Never giving up

Mulderink milks for 12 years before finding a market

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MORRISON, Ill. — For more than a decade, Matt Mulderink and Ashley Ware milked a small herd of cows even though it brought them no financial gain.

“I tried multiple times to get into it, but nobody was buying milk,” Mulderink said.

Starting out with two calves in 2008, the couple was milking 17 cows by 2022 with many more soon to freshen. After 12 years of trying to find a milk market, they were planning to sell the cows that June when Brewster Cheese began picking up their milk. Mulderink’s tenacious love for dairy farming finally began to pay off.

“We grew with two cows, breeding and raising everything here,” Mulderink said. “We were one month away from selling when Brewster started taking our milk; otherwise, the cows would have been gone.”

Today, Mulderink and Ware milk 32 cows with their children, Mykala and Jerry, at Mash Family Farms near Morrison. Their stanchion barn holds 40 head, and Mulderink said it will be full by June. Cow numbers have nearly doubled since finding a market for their milk. Mulderink said in two more years, they will probably double again to 60 cows. For additional income, Mulderink is also a relief A.I. technician for Select Sires.

This first-generation dairy farmer is building up his herd for the second generation. Mulderink hopes to grow to 80 milking cows by the time Mykala, a junior in high school, is done with college as she plans to return to the farm.

“My daughter loves milking cows,” Mulderink said.

Jerry prefers driving tractor and the equipment side of things as well as raising chickens. Both kids are also learning how to breed cows.

Mulderink and Ware own the cows and equipment and rent the buildings on the same farm where Mulderink began working in seventh grade. He tried to get a job there in fourth grade when his family moved from Wisconsin.

“The owner thought I was a little young, so I came back when I was in seventh grade,” Mulderink said. “I ground 8 tons of feed by hand because everything was shoveled by hand here, and the owner said, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘I like it.’”

That is when Mulderink became Orville Goodenough’s hired hand. He stayed on until Goodenough sold the cows in 1998 and then signed up for the National Guard.

“I tried to buy the cows then, but Orville wanted me to experience life,” Mulderink said.

After graduating from Southwest Wisconsin Technical College in 2000, Mulderink worked for several dairy farmers.

“It drove Orville nuts,” Mulderink said. “He wanted me to get away from farming.”

Mulderink and Ware are Army veterans who met when their unit was deployed to Iraq in 2004. The two moved to the farm in 2007 and lived next door to Goodenough until he passed in January.

Ware, who did not grow up on a farm, knew the cows came with Mulderink.

“He got me into the cows,” she said.

While trying to make a go of it from 2010 to 2022, Mulderink and Ware worked full-time jobs. 

During part of that time, Mulderink took a job in Wisconsin breeding cows and lived there temporarily while Ware ran the farm with help from Mulderink’s dad and brothers.

“I was trying to make something happen up there farm-wise, but it didn’t work,” Mulderink said.

Milk from their cows fed Mulderink’s family, his brothers’ families and the calves Mulderink and Ware were raising.

“I couldn’t stand store-bought milk,” Mulderink said.

Mulderink credits three mentors in his life who helped get him to where he is today: his dad, Goodenough and Kevin Stanek, the dairy farmer he worked for while going to college.

“Stanek gave me my first two Red and White heifers,” Mulderink said. “His cattle will always have a special place for us. I like to preserve the heritage of different farm families and keep their lineage going.”

Mulderink’s breeding route covers Illinois, Iowa and southern Wisconsin. He breeds Friday through Monday, with Fridays being his busiest day. Ware and the kids take care of the farm on Fridays when Mulderink is on the road. The rest of the time, he comes and goes, breeding in between milkings.

“I visit so many different farms when I’m breeding cows, and I pick up a lot of ideas,” Mulderink said.

Mulderink compares his milking preparation to a large, modern dairy in that he and his family pre-wash, strip, post-wash, milk and post-dip – ideas he picked up during his breeding travels.

When breeding his own herd, Mulderink chooses A2A2 bulls.

“I believe the markets are going to go that way, and genetics are going this way as well,” he said. “A2 can allow lactose intolerant people, as well as those who think they are, to drink milk again. It’s going to be popular.”

Currently, 65% of the milking herd is A2, while 100% of the youngstock are A2.

“I push A2 for other people I breed for too,” Mulderink said.

Mulderink also looks for longevity and daughter pregnancy rate when choosing bulls for his herd.

“We look through the lineage and fix traits as we go along,” he said. “My daughter is doing it too.”

Milk, fat, protein, and feet and legs are other traits Mulderink considers when making breeding decisions.

“Luster is a bull I like a lot; he’s well-rounded,” Mulderink said.

Milk production has gone up in the last year and a half, and Mulderink wants to keep growing in that area.

“The next big step is to go on test,” he said.

Mulderink would like to switch from a 2-inch pipeline to a 3-inch pipeline to increase milking efficiency and perhaps double from four units to eight. Long-term plans for these dairy farmers include processing butter and cheese.

“We want to be diversified,” Ware said. “We run steers and might get into hogs as well to cover as many bases as we can.”

Acquiring land is their goal.

“We buy our feed, which has been awful with $7 corn,” Mulderink said. “I would love to farm acres in the future, but there are so many large crop farmers in this area that it’s hard to get your hands on land.”

Growth is a part of Mulderink’s past, present and future. He and Ware hope to purchase the farm and continue to expand. But if that does not pan out, the couple has considered relocating to northeast Iowa or Wisconsin as they grow the herd.

“I have a pretty deep passion for farming,” Mulderink said. “I couldn’t go without it.”

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