Farming at multiple sites

Producers share insights on multi-location expansion

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GREEN BAY, Wis. — When expanding at home is not possible, a dairy operation could be grown by adding a second site. Forty-seven dairies in Wisconsin have more than one location, and 26 added a new site within the last two years.

At the Dairy Strong conference Jan. 16-18 in Green Bay, four dairy farmers operating at multiple sites shared insights on expansion during a panel discussion.

Pagel Family Businesses near Kewaunee, which includes Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy LLC, have managed multiple sites since the early 2000s. The Pagel family milks 11,000 cows in six parlors at five sites and also operates two heifer facilities. The second location started in 2001 milking 1,500 cows.

“The main reason for this new site was that we were starting a second dairy with a new partner,” JJ Pagel said. “They are two separate entities, but a lot of things go together. If one farm is missing something, the other farm can help.”

Their furthest dairy is 60 miles away in Coleman. The Pagels are in the process of taking that site from 680 cows to 3,000 by the end of the year. Other dairies are located 25 miles south and 20 miles north of the home farm. Another is 4 miles away.

Sixth-generation dairy farmer Christine Bender and her family expanded operations to a second site in April 2023 when they began renting a facility about 15 miles from their home farm near Watertown. Bender farms with her husband, Robb, and her parents, Peter and Cindy McFarland, at McFarlandale Dairy, where they milk about 1,000 cows.

At their second facility in Lake Mills, Bender and her family milk 450 cows. Cows are moved to this site once they are 100 days carried calf. This facility also houses their dry cows, but the family is adding onto a barn at the home farm so they can bring the dry cows home and maximize both milking facilities.

“We did this to grow our herd and increase cash flow before making the big investment of a new milking facility in the future,” Bender said. “We’re using the second site as a steppingstone to make that next jump.”

Replacing their 29-year-old double-12 parallel parlor with a rotary parlor is the family’s goal.

During the past 17 years, Brent Czech has expanded New Heights Dairy LLC in Rice, Minnesota, to include multiple sites and a central calving facility. The dairy is home to 6,000 cows.

“Our farm is operated as one big dairy with some of the pens located about 20 miles apart,” Czech said. “Everything is synergistic with each other. Whatever we go into needs to be scalable for our business model. You have to be able to say no to opportunities that don’t fit your model.”

Czech said the biggest change for him was going from one dairy to two.

“I spent a lot of time trying to get information from others,” he said. “People would perceive that we were busy and didn’t want to bother us. We spent a lot of time working on communication to get information from the bottom up to the appropriate people.”

Now, two people report to Czech — the herd manager and the operations manager. Recruiting managers from within has created a culture of optimism at New Heights Dairy.

“Guys know when they come in that there is room for growth in the business,” he said.

Rosy-Lane Holsteins, near Watertown, milks 1,750 cows at two sites located 50 miles apart. 

Jordan Matthews, a partner at Rosy-Lane, said they manage both farms as one. Calving and first breeding occurs at the home farm where 850 cows are milked. After pregnancy checks, cows head to the second site which houses eight pens of late-lactation cows.

Adding on to the barn or parlor at the home farm would not have been easy, Matthews said. But before expanding to a new location, the owners did their homework. They spent nine months evaluating the second site before starting to milk cows there.

“We went over every scenario possible,” he said. “It took a long time to get that process and terms to come. We’re going through the renewal process now, and it’s a lot quicker. We don’t know how long we’ll be there, but right now, it’s working out pretty well.”

Managing multiple sites can be challenging. These dairy farmers follow various strategies for keeping track of everything that is going on at each location.

For example, an online dashboard provides Pagel with a snapshot of milk production, somatic cell count and other types of data for each dairy.

“From my desk, I can get a pretty good overview of what’s going on at the dairies,” he said.

Pagel’s two head herdsmen each oversee two sites, and the farm has operations managers for departments, such as dairy, crops and maintenance, who spend time at each site.

“We bring everyone in on a weekly basis to share information and learn what everyone’s needs are,” Pagel said. “We all sit in on each other’s meetings so that everyone has an idea of what’s going on at every operation.”

Utilizing technology like activity collars, sort gates and rotary parlor software has increased the efficiencies of the various Pagel operations.

Czech uses artificial intelligence in the parlor to understand how cattle are being cared for and to help manage employees.

For Bender, working closely with their landlord has proved beneficial.

“We have a really good working relationship with the owners of the other dairy farm,” Bender said. “That helps ease the multi-site part and has made it easier for us to manage.”

The owners of the second site grow the feed that Bender buys to feed the cows using a tractor and mixer she rents from them. Every week, they move about 60 cows between sites, and the farm owners do the hauling in their trailer.

“We also have a really good group of middle managers who bounce back and forth between farms,” Bender said.

Matthews said, when adding another site, make sure there is a place for the milk to go.

“We talked with our processors to make sure they would take the milk,” he said. “Some are tapped out, so you need to see if your current processor will take additional milk.”

Expanding to a second site is an undertaking with much to consider.

“You have to understand what you’re getting yourself and your team into,” Pagel said. “Do you know the area? What about the facilities? And, most importantly, does it make financial sense?”

When becoming a multi-site dairy operation, equal importance must be placed on each location.

“When you have a second location, everything needs to be just as important to you at this site,” Czech said. “If you start treating it like a second-string dairy, it’s going to become a second-string dairy.”

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