here to take care of everything.”
The families could avoid the fall and spring migration by moving the whole operation to Lanny’s site, but they have chosen not to do so. Duane’s site has enclosed housing for cows and a certified manure pit. It also has sentimental value, the place where Duane’s dream of being a dairy farmer came true.
“My dad started farming when I was 6 years old,” Duane said. We moved up here from Minneapolis, bought the cows in September, and then he lost his arm in October but continued farming with the neighbor’s help.”
That help has been the reason why Duane has been willing to help others who wanted to start farming.
Duane later bought his farm site from his uncle. He started farming in 1976 and has been at it for 47 years.
As the Salmen and Makela families continue to work together and adapt as needed, the cows will continue their seasonal migration within a well-defined partnership that suits all involved.
MArk klaphake/Dairy Star
Lanny (left) and Jill Salmen and their children, (oldest to youngest) Vernon, Abigail, Rita and Rodney, stand with Lanny’s parents, Duane and Tyyni Salmen, and the Makela family – Cassy and Scott with their children, (oldest to youngest) Blake, Jeb and Brooke – at the Salmen farm near Wolf Lake, Minnesota. The three families keep their cow herds together.
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