Getting better with age

Dutch Dairy celebrates 20 years

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    THORP, Wis. – A lot can change in 20 years.
    In 2002, the average price for a gallon of gasoline was $1.61, and a loaf of bread was $1.39. The first season of “American Idol” aired, and 9/11 had happened the year prior.
    Also in 2002, Sander Penterman began building his dairy farm by buying a vacant Clark County farm and milking 320 cows.
    “When I started, I would have expected in 20 years that I would still be milking 320 cows,” Sander said. “The growth happened way faster than I could have imagined.”
    Sander and Amy Penterman’s Dutch Dairy is now home to 850 cows on their farm in Thorp.
    Sander was born and raised in the Netherlands on his family’s dairy farm, but by the time Sander was ready to join the family farm, it became apparent the farm could not support the growing family.
    Sander worked at jobs off the farm before deciding to venture to America in 1999 to work as an intern at Jon-De Farms Inc. in Baldwin. During his time at Jon-De Farms, Sander began thinking of becoming an American dairy farmer. Eventually, the Penterman family sold their cows and quota in the Netherlands and began searching for land in America.    
    The search led Sander to a vacant farm near Thorp. The farm was built to house 320 cows and needed some care and elbow grease that Sander and his brother were willing to put in.
    “There was a lot of work at the beginning and planning and working through things,” Sander said. “But by 2005, we were ready to start progressing, and we started the process of growing and improving.”
    Improvements included a 2008 freestall barn expansion to add 500 cows to the farm. They also built a 120-cow dry cow barn at that time.
    In 2013, Sander and Amy bought out Sander’s brother’s interest in the farm to become sole owners of Dutch Dairy. The manure pit was expanded, and they completed the process to become a concentrated animal feeding operation.  
    In 2015, tunnel ventilation was added to the freestall barn and fresh cow barns and the south side of the freestall barn was expanded. A new manure gutter system was installed. Calving pens were added to the dry cow barn.
    In 2016, a new calf barn was built using automatic feeders, and the feed pad was expanded to include 100% runoff collection. In 2018, a heifer barn was built across the road from the dairy to house heifers from 3 until 8 months of age.
    While the physical growth of the farm is something both Sander and Amy are proud of, what is the most important to the couple is the growth they have experienced to become better farmers, caretakers of cows and stewards of the land.
    “We are the only CAFO in our area, but we do not see it as making us a target,” Amy said. “Instead, we try to use it as a positive point to explain the benefits.”
    The Pentermans use conservation farming practices including no-till cropping, planting cover crops and injecting manure directly into the soil. All of their fields except two are within 5 miles of the dairy.
    “That has been a big change over the last 20 years. The equipment, especially manure equipment, has gotten so much better,” Sander said. “Now, you don’t have to till up the soil to get the nutrients into the soil, and the nutrients stay with the soil.”
    Sander has also changed crop rotations in an effort to be more diligent about building and protecting soil health.
    “We have switched from growing alfalfa to growing a grass mix,” Sander said. “We have added beans and winter wheat to get the rotations.”
    Their diligent focus on cow comfort and health has continued to pay off for the Pentermans as they have watched their herd become more efficient with each passing year. Sander credits the advent of genomics with giving him the tools to select the animals with the best genetics to build his herd.
    “Twenty years ago, we were averaging 70 pounds of milk per cow,” Sander said. “Today, we are averaging over 90 pounds. The cows are much more efficient converters of feed. Their good health correlates directly to their production.”
    Dutch Dairy employs 11 full-time and two part-time workers, and the Pentermans said they are blessed with the best staff they could ask for.
    “Having good, key employees is essential,” Amy said. “We try to cultivate a good reputation as an employer. We treat our employees with respect and listen to and implement their ideas and suggestions.”
    Open communication is the cornerstone of the Pentermans’ relationship with their staff. They hold regular team meetings and place emphasis on the initial training new employees receive.
    “We focus on the why, why doing something a certain way is important to us,” Amy said.
    The past 20 years have not been without their ups and downs. In 2019, Sander said a 12-foot section of the freestall barn roof collapsed during a snow storm.
    “We just took that day by day,” Sander said. “We were fortunate not to lose any cows in the collapse and to only have to ship three later due to injury. But, the herd really took a long time to come back from the stress and upheaval.”
    Besides a 10% loss in milk production, the Pentermans said they saw a regression in reproductive performance after the storm that lasted well past the first anniversary of the roof collapse.
    The Pentermans have no immediate plans for growth. Instead, they plan to focus on improving what they can to build a solid future if any of their children decide to join the farm operation.
    Part of that, Amy said, is building relationships.
    “We surround ourselves with the best people we can, experts who fit well into our operation,” Amy said. “Working with the right nutritionist, agronomist, veterinarian, banker and equipment dealers all plays a factor in success.”    

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