Calves on the French family’s dairy are fed milk until they are 5 months of age.
PHOTO BY KRISTA KUZMA
Calves on the French family’s dairy are fed milk until they are 5 months of age. PHOTO BY KRISTA KUZMA
    WEST CONCORD, Minn. – The long hours full of hard work on the dairy coupled with several years of low milk prices were starting to wear on Jason French. He knew something had to give on his dairy farm or it would not last much longer.
    That is why he and his family switched to milking their herd once a day.
    “We’re having to reinvent how we are farming,” French said. “Doing all the work when we’re not making much money is counterproductive. It exhausts you, and you still aren’t paying the bills at the end of the day.”
    French employs his son, Luke, full time, while his dad, Dan, and another son, Brett, work part time on the 200-cow grass-fed organic dairy near West Concord. His wife, Tammy, works off the farm, and the couple also has three other children – Samantha, who is married to Ryan Fritz; Chaze, and Lexi.
    Cows are milked on two farmsites – 120 on one and 80 on the other.
    Wanting a lifestyle change and mental health are two big reasons for going to a once-a-day milking schedule.
    “There’s still a lot to do on the farm, but this took a lot of mental pressure off me,” French said. “With farming, there are financial, time and weather stresses. This makes it all a little easier to tolerate.”
    Milking and moving the fence to give the cows a fresh paddock of grass is done in the morning. By 6 p.m., the French family is done with farm chores for the day – a full two hours earlier then when milking twice daily.
    “We can go places in the evening,” French said.
    Or, they can continue making hay or planting without stopping.
    “It’s about lifestyle,” French said. “It’s so much better. I will never go back to milking two times a day. I would quit before going back to milking twice a day.”
    That is even with the reduction of income.
    “The turn in the dairy economy is what got us looking into once a day milking, but it’s not baling us out and not really helping us financially,” French said.
    The Frenchs were told production would drop about 25%, which French said happened almost to the exact pound; however, French said the percentage for components did not drop from 5% butterfat and 3.8% protein on the Holstein and Jersey crossbred herd.
    “We may have lost 25% production, but we didn’t lose 25% income because we’re paid on our solids,” French said.
    Based on actual milk sold instead of rolling herd average, the Frenchs’ cows average about 6,200 pounds of milk per cow. This is after taking milk out for feeding calves which are fed milk for the first five months.
    “Some people’s jaw will drop when they see that, but I don’t care,” French said. “There are a lot of ways to milk cows and this one works for us.”
    To adjust to a lower income, French also lowered expenses. They culled about 80 cows to lower the number of animals in the herd and stopped renting 200 acres of land. Three employees were let go which dropped labor costs by nearly $150,000. They also refinanced land loans to lower the bank payments. Plus, cutting out a milking helped lower other expenses such as electricity and supplies.
    “I don’t see a reason for milking all these cows, paying for rented land and doing all this work in an economy where we’re not making much anyway,” French said.
    The French family started milking once a day over a year ago. One farm began Dec. 15, 2018, and the other started April 1, 2019. The April start coincided with spring calving when the Frenchs calve in two-thirds of their herd. The other one-third of the herd calves in the fall.
    “Switching at calving I think is key,” French said. “There was no problem with the transition.”
    French said they did not have to get rid of any cows with the switch. The cows also seem calmer, easier to work with and easier to bring to the barns, French said. The herd’s MUN levels and lameness have decreased, which French thinks is due to not having to walk on the lanes as much. The switch to once-a-day milking also helped lower the cull rate from 23% to 15%-18%.
    “I don’t see as many problems,” French said. “Part of it is less milk and less stress. Another part is having no hired people, and we have more patience because we’re not as tired.”
    The lower cull rate also means fewer replacements and the need to grow them.
    “It takes a lot of milk and costs a lot of money for us to raise calves,” French said.
    The idea for once-a-day milking came from a trip French took with three other dairy farmers in the summer of 2017. The four friends drove to Wisconsin to visit a farm that had been implementing the practice for several years.  
    “When I took the trip, I had no intention of going to 1X,” French said. “I liked the idea, but I didn’t think it would fit financially on our farm. But the seed got planted in my mind.”
    As the dairy markets continued to stay depressed over the next year, French’s enjoyment of dairying dwindled.
    “In reality, I was trying to figure out how to get out of dairying,” he said. “We were running too hard, and there wasn’t enough money.”  
    That is when he and his family decided to make the switch along with the changes to decrease expenses.
    “When we did it, it was a relief,” he said. “I started to enjoy dairying again.”
    While the margins are tight, French said this way of milking helps keep the dairy sustainable on its own.
    “I don’t think (milk) prices are going to rise,” French said. “If we stay in the dairy industry, we have to learn to operate at this level or not operate at all.”
    French sees this as the future of his farm and is thankful they made the switch.
    “Everyone’s much happier,” he said.