Daring dairy

At a time when may dairy producers are selling out, Adam and Jon Lenz are building up.

The brothers and farming partners are expanding their registered Holstein herd and constructing a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility on their family farm in Bunceton, Mo. The upgraded dairy will accommodate 400 cows, five times the size of their current milking herd.

In a tough farm economy, such bold plans take a leap of faith, but the Lenz brothers are confident they are ready for the chal­lenge. The fourth-generation farmers say it’s a risk they’re willing to take for their families and the future of Lenz View Dairy.

“It’s very scary doing this,” Adam said. “But if it didn’t scare us, there’d probably be something wrong.”

The daring venture gets under way this summer with the goal to be operational by this time next year. It will open a fresh chapter for the dairy, which was established by their grandfather, Eldon, in the early 1960s. Adam, now 35, and Jon, 33, grew up working alongside their grandfather, their father, David, and their uncle, James.

“We’ve been part of the farm ever since we were old enough to lift a feed bucket,” Jon said. “Through high school, we always had chores, even though we played sports. We’d have about 15 minutes to come home after school, feed all the calves and get back to the bus to go to wherever we were going to play ball. We did that many times.”

Adam attended college to study agriculture technology and agronomy, but he ultimately decided to come back to farm full time in 2006, joining his father and uncle in the diversified dairy and row-crop operation. Jon earned an education degree but, like his brother, returned to the dairy in 2010 after one year of teach­ing. “The cows don’t talk back as much,” he said with a laugh.

Their older brother, Jeremy, an employee of MFA Agri Services in Boonville, also helps out on the farm when needed.

“When we were little, Dad always made sure we had respon­sibilities on the farm. I think he wanted to help us decide if this is really what we wanted to do,” Adam explained. “Don’t get me wrong. He wanted us to know it’s not an easy life. It’s more of a lifestyle. But I think deep down he was very proud we came back to carry on the Lenz View Dairy name for another generation.”

The partnership with their dad ended much sooner than Adam and Jon expected. David died in August 2018 from complications related to an autoimmune disease that compromised his heart and lungs. He was only 68.

“Dad was here on the farm, working with us until three or four days before he died,” Jon said. “He wouldn’t have had it any other way. They were looking at a lung transplant at one point in time, but if he’d had that, doctors wouldn’t have allowed him to farm. He wouldn’t have sur­vived that. He was right where he wanted to be.”

This first spring without their father was especially tough, the brothers admit. Not only are they still grieving his absence, they’re also missing his assistance.

“Even though Dad had slowed down, it was perfect to have him out there working up ground while we were in the milk barn,” Adam said. “He couldn’t do a lot of moving around, but he could sit on the tractor seat. That’s one big struggle we’ve found, and we fell behind this spring without his help. We were trying to take care of chores around here, but we needed to be in the field, too. It’s meant lots of long days.”

Before David’s death, he had a chance to share his input on preliminary plans for the new dairy. The family had been dreaming about the expansion for years, but Adam and Jon got serious about making the concept a reality this past fall. They got blessings from their bank, consulted with the Natural Re­sources Conservation Service, hired an architect and put togeth­er a budget with help from the University of Missouri Extension dairy specialist Joe Horner.

“The main difference between the old facility and the new facility is efficiency,” Adam said. “From pen size to cow comfort, all those features tie together. We’re going to completely re-eval­uate our system and put together standard operating procedures so everyone is on the same page. That’s how you get extremely efficient dairies that are very successful. I know it’s not going to be easy, but that’s why I think we can make this work.”

The facility will be located in a 40-acre field across the road from the farm where the Lenzes currently milk 10 cows at a time in a double-five, herringbone-style parlor built in 1973. In May, the construction site was a flourishing field of triticale des­tined to be harvested for haylage. If all goes as planned, by next May it will be home to a 105-by-506-foot freestall barn and modern milking parlor.

“We wanted to start fresh and clean,” Adam said. “It was tough to think about taking something out of crop production and turning it into a big chunk of concrete, but it was better to get the new facili­ties out of the clutter of our existing buildings and focus on a site where there are no constraints.”

The new parlor will accommodate 24 cows at a time in a highly efficient parallel system. As the name implies, cows stand side-by-side in this design, versus the herringbone, in which they are situated at 45-degree angles. Milking in a paral­lel pattern means more cows in a smaller space, less walking for the operator and rapid exit for better flow, Jon explained. The brothers expect to milk around 110 cows per hour in the new parlor instead of their current rate of about 40 cows per hour.

“It’s going to be a night-and-day difference to us,” Jon said. “We’re used to milking from the side, and now we’re going to be milking from behind a cow. That may not seem like that big a deal, but I’m sure there’ll be a learning curve for a while.”

Another notable change is switching from milking twice daily to three times, which should increase production 6 to 8 pounds per cow, per day, the brothers estimate. To get more milk, they need to optimize feed intake, maximize resting time and keep the cows healthy and happy. Cow comfort is the No. 1 consid­eration, Adam said.

“You take care of the cows,” he said, “and they’ll take care of you.”

To that end, the new Lenz View Dairy stalls will be cushioned with sand, considered one of the best beddings for cow com­fort. Sand provides good traction and support, allowing cows to get up and down with ease. It also encourages the cows to rest for long periods of time and reduces the risk of knee and hock injuries.

Because dairy cows also need a constant source of fresh, clean air to achieve their production potential, the Lenzes plan to use tunnel ventilation in the new freestall barn. In this system, fans are placed in one end-wall of the building to create a negative pressure in the barn, causing air to be drawn into the opposite end. Inside, the fresh air moves along the length of the barn in a constant flow.

“We’ve done a lot of research and wanted to try something new,” Adam said. “You see tunnel ventilation a lot more up north and down south. We want to keep the cows cool in the summer and get good ventilation in the winter. This type of ventila­tion should provide much more consistent air movement across every square foot.”

Along with efficiency, sustainability is top of mind in all their plans, the brothers insist. The barn will be equipped with a flush system, which uses water to remove waste from the pens, stalls and alleys. The manure is captured for use as fertil­izer, and the sand is separated and reclaimed for the stalls.

“Dairy farmers are very good stewards of the land,” Adam said. “We have to be. Everything we’re doing ties together to help us sustain this operation. We take pride in producing an extremely nutritious product and doing it in a way that takes care of our animals and the environment. That’s something we want everyone to know.”

The Lenzes have been building their herd in anticipation of the new facility and expect to be milking more than 120 head by next winter.

“With bad milk prices also comes a kind of silver lining. Heifers are just so cheap,” Adam said. “Last year, we bought around 50 breeding-size heifers that should calve this fall. We’ll still have a lot of cows to buy, but this will kind of help ease the pain just a little bit.”

The Lenzes currently produce 1,300 acres of corn and soybeans along with 500 to 600 acres of wet and dry hay, including alfalfa, triticale, cereal rye, Marshall rye, oats, timothy, clover, brome and fescue. They feed these forages along with corn silage and an MFA complete dairy supple­ment with Shield Technology. The escalation from milking 80 cows to 400 cows will understandably require much more feed. About half their corn acres will be chopped for silage this year, they said, and some of their less-productive row-crop ground will be transitioned to forages to provide additional hay and haylage for the expanded herd.

“We figured the number 400 is how many cows we can support with the amount of acres we have and comfortably live,” Jon said. “We can grow a lot of our own feed, and that should help out a bunch with the bills.”

The Lenzes currently market their milk through Dairy Farmers of America cooperative and will continue to do so with the expanded operation. The milk mainly goes to Central Dairy to supply school cafeterias. Adam said he has received a tremendous amount of support and guidance from DFA, especially from the organization’s Young Coopera­tors program, of which he is a member.

If construction begins as scheduled this summer, the Lenzes expect the process to take nine to 10 months from groundbreaking to the first milking. When complete, the operation will need six more full-time employees to handle the dairy side of the business.

“We realize labor is a huge issue, so that’s something we’re going to have to figure out,” Adam admitted. “Not every­body’s jumping up and down to be a dairy laborer.”

With farm income in decline across the entire agricultural industry, building a brand-new dairy may seem like a gutsy move—and it is. But the Lenz brothers say it’s a very calcu­lated move. They also emphasized how grateful they are for the support of their families as they undertake this endeavor.

“We didn’t just one day decide to build a bigger dairy,” Jon said. “We’ve put a lot of thought and work into this. We’ve talked to people who are very successful in their dairies. We’ve talked to people who have sold out and found out the reasons why. We’ve done the research, talked with engineers, put together a budget, looked at the best pen sizes and parlor sizes. Unless something catastrophic happens, I don’t think anything can hold us back.”

In today’s challenging dairy economy, it takes more than knowledge and preparation to succeed, but these young producers say they also have the ambition, enthusiasm and courage needed to make their mark on the family’s farming legacy.

“Dairy is what we know; dairy is what we love,” Adam said. “But we have to keep up with the times. We can’t stay where we’re at and still make a living and sustain the farm. We have to do something different. We want to make better lives for us, our families and for our next generation. I think that’s the big picture.”

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