Tonya Schmit feeds a calf at her family’s dairy farm. The Schmit family saw the recent slump in milk prices as an opportunity and started a new dairy operation a few months ago.
Tonya Schmit feeds a calf at her family’s dairy farm. The Schmit family saw the recent slump in milk prices as an opportunity and started a new dairy operation a few months ago. PHOTO BY JERRY NELSON
    WATERTOWN, S.D. – At a time when many see difficulties, others see opportunities. John and Tonya Schmit saw the recent slump in milk prices as their opportunity to get started in the dairy business.
    The couple and their five sons, Dalton, 20, Kayden, 17, Logan, 16, Cameron, 12, and Reid, 2, now milk 60 cows on their dairy near Watertown, S.D.
    “My dad, Kenny, milked about 30 cows when I was growing up,” John said. “He exited the business in 2005 when a storm destroyed his dairy barn.”
    After graduating from Lake Area Technical Institute with a degree in agricultural business, John took jobs with area farmers.
    “This gave me some valuable insights. I learned what to do and what not to do,” John said.
    While he was working for dairy farmers, one thought kept pushing its way to the front of John’s mind: He would like to someday have a dairy of his own.
    “I wanted to be my own boss and build something for our boys,” John said.
    Tonya, who works as a paraprofessional at the Castlewood School District, was a big supporter of John’s idea.
    “I grew up on a beef and hog farm at Burke, S.D.,” Tonya said. “I would sometimes milk cows for a neighbor, so I understood cattle and dairy farming. John and I both felt that dairy farming would be the best way to make a living and raise our family.”    
    John agreed.
    “We knew that we couldn’t afford to buy a dairy,” John said. “So, we decided to start out by renting. We thought that getting into dairying when milk prices are low would work to our advantage. And, commodity prices are pretty favorable at this time.”
    John and Tonya were able to secure a lease on the farmstead where Randy Schweer had operated his registered Holstein dairy. The acreage includes a 60-cow tiestall barn that was built in the early 1970s, along with numerous outbuildings. But before they could take the next step, the Schmits had to find a home for their milk.
    “It took us a couple of years to find someone who would buy our milk,” John said. “In the end, AMPI decided to take us on. It’s really neat because my AMPI field man is the same guy who was Dad’s field man.”
    The Schmidts then began to search for a lender.
    “It was a challenge to find a banker to work with us,” John said. “Some of the bankers we approached had very little idea about how a modern dairy farm operates.”
    The delays the Schmits endured while securing a buyer for their milk and finding a bank willing to finance their dairy dream ended up working to their benefit.
    “Because of the milk price situation, we probably saved a couple of hundred dollars per head when we bought our cattle,” John said.
    Fortune would smile on the Schmit family again when they learned that Ben Post, a dairyman from Chandler, Minn., wanted to sell his herd.
    “Ben has had a closed herd for many years and has worked hard on developing his cows’ genetics,” John said. “His herd was exactly what we were looking for.”
    The Schmits needed to refurbish their rented dairy facilities, which had sat empty for three years. They purchased a used vacuum pump, milk tank and pipeline. They installed new stall dividers and attended to numerous details.
    “I was working full time for a neighboring farmer while we were renovating the barn,” John said. “There were times when I would still be working in the barn at midnight.”
    On the evening of June 29, the Schmits milked for the first time in their refurbished dairy barn. That milking went relatively smoothly, but disaster almost destroyed their dreams the next morning.
    “We were doing our first morning milking when I noticed that the vacuum pump sounded funny,” John said. “I went to turn off the pump and the fuse box was spouting sparks and flames. I shut off the electricity to the farmstead, grabbed a bucket of water and threw it into the fuse box. Luckily, that was enough to knock down the fire.”
    Upon inspection, local firemen discovered the fire had begun to climb the wiring that leads into the barn’s attic. It is thought the fire was started by a buildup of excess moisture in the fuse box.
    “If the fire had gotten any farther, we might have lost the barn,” John said. “That would have been the end our dairy operation.”
    It took the Schmits and their new herd of Holsteins some time to adjust to each other.
    “The first couple of days were tough,” John said. “Ben had milked in stanchions, and it took the cows a while to adapt to our tie stalls. We were new to the cows, and they were new to us. But after a few weeks, everyone settled into a comfortable routine.”
    The Schmits’ herd is averaging 65 pounds of milk per head per day with 4 percent butterfat. Their somatic cell count is averaging 221,000 and has been as low as 140,000.
    “We are still learning,” John said. “No matter how much you think you know, you can’t ever know everything. I’m always asking Dad and our neighbors for advice. Dad has been especially helpful with managing our herd heath.”
    Tonya has taken charge of calf care.
    “Tonya is very in tune to the baby calves,” John said. “During the day, she will text me and ask how a particular calf is doing. This cold, wet fall has made raising baby calves a challenge.”
    What is the long-term goal for the Schmit family?
    “We would eventually like to buy a place of our own and be able to raise our own feed,” John said. “We wouldn’t want to expand our herd much beyond its current size. We are just a small operation trying to keep a small dairy going. Our biggest goal is to build something for our kids.”
    Tonya agreed.
    “We don’t need to get rich,” Tonya said. “We just want to make a living and teach our boys a sense of responsibility.”