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Matthew and Rebekah Fendry with family and at work
By Sonja Heyck-Merlin, NODPA Contributing Writer
Added May 25, 2015.
“We had an auction on Friday; got rid of the last cows on Saturday; moved all of our stuff on Sunday; signed papers at noon on Monday; and milked on Monday evening,” laughed Matt and Beka Fendry, first-generation Organic Valley dairy producers of Strum, Wisconsin, on moving their lives to their newly purchased farm in 2009. The farm, located about 15 miles south of Eau Claire in the rolling, hilly terrain of the Driftless Region which takes its name from having escaped glaciations in the last glacial period. Matt grew up in southeast Minnesota and showed an affinity for agriculture as a toddler on his family’s small farm. By high school age, he was growing market vegetables, tending 500 laying hens and a herd of beef cattle, and working part-time on a few dairies. It is there that he found his niche. “Once I started milking cows I dropped everything else. At 19, when I graduated high school, my parents helped me build a milking parlor and I started milking 22 Jerseys conventionally. This was in 2001. I loved being more involved with the cattle and the day-to-day handling,” Matt explained about his beginning stages of dairying which he transitioned to organic production in 2003. Introduced by family friends, Beka joined Matt on his leased Minnesota farm when the two were married in 2007 where, they said, “We were running land all over the place, trying to manage three farms spread out over 20 miles.”
Their current farm is 325 acres with about 100 acres in pasture, 35 acres of woodland, and the rest mostly crop ground. The farm was certified organic in 1992 and the Fendrys purchased it as a turn-key operation, choosing to leave their Jerseys behind in Minnesota, purchasing the herd of Holsteins which were already there. Beka pointed out the challenges of their early years milking on their new farm: “We bought the farm with about 75 cows, 60 milking, and started with an old 60 cow tie-stall that had been remodeled into a free stall with the feed alley right down the center. The stalls were too small for our cows, the ventilation was poor, and the feeding situation was tough as we had to dump feed with a small machine that fit in the feed alley and clean everything out by hand. The manure system was not very functional, and the single 8 parlor drove us nuts because you’d get a batch of cows in and then stand and wait.”
Some farms struggle with such inefficiencies but with youth on their side, Matt,33, and Beka, 27, began discussing building a new barn that would allow them to be more productive with their time and energy.“We’d been looking at building a new barn and then I met a VES dealer at the World Dairy Expo whom I spoke with at length,” said Matt about the visioning process of their new facility. VES Environmental Solutions LLC designs barns and ventilation systems throughout the US and was looking for a smaller research facility and thought the Fendry’s farm was a suitable fit. “The site was chosen based primarily on where they could place a manure pit,” Beka said. “We kept hitting rock in all of our test digs but eventually were able to find the perfect spot.” She added that “the biggest financial step was running cash flows to be sure that the barn would pay for itself and that we had a strong enough land base to support the animals. We started construction in the spring of 2013 and moved our cows over in October of that year, purchasing 20 new heifers to fill the barn.”
Completed in 2013, the four-row 98’x 175’ barn houses 120 sand bedded free stalls with drive through feeding and lock up. It has had an enormous impact on the quality of life for both the cows and this farm family. “The cows are a lot more comfortable now,” Matt said, and Beka added that she “loves it; it has been a fabulous change.” The free stalls are 10 inches larger than the old 38 inch stanchions; more accommodating to the Fendrys large framed Holsteins which average 1400-1500 pounds. Inside the barn, four 72-inch cyclone fans hang at a 30 degree angle above the free stalls and on one end of the barn there are six more 72-inch fans. “The barn is a hybrid between tunnel and cyclone ventilation,” explained Matt, “the fans should keep a consistent wind speed through the barn between 7 and 8 miles per hour. It’s a slow circulation of air with the ventilation coming from one end and the cows are much more comfortable.” The barn uses a fog system rather than a traditional mist system to cool the air; there are small pipes or tubes hung with the cyclone fans which have tiny holes in them so as the water circulates, it creates tiny beads or mist and is able to drop the temperature by nearly 20 degrees on hot days. During the winter, the fans are turned on to a lower level variable speed and the peak of the barn is closed, pulling warm air down to the cow level. “This provides drier and warmer air in the winter rather than colder, damper air,” noted Matt. As a research station for VES, groups from Japan, China, the UK and other US states often tour the Fendrys’ innovative climate controlled barn.
In the new barn, Matt and Beka upgraded to a double-8 parallel DeLaval parlor with in-floor heat and 28-inch wide stalls replacing the old parlor which was a single-8 and had 27-inch stalls. The parlor has a low line instead of a high pipeline like they were used to. The Fendrys considered robotic milkers and a computerized monitoring system but because of cost neither was included in the upgrade. Currently, they milk three times a day at 5 AM, 1 PM and 9 PM. “It’s a basic parlor,” they noted, “but it’s upgradeable. We just wanted to get a good base started.” Chore efficiency has improved immensely with the new barn. Milking alone generally took 4 man hours but now all the chores, including scrape down, feeding, and wash up, take about 3 ½ to 4 man hours. The Fendrys have 1 full-time and 1 part-time employee and have chosen to buck the standard paradigm that only the farmers are capable of the nuances of milking the herd, noting that “with the right training, you can teach someone how to milk the cows. It is better for us to use our limited time in putting up high quality forage, managing rations and feeding the cows, and operating the business.”
With a limited amount of hours in a day, the efficiencies of the new barn have allowed the Fendrys to focus on their forage program which covers another 400 leased acres running fees of $75-100 per acre. Matt hasn’t had difficulty piecing together the nearly 700 contiguous acres that they farm but did note that “it is getting more difficult to rent land, with cropping moving into the area and driving up rental prices.” The concern about co-existence with neighboring conventional farmers is minimal because the Fendrys have the advantage of continuity of their acreage, the geography of the area, and woodland buffers. They produce all of their own feed, often with surplus for sale, although drought has had a considerable effect on yields in the last few years. They also purchase protein concentrate from a local mill- a mixture of flax, roasted and raw beans fed at an average rate of five pounds per cow throughout the year. Fields spend 2 to 3 years in alfalfa which is planted with a nurse crop of peas and oats at a rate of 100 pounds an acre. They harvest about three tons of the peas and oats as baleage per acre and it usually tests at 18% protein, which Matt noted, “makes great heifer feed.” Ideally, fields then spend one year in corn although sometimes it stretches to two, followed by a rye cover crop and then back to alfalfa. Cropping plans for this year include 200 acres of corn, 70 acres chopped and the rest harvested as dry corn, 200 acres of oats which will be planted on some ground that is being transitioned and 300 acres of alfalfa.
Protein from the Fendry’s forage runs about 20%, comparable to that of the 100 acres of pasture where the new barn is centrally located. High tensile wire marks the perimeter of the pasture and then permanent five acre strips are sized off with poly tape and grazed by the milk herd during the night hours, meeting the NOP pasture requirement of a minimum of 30% dry matter intake from pasture for 120 days. Matt’s records indicate that his milk herd is at about 35% DMI from pasture during the official 120 day grazing season. Another 80-90 head of heifers and young stock are grazed across the street on another 50 acres of pasture obtaining roughly 85% DMI from pasture.
While there has been a recent highlight of the organic grass-milk sector which is typically characterized by highly intensive rotational grazing, the Fendry’s operation is less pasture dominated. Matt thoughtfully validated this management style: “I’ve been on both ends of grazing strategy. I used to do full-on rotational grazing back in the early 2000’s when I was running my herd of Jerseys. The profitability wasn’t there for us. If you’re starting off and you’re young and you have a farm payment you have to maintain production.
Not every farm is the same. Some farms have great success with grazing but with our operation we run a better system when we have control over the cow’s ration. If we don’t run a high TMR in the summer we lose too much body condition and our MUN’s (milk urea nitrogen) are through the roof.” The Fendrys rely on measureable and observable signs to tell them that the cows are healthy- hair coat, happy lines, manure consistency, somatic cell count (averages 100,000) and calving intervals. All signs indicate that the herd is in great health. They are able to produce roughly 22,000 pounds per cow a year while maintaining this health with a goal of increasing production to 25,000 pounds per cow per year.
The Fendrys have three young children: Nora-6, Amity-2, and Taiten-8 months. Their business decisions must always be made with the family in mind and this is partially why Matt and Beka have recently gone to custom chopping. “We used to do all of our own chopping,” Beka explained,” but what used to take Matt and me a week to do, we can hire out for 24 hrs. Where else could we find two guys for a week a month? We can’t afford to keep them around and we can’t justify purchasing the larger more efficient machinery necessary to produce the high quality feed we need. The custom chopping has gone a long way in decreasing labor intensity.” The free labor of extended family in the form of childcare and farm work that many dairy families rely on is often overlooked. Without this advantage, Matt and Beka must be realistic about balancing the demands of providing the tremendous care that both dairy cows and young children require. Beka laughed when asked about this delicate balance and said, “Ask me in about 18 years. When Nora was little she farmed alongside us all day but with the addition of two more kids we’ve had to hire a part-time nanny in order for me to keep up with my responsibilities to the farm which keep everything rolling; the numbers, organizing, payroll, scheduling, keeping everyone fed.” Matt added that, “We’ve had to start specializing in what we do best. We focus on the dairy and cropping. That’s what we do well.” Fortunately, the new barn and shift to custom chopping has streamlined their business enough so that they have been able to enjoy a few family vacations in the past two years.
Though they both quipped that the older they get, the less they know, the Fendrys had some sound advice for young people considering dairying: “It is capital intensive but it can be done. You have to set your goals. Consider organic for its sustainable pay price rather than the conventional roller coaster we started on. Try renting for a few years until you can get your feet on the ground. Do what’s best on your farm and look at the options around you. What works best for your neighbor might not work for you. Don’t be afraid of trying new things. Most importantly, make sure your cows are happy.”
The Fendrys can be reached at:
715-695-3198 or at email@example.com