If two heads are better than one, four experienced dairy producers putting their heads together is twice again as good. That’s the team at Bears Grass Inc., a 380-cow all-registered herd of Holsteins in Eau Claire County.
Donald Schroeder, 54, and his wife, Tamara Smith Schroeder, or “Tammy” to most folks; Don’s brother Gary Schroeder, 57; and Don and Gary’s nephew, Donald Honadel, 39, combined their farming know-how and tie-stall herds to build a new freestall dairy near Augusta (named Bears Grass for a creek and little country church in the neighborhood). The new facility is situated away from stockholders’ existing farmsteads.
That was seven years ago. They have since expanded three years ago, adding more sand-bedded freestalls and a second parlor for treated cows.
They all own land individually and another entity they formed, Bears Grass Land LLC, sells crops to the dairy and hires the dairy to put in the crops. “We’re not complicated. We’re complex,” quips Tammy, who formerly worked for a bank at Osseo but now does financial recordkeeping and payroll for the dairy – in addition to feeding calves and filling in where needed.
“Don S.” (so designated because he shares a first name with his nephew, “Don H.”) overseas the cropping. Everything is in-house except for spraying, manure hauling and baling of big squares and round bales. They run 920 acres – 300 of established alfalfa and 120 of new seeding (some direct seeded, some with a cover of oats sprayed with Roundup and some small grains underseeded with alfalfa). They plant 420 of corn (150 designated for silage with the remainder high-moisture and dry grain); yields are typically well over 200 bushels. They usually get three to four crops of alfalfa and keep a stand three to five years (including the seeding year). They also have 40 acres of grass hay (orchardgrass and tall fescue) designated for dry cows.
All forages are bagged in two dozen 10 by 300-footers. They’ve talked about constructing bunkers, but are hesitant as they’d need to hire extra help, while they can do the bagging themselves.
Gary does the feeding, maintains their sand lane and helps with fieldwork. Don H. is herd manager. Korey Schroeder (a nephew of Don S. and Gary, and cousin of Don H.) works at the dairy full-time but has no ownership. Don H’s wife, Nicole, and his mother, Darlene, also work on the farm part-time. Rounding out the labor force are two milkers, Nicolas and Justino. Gary’s wife, Julie, and their two grown sons are not involved in the operation.
Three-hundred twenty cows are milked twice a day in a double-eight, DeLaval parallel parlor (expandable to a double-12). Their secondary “hospital” parlor is a single-five parallel that gives milk weights but doesn’t tie into the computer as yet. It’s in their 3-year-old addition, which enabled them to bring the entire herd together. (Prior to 2009, only saleable-milk cows were on site.)
Somatic cell count ranges between 140,000 and 170,000, and only Don H. or Nicole milk in the secondary parlor.
There are nine pens: A pen pack for just-fresh cows with saleable milk; stalls for second or greater lactation cows just fresh; a mid-lactation group; heifers just fresh (some staying put for their entire lactation, some moving to mid or late-lactation pens); a late-lactation group; just-fresh cows with milk that’s not saleable on a pen pack of corn stalks and straw; a close-up group, also on pen pack; dry cows in freestalls; and spring heifers in stalls. Gary mixes five different TMR rations (seven batches daily) in a vertical, pull-type mixer.
Their TMR leans more toward haylage than corn silage, and includes grass hay for dry cows and long hay for the post-fresh group. They work with Big Gain nutritionist Brian Mathiowetz and source feed from Augusta Feeds, owned by Scott Randall.
All the owners contributed cattle to the now-combined herd. Don S., a life-long dairy farmer, and Tammy (whose home farm is three miles south of the dairy) are married 28 years. They live three miles from the dairy on their former farm, which consisted of roughly 60 cows at the time of the merger. The Schroeders switched from predominantly Guernseys and grade Holsteins to registered Holsteins in the ‘80s, perceiving cattle with records to be “more reliable animals.” Don S. and Gary had been working together but had separate ownership. Gary started with registered Holsteins in the ‘90s, purchasing project calves for his sons to show.
Don H., meantime, graduated in animal science from UW-River Falls in 1995, all the while continuing to work with his folks. His father, Dale Honadel, passed away in 2000. The younger registered Holstein producer had upwards of 60 cows when Bears Grass came together. It is Don H. who is the mover-and-shaker with registered cattle. This herd’s June test was 25,230 pounds of milk, 3.67 percent butterfat, 926 pounds of fat, 3.05 percent protein and 769 pounds of protein (with no Posilac). The BAA is 104.2. They hold the national Progressive Genetics Herd Award, which carried from Don H’s herd.
Bears Grass does embryo transfer, flushing roughly a half-dozen head this year already. They also do genomic testing. This extended family (which hosted a Wisconsin Holstein Association “barn meeting” earlier this year) has been successful working with AI studs. Today the herd prefix is “Ursa-Grass” (Ursa referring to the constellation Ursa referring to the two “bear” star constellations and harkening to Bears Grass dairy.)
The primary cow family at Bears Grass stems from “Erinn,” originally in Don H’s herd and purchased as a first choice in the Wisconsin Spring Sale back in ’92. Don H. highlights a long line of Very Good cows. Euphrates, a high genomic Man-O-Man just freshened. She has a Shamrock bull calf tested 2335 GTPI. Her dam is Embassy, a Very Good 86 Toystory that had two bulls sent to Accelerated for sampling. One of them is O-Style Elmer, 2305 GTPI and 796 net merit.
The Bears Grass team has invested in some popular cow families. They bought a Glen daughter from the Miss Mark Maui family. “Miley” is out of Excellent 93 Goldwyn Maritime who is out of Miss Maui Miracle EX91. Miley’s third dam was Miss Mark Maui EX95 2E.
They also bought Calorie, an Observer heifer out of Larcrest Cosmopolitan from the Larcrest herd in Minnesota. They’ve flushed her twice as a heifer (to Numero Uno and Lithium) and have contract offers on her for bulls.
Don H. is intent on genomic testing and finding that elite animal. This requires implanting a lot of embryos, and his uncle and partner, Don S. points out it is easier having a large number of recipients with their expanded freestall herd. Bears Grass is proof that producers can successfully focus on registered cattle in a larger-size freestall set-up.
Last year, Bears Grass added onto their manure storage, and now has the ability to go to 700 head (i.e. eventually a second barn). They have a two-stage system with two separate pits, one concrete. Don S. notes that off that first pit, liquids are pumped over to the new pit that’s plastic lined. A sand recovery lane was added in 2007 and expanded the following year. Manure is pumped out of a reception pit and mixed with liquids from the second pit. Sand drops out in the lane and manure flows off and drops out into their first pit. Recovered sand is stacked alongside the sand land to dry and wash with rainwater. In a month or so it’s ready to be reused as bedding. They haul out to the fields only from that first pit. They estimate they are recovering (during the warmer months of the year) about half of the sand they use.
What makes this extended-family dairy work? Tammy says the area each covers is “not by default.” It is where their interest and expertise lies. Every possible change is also “talked about six ways to Sunday,” she adds, stressing they don’t go forward unless “all four of us agree.”
Don S. adds that stockholders “respect each other.” They hold a formal meeting monthly which their banker facilitates.
The Bears Grass team recommends other producers with smaller herds look at similar arrangements. “We wish we’d have done it sooner,” Tammy says.