Johnsons see viability in dairy’s future

Family grows herd tenfold for sons’ returns

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KERKHOVEN, Minn. – Brothers Stuart and Simon Johnson grew up on a modest 50-cow dairy in western Minnesota, but they knew if dairying was in their future, the farm’s structure was going to have to look vastly different.

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In 2020, the Johnsons and their parents, Warren and Stacy, and their uncle, Lane, entered into a partnership and built new facilities where they now milk 600 cows at the family’s farm site in Swift County near Kerkhoven.
“There are more efficiencies with milking 600 cows and we’re trying to optimize our footprint, so we knew that’s where we had to be with room to grow in order to stay competitive with the modern-day dairy industry,” Simon said. “And, we knew we wanted to raise our kids here and have them involved on the farm.”
Simon’s wife, Katie, and daughter, Anna, and Stuart’s wife, Samantha, and four children – Stella, Kenton, Evelyn and Collette – as well as the brothers’ youngest sibling, Collin, are also involved in the operation.
The families milk the herd at Building Block Holsteins in a double-10 parallel parlor three times a day. Opportunity to expand the parlor to a double-20 is possible.
The herd is housed in an 8-row, cross-ventilated freestall barn that stands 210-feet by 360-feet. Cows are grouped by stage of reproduction and lactation. Stalls are bedded with sand that is recycled through the farm’s reclamation system.    
“When designing the barn, we built an oversized holding pen and parlor,” Stuart said. “That gives us options going forward.”
Simon completed a dairy science degree from Cornell University in 2019 and managed a large dairy in Iowa before returning home to the family’s dairy. Stuart pursued a degree in mechanical engineering and graduated from Stanford University in 2015 and worked for other companies as an engineer and business manager. The brothers proposed a partnership to continue their goals of building for the future.
“When I left for school, I had plans to come home,” Simon said. “I’ve always liked the cows and working with Dad and my family.”
Lane agreed.
“Those boys are two smart, young men, and they know how to work,” he said of his nephews. “This isn’t a fallback. They have a lot of other opportunities they could pursue, so it’s exciting that they wanted to be here.”
As part of the partnership, Lane invested 30 acres in the project. When the new build  was operational, Lane then invested his herd of 70 cows in the new enterprise.
“After our initial meeting about financing this new barn, it was figured that the 30 acres I put in would be enough, but I knew we needed to mortgage the home farm to make it work,” Lane said. “I made my mind up on the way home. … I don’t have kids to take it over, and I want the farm to go on. So, that’s what we had to do to get the next generation involved.”
With little hesitation, Stuart and Simon insisted on a parlor.
“I like robots, and if I was going to do it myself at my age, that’s what I would’ve done,” Warren said. “But, the boys are willing to work with employees, and this setup seems like a much better fit for their skills,” Warren said .
Stuart agreed.
“The big reason we didn’t go with robots was because of the capital investment,” he said. “There was also the concern with being tied to the software, difficulty scaling and a labor shift to technicians rather than completely eliminating labor.”
In Stuart’s previous line of work, he was managing two manufacturing locations. Throughout the construction, he was able to use a similar skill set to work with the general contractor and oversee the operations of the new build.
Construction began in fall 2020 with the groundwork for the parlor and holding pen. By the following spring, they started laying the foundation for the barn.
The Johnsons constructed a steel building, partly due to the supply chain issues at the time.
“We received a bid for lumber, but it was only good for a day,” Stuart said. “They honored a steel bid longer, and at the time, it was a little bit cheaper. Really, I think it’s made this a better building.”
Simon and Collin worked on building the barn by setting the headlocks, framing the curtains, putting up the iron beams and more. Stuart designed and built the water manifold. It was a family affair as Samantha and Katie would bring meals to the team as they worked all hours to finish the facility.
Once complete, the dairy could facilitate direct load milk hauling, support a milking crew and maximize equipment such as the feed mixer.
“We figured if we wanted to bring in the next generation, we had to go from 60 cows to 600 cows,” Warren said. “That was the biggest, smallest step; getting our hands around the vastness of this project so that this farm could provide for each family.”
By Oct. 1, 2021, two pens in the barn were complete, and the Johnsons began milking in the parlor.
“That day was our last day milking in the old barn and the first day milking here,” Samantha said.
Over the next few months, the family grew the herd from within as well as purchasing a few herds. By the middle of February, the herd reached its current size.
With the barn full and the parlor running for 22 hours each day, responsibilities are falling into place.
Simon serves as the farm’s herd manager and oversees all of the herd health alongside Warren’s cousin, Scott Johnson. Stuart cares for the youngstock and manages the construction projects. The brothers work closely with the six full-time employees. Warren has taken a small step back and is in charge of mixing and delivering feed, and Stacy manages bookwork and payroll.
While Lane has also taken a step back, he feeds youngstock and dry cows at the home farm, provides feed for the farm and gives input when the family looks to add cows to the herd. He also retained a few show cows and plans to develop a small show string for his nieces and nephews and their children.
“I’m just glad they’ve included me and am tickled pink they’re out here,” Lane said. “I’ve told them, put a little faith in God and things seem to work out. I think he’s on our team.”
With each person taking the lead on focus areas of the farm, they meet biweekly to discuss short-term and long-term priorities for the families and future of Building Block Holsteins.
They lean on each other’s insight to develop a plan moving forward.
“If we all have the same opinions, we’re not gaining different perspectives and bringing forth our best ideas,” Stuart said. “By discussing problems where we have differences, we’re able to draw from each other’s experiences and develop what are hopefully the best solutions from the group.”
The Johnsons want to challenge ideas so that the poor ones are weeded out before being put into practice and the stronger ideas have a better chance of accomplishing what is intended.
When the Johnson brothers left the farm, they used the values and ethics they learned on the farm to pursue education at elite schools on the coasts and found themselves returning to their roots in anticipation of building a rewarding life in rural Minnesota. Their parents, for one, are grateful for the path that led them home.
“Simon came home and knew he had to be a value add but wasn’t sure if that was through investing or some other way to bring money in,” Warren said. “Honestly, I was tired, and we needed those younger people and their energy level. They were a value add on day one.”
Simon agreed.    
“This is the beginning of something, and now the work begins,” he said. “We have the tools, and it’s time to hit our benchmarks .”

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