Taz Lehman reviews farm records on his 115-cow dairy near Sherrill, Iowa. 
Taz Lehman reviews farm records on his 115-cow dairy near Sherrill, Iowa. PHOTO BY SHERRY NEWELL
    SHERRILL, Iowa – Jason “Taz” Lehman’s path to owning and operating a dairy farm is a long one.
    While he was not born and raised on a dairy farm, he began milking for a neighbor during high school then completed a dairy science degree at Northeast Iowa Community College while continuing part-time dairy work. After college, he worked at another dairy farm.
    Later, Taz worked construction with his father for a time, but eventually went back to dairy, working for six years supervising field work, cows and employees for a 700-cow herd.
    In July 2017, a veterinarian in the area told Taz about a retired couple, Ron and Delores Gansemer, looking for someone to take over their dairy near Sherrill, Iowa. He visited alone, then with his wife, Megan, who was due with the Lehmans’ first child. It was October before the two took the first steps toward owning and operating the Gansemer farm.
    “This place was a dairy farm forever,” Taz said. “The original barn burned in 1999, and they were not milking for six months. Then, a parlor and freestall was built in 2000. But the owners were ready to retire, wanted the dairy to continue, and none of their three children were interested.”
    By February 2018, Taz and Megan made a deal to buy the dairy with 76 cows. They would phase into the crop land, taking over 80 acres of hay ground in 2019 with plans to add the 20 more acres of hay and 110 acres of corn by 2020. During the three year transition, feed would be bought from the Gansemers.
    A tax specialist, attorney and banker helped put the plan together.
    “I thought I’d be bored,” said Taz, referring to milking and managing the herd and having no field work. “I had 14 people working with 700 cows at my old job. I thought, ‘What am I going to do all day?’”
    He quickly learned differently.
    “The workload is phenomenal,” Taz said.
    And, he made it bigger when he purchased more cows in his early months of operation after doing the numbers on a full barn. The Lehmans now milk 115 cows.
    “It took me about six months to have a game plan,” Taz said. “We’re firing on all four cylinders right now.”
    Taz described his management philosophy.
    “I take small things that might cost 50 cents and get 75 cents out of them,” he said.
    The approach has helped him improve the Holstein herd’s production by 2,500 pounds per cow while keeping somatic cell count at 70,000. First conception on cows is at 67% with a total reproduction rate of 35%. The current daily milk tank average is 85 pounds per cow.
    “The progress since February of 2018 until now is amazing,” Megan said. “The little changes from week to week are so interesting, and he’s doing this all for us.”
    Megan does the morning milkings and is also a registered nurse. Megan and Taz have one daughter, Anna, 2.
    Along with Megan, Taz has part-time help for four or five milkings a week. Megan’s father also helps once a week or so.
    Megan was raised in the New Vienna and Dyersville area, where she and Taz were high school friends. They were married four years ago. Megan had no prior dairy experience.
    “I knew this was his dream, and he did his research,” Megan said.
    The farm’s 96-stall barn is bedded with sawdust over waterbeds, and the parlor is a double-8 parallel. Taz hopes to make the stalls bigger and consider whether sand bedding would be a good choice.
    He is breeding the bottom 40% of the herd to Angus and using sexed semen on his top cows.
    Watching the dairy change has not always been easy for the former owners. But, Megan said gaining the Gansemers’ trust is important to she and her husband.
    “We want to keep them proud of this farm,” she said.
    Starting up their own dairy has not always been easy for the Lehmans. Thirty-five acres of alfalfa experienced winterkill this first season, requiring a change in forages to a sorghum and ryegrass mixture. In addition, their first year of milking corresponded to some of the lowest milk prices in decades.
    “It’s not nice, but at least I know I can make it through the hard times,” Taz said.
    While his path to dairy farming did not come from family heritage, Taz said he has made good choices along the path to his own farm.
    “If I’d never had the previous jobs, I would never have developed the leadership I’ve learned,” he said. “And, I love the whole aspect of dairying. It’s looking at the numbers behind it. If I pencil out everything before I buy it or do it, it works.”