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Minnesota couple start dairy farm by St. Charles

ST. CHARLES, Minn. (AP) — He grew up on a Fort Atkinson, Iowa, dairy farm.

She grew up on a St. Charles dairy farm.

His parents sold the cows in 1997. Her parents sold the cows in 2001.

They met at a college-age church group in Rochester and married on Feb. 9, 2003.

Three years later, Brad and Shelley Schrandt started milking cows on her family farm, making her the fourth generation to farm on the place north of St. Charles.

The couple operate a 72-cow organic grass-based dairy. Their herd consists of some Holsteins, some Jerseys and mostly Holstein-Ayrshire crosses. They market their milk to Westby Cooperative Creamery in Wisconsin where it is made into organic cheese.

Shelley's father, Lee, grew up milking on the Winona County farm before milking his own cows there for years. Now, he helps his daughter and son-in-law milk in the 51-cow tie-stall barn.

"I think those five years when the barn sat empty was pretty hard for him," Shelley said.

Both Shelley and Brad work full time on the farm. The couple also have two daughters, Grace, 4, and Callie, 2, who have their own play area in the dairy barn. The children have transformed an old water cup into a mixing bowl.

Before the Schrandts started the herd, the couple took the Farm Beginnings course offered by the Land Stewardship Project.

"That's not just farming, it's a lot of good business skills," Brad said.

The networking done through the program has been beneficial, Shelley said. Through the program, they were connected to other organic graziers.

They also qualified for a LSP livestock loan. The five-year loan is available to people who have been through the Farm Beginnings program, said Richard Ness, LSP Farm Beginnings organizer. Applicants also have to meet established net worth requirements.

The Schrandts met the requirements and took out a no-interest loan to purchase 15 cows, the maximum number of dairy cattle allowed under the program, Ness said.

No payments are required for the first two years. Principle payments are required the third, fourth and fifth year of the loan.

The loan program grew out of an interest in helping beginning farmers going through Farm Beginnings to purchase breeding stock while building equity. The first loan was given in December 1999.

Since then, there have been 26 applications for the loan and 22 have been accepted, Ness said. Nine of the loans were for the purchase of dairy cattle, seven were for beef cattle, three for starting a pasture-based chicken production system, two were for dairy goats and one was for sheep.

The LSP farm loan program is in the midst of being analyzed to determine whether or not it should continue as is or if it should be modified, Ness said.

The Farm Beginnings program is going strong, he said, with the next class starting in October in Rochester and Hutchinson. Classes are limited to 20 families to keep class sizes small enough to allow for individual attention, he said.

Through Farm Beginnings, the Schrandts took on a mentor, another farmer who's been grazing since 1991.

They had all sorts of questions, from fencing to how big should paddocks be to what seed goes in the drill.

With their mentor's guidance and their own trial and error, they are feeling more confident about their pasture management skills.

"It takes a couple years to figure out what works in the system," Shelley said.

The couple have 130 acres of hay and pasture, 50 acres of corn for silage and grain and 50 acres of new seeding. The pastures and hay ground are rotated into row crop production.

They plant grass with their alfalfa because it helps with insect pressure, adds tonnage, is high in digestible fiber and is more palatable for the cows, Brad said.

With all the rain this spring, they've been rotating the cattle quickly to keep up with the growth. They figure they will have to mow some grass because it will mature before the cattle can eat it. Their paddocks are roughly three acres, with cattle fenced into two-thirds during the day and one-third overnight. They graze about 100 head, including bred heifers. Everything but the calves born this spring are on pasture and they hoped to get them weaned and out to pasture soon.

In addition to pasture, the cows are fed eight to 10 pounds of grain a day and 20 pounds of corn silage daily.

They raise their own replacement heifers and sell bull calves at a week to 10 days.

They rely solely on artificial insemination, both for safety and genetic reasons. They calve in spring and fall.

The couple decided to become certified organic for several reasons. It's a better way to keep a smaller operation, start-up costs are lower and it's better for the soils and animals, Brad said.

It's also a huge help in setting a budget, Shelley said.

Their last year of transition to organic, 2009, was a rough financially, she said. In October 2010, they went on the organic milk truck.

In April, their annual contract renews and their base price is set, Brad said. As long as they produce quality milk, there is no reason that they will receive less than the base price, he said.

They are able to plug that price into their budget and manage expenses. Since they've been milking for five years now, they have an idea of what their repair needs will be from year-to-year, Brad said.

The couple are enrolled in the Farm Business Management program, which Brad said has been a huge asset in helping them understand and develop their cash flow and balance sheet.

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Information from: Agri News, http://www.agrinews.com/

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

Denton (Denny) Newman Jr.
I've worked at the Brainerd Dispatch with various duties since Dec. 7, 1983. Starting off as an Ad Designer and currently Director of Audience Development. The Dispatch has been an interesting and challenging place to work. I'm fortunate to have made many friends, both co-workers and customers.
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