New drink cups are installed in the tiestall barn at Alex Zilka’s farm near Randall, Minn.
New drink cups are installed in the tiestall barn at Alex Zilka’s farm near Randall, Minn. PHOTO BY JENNIFER COYNE
    Editor’s note: In this series, “Dairying in tough times,” Dairy Star is catching up with dairy farmers who began milking cows in the last five years. These farmers are sharing how they have been able to weather the market conditions and why they see promise in today’s changing industry.

    RANDALL, Minn. – In Alex Zilka’s time dairy farming, he has rarely only milked twice in a day; and when he did, he saw the consequences on herd health, production and his bottom line.
    “It doesn’t cost anything to milk three times a day,” Zilka said. “Yeah, you don’t sleep much, but the bills are paid.”
    Every eight hours, Zilka milks 81 cows in a tiestall barn in Morrison County near Randall, Minn. He takes care of the midnight and morning shifts, while part-time help milks in the evenings.
    The young dairyman moved to the rented farm site last August after first beginning his dairying career in Pierz, Minn.
    When Zilka relocated, he briefly milked twice a day.
    “Milking twice was easier, but this barn has smaller stalls, so I needed to take stress off the animals where I could,” Zilka said. “Cows are built to produce milk, not store it. A 3X schedule stimulates better production, and the cows are more content when they don’t have all that milk in them.”
    This schedule also has worked as a profit station for Zilka, who is getting about 80 pounds of milk per cow per day.
    “When I first started, I was pretty gung-ho about milking cows and would go wherever to do that,” he said. “But, it got really ugly with $13 milk. I chewed up equity and had nothing left but to get more milk out of my cows.”
    Zilka has also looked elsewhere within his herd to improve comfort and health in order to turn a profit.
    He feeds a total mixed ration to the lactating herd, and top dresses the fresh and high producing cows.
    “It’s so important to keep feed in front of the cows at all times,” Zilka said.
    He sells his bull calves, but raises his replacements. The young calves are housed in super huts in groups of five and given milk with a group feeder.
    “I wanted to take the idea of automated calf feeders and make it work here,” Zilka said. “This has been a lot less labor for me and I’ve seen a lot of positive effects in the calves. For one, they’re less sick with scours.”
    Since Zilka began farming, he has always experimented with different management techniques to better his dairy, including cutting meadow grass for bedding and briefly milking the herd four times in 24 hours.
    The meadow grass worked well as an inexpensive bedding alternative over the winter. But milking four times was difficult to schedule amongst other farm responsibilities, and Zilka ended up seeing a spike in his somatic cell count.
    “I don’t have a norm; I’m not stuck doing only certain practices,”Zilka said. “I talk with college friends and buddies around here. They’re all successful farmers, so what I’m getting is good information.”
    Zilka has always looked towards friends and family for advice in his dairy venture, but it has become more commonplace with the herd’s relocation. Both Zilka’s dad and uncle are in the area and are available to help with fieldwork.
    Likewise, Zilka’s parents also help with daycare when needed for his two young children – Cora, 3, and Eddison, 1. Zilka’s wife, Brook, works evenings as a certified nursing assistant at the St. Cloud Hospital in St. Cloud, Minn.
    He also has a strong relationship with the owner of the farm site and retired dairyman, Rick Lundgren.
    “I’ve greatly appreciated Rick’s help,” Zilka said. “He doesn’t have to be here when things go wrong, but he’s does and we get things back to working. He said he’s been in my shoes and knows what it’s like to do it alone.”
    Zilka briefly saw the highs of 2014 when he first began milking cows, but most of his career has been surrounded by depressed prices. With the installment of the Dairy Margin Coverage program, Zilka hopes it will create a better bottom for his business.
    “I immediately signed up,” he said. “It kind of gives you a bottom to know what you can buy and what you have to get by with.”
    Every month, Zilka reviews his finances.
    “I don’t like to do it because I know it’s bad, but you have to know how bad it is and how you’re going to get by,” he said.
    Right now, the dairy farmer’s newest piece of equipment is his hay chopper. Everything else was purchased used and is maintained to working order.
    “I’ve got the bare knuckles on this farm, nothing fancy, but it handles the cattle well,” Zilka said. “Sometimes, it gets frustrating always patching and welding equipment, but I have to keep going and do what I have to do to pay the bills.”
    Despite the challenges Zilka has had to overcome, he remains cautiously optimistic about his future in the industry.
    This fall, he plans to put up a pile of corn silage. Right now, the crop is stored in bags. He also wants to take on more of the herd’s haying needs.
    When the markets allow, Zilka would also like to purchase the farm site and land, and put up a freestall barn and parlor.
    “This is fun,” Zilka said. “But, I’m not going to dig myself in a hole for it, either.”