Greg Vellema greases the applicator toolbar he uses to inject manure into cropland. Greg started a custom manure dragline business this past spring.
Greg Vellema greases the applicator toolbar he uses to inject manure into cropland. Greg started a custom manure dragline business this past spring. PHOTO BY JERRY NELSON

HARRIS, Iowa – Working with family can be one of the best benefits of dairy farming.
This has certainly been the case for Paul and Phyllis Vellema, who raised five children – Neal, Allison, Lee, Rachael, and Greg – on the farm. They fostered a love for dairying that brought back the next generation as Neal and Greg have now become part of the 200-cow dairy near Harris.  
“I always wanted to farm,” said Neal, who joined the operation seven years ago.

He and his wife, Laura, have four children: Henry, 9, Sadie, 7, Eli, 5, and Simon, 3.
Neal is the farm’s herdsman and handles building maintenance. Greg is the farm’s chief mechanic and is in charge of fieldwork. The Vellemas raise enough corn, soybeans and alfalfa to supply all of their dairy herd’s needs.
“As far back as I can remember, dairy farming is what I wanted to do,” Greg said. “I joined the operation three years ago, shortly after graduating from high school. Going to college was never a consideration for me.”
The Vellema dairy operation has been engaged in generational transition during the past few years.
“As of Jan. 1, I will no longer own any cows,” Paul said. “The entire dairy herd will have been transferred over to the boys, with each of them owning half.”
There are several reasons behind this transition, including health issues and the inevitability of aging. But one of the biggest motivators for Paul is simply being there for his sons and doing everything he can to help them succeed.
“My father passed away when he was 67 and I was 24,” Paul said. “I can’t tell you how many times I wished he were here just so that I could ask his advice or get his opinion about something I was going to do. I want to work with the boys for as long as I can. I will give them advice when they ask for it. But I will also let them make their own decisions, even if I don’t necessarily agree with them.”
Neal and Greg have already made some decisions that are having positive effects. Last winter, they started breeding heifers and first lactation cows with sexed semen.
“Everything else gets bred to an Angus sire. We are getting the first Angus crossbred calves, which we hope to sell for a better price than what we would get for purebred Holstein calves,” Neal said.
Greg made a decision this past spring when he started a dragline manure application business.
“I inject the manure for our farm and have done the pumping for several hog operations in our neighborhood,” Greg said.
He also does some custom baling with his big round baler.
The Vellema farm today is a big difference from when Greg and Neal’s grandparents purchased the farm in 1955 for $235 per acre. Paul’s parents, Henry and Bertha, dairy farmed from 1963 to 1972, with a herd of cows that grew to 80 head. The family milked with four units in a 12-cow stanchion barn.    
“As a kid, I didn’t want much to do with the dairy cows,” Paul said. “I had 10 siblings, so there was always plenty of help around to do the milking and the chores.”
Paul and one of his brothers took over the farm after their parents passed away. Paul and Phyllis got married in 1985. They had known each other since kindergarten.
“We weren’t sweethearts all those years,” said Phyllis, who grew up on a small dairy farm. “We didn’t start dating until after high school.”
The mid-1980s were a tough period for farmers across the Midwest. The Vellema farm was among the many that suffered financial distress.
“We had been married a year and weren’t making any money raising crops and feeding hogs,” Paul said. “Phyllis said, ‘Why don’t we milk some cows?’ So we went to our banker, and he said there was no way he would give us a loan, especially with the federal dairy buyout going on. Phyllis said, ‘Well, I’ve saved some money.’”
The Vellemas used part of the $5,000 Phyllis had saved to purchase used dairy equipment. Then they attended a farm auction in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, where they bought four registered Holstein cows for $1,000 per head.
“From then on, we would buy another cow whenever we could afford it,” Paul said.
 One day, a milk inspector pointed out to the Vellemas that the concrete in their dairy barn had worn out and was beyond repair. Paul and Phyllis tore down their old barn and built a new facility in its place. The new barn featured free stalls and a double-4 herringbone milking parlor. The parlor has since been upgraded to a double-5 herringbone. Over the years, the Vellemas gradually grew their operation to its present size of 200 head.
While farming keeps him busy, Greg also likes to share farming experiences on Instagram and currently has nearly 9,000 followers.
“I saw that other farmers were on Instagram and thought that this was something that I could do,” Greg said. “Being on Instagram has been fun. I enjoy answering the questions from my followers. I like to make sure that they are getting the correct information about modern farming practices.”
Expanding the dairy herd is one change that will not be taking place at the Vellema dairy farm.
 “Our farmstead lies entirely within the city limits of the town of Harris, so our dairy is locked into its current size,” Neal said. “It’s like having 150 neighbors located a quarter of a mile away. We are always doing our best to be good neighbors.”
While hard work and diligence are important, Paul gives credit for their farm’s success to a higher power.
“I was born and raised in the church,” Paul said. “But it wasn’t until I was financially down to nothing at age 27 that I truly accepted Christ as my savior. Everything that we have we owe to God. Everything that has happened has been a part of His plan. We are hugely blessed.”
Paul is looking forward to the next chapter as his family’s dairy farm transitions to its third generation.
“I’m excited for what the future holds,” Paul said. “I continue to enjoy every aspect of dairy farming, from working with the cattle to raising crops to hauling manure. We are especially blessed to be able to work together as a family. I was given a huge opportunity. And now it’s the boys’ turn to have their opportunity.”