WOLF LAKE, Minn. — Like many Minnesotans heading to their vacation homes, a dairy herd in central Minnesota makes an annual migration from their winter operation to a site better suited for summer grazing each May.
This highly unusual 5-mile move from one dairy operation near Wolf Lake to another started in 2008. Things look flawless now, but they weren’t without hiccups.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” Lanny said as he worked to resolve a wiring issue.
“That first year that we moved the cows up year, that was the year that (Lanny) and I got married, it snowed — May 22,” Jill said.
They can’t predict everything, but they have a system that seems to work for all parties.
On the morning of Tuesday, May 16, Lanny and Jill were at their home place with all their children. Each was at various ages, but all knew what they could do to help get the operation started.
“Well this is my 16th time doing this,” Jill said while working in the milk house with her husband and children.
A key part to the transition is a good crew transporting the cows. That included Duane, Lanny’s father, driving one truck and livestock trailer, and Scott Makela driving another. They made 12 trips during the day, back and forth, with 6-7 cows per trip. They start the transport after the morning milking and must have everything complete before the evening milking.
“A lot of people ask why we don’t walk ‘em over,” Lanny said. They did walk them the 5 miles the first year, but the cows suffered from feet issues for months after that after walking on the crushed gravel roads for that distance. “So we decided it wasn’t worth it.”
The cows have grown used to the loading and unloading. They look forward to the trip to new grounds.
Each trip in the trailer was the same. The men pulled up to the brilliant green pasture, opened the door and watched as their cows hopped out and giddily made their way out to start munching and reconnect with the rest of the herd.
“You’ll see a 7- 8-year-old cow running across the pasture, kicking their heels to the sky just like a calf,” Jill said.
This dairy operation is also unique in that the Salmens, both father and son, as well as Makela are in a partnership together. Lanny owns about 60 head, Makela, about 45 and Duane still has about a dozen. Lanny bought his first cows 20 years ago in May.
This partnership allows something that many other small dairies don’t allow — time off. Jill Salmen praised the partnership as she and the kids are regular milkers. The kids are homeschooled and know the dairy operation like the back of their hands. Scott Makela handles herd management duties, while his wife, Cassy, also performs milking duties. Scott came on full time to the operation about six years ago. Duane and his wife Tyyni are still active though have a much smaller stake in dairy farming than they once did.
“Our idea on partnerships is they either work or they don’t,” Lanny said. “Fair is not necessarily equal.”
Another key part, Lanny explained, is the control panel — the brains of the milking operation. Just like the cows, this panel makes the move between barns. On one piece of plywood are attached all the electronics that run the milkers, pumps and sensors and so on that do all that the farm needs to get the milk from the cows and into the tank. This panel can be disconnected from one milk house and reconnected at the other, eliminating the need for two sets of each — thus saving a good chunk of change.
The goal was to operate two facilities at a low cost. It helped that Lanny’s brother is a carpenter with experience in revamping parlor barns. He helped build the barn.
“So we could build the parlor really low cost was the whole theory of this,” Lanny said. They planned that the barn would pay for itself in about four years.
At Lanny and Jill’s property, the summer site, they have a swing-14 in an open air barn with screens surrounding the building like a huge three season porch that welcomes in cows morning and night. There they can bring in 14 cows at a time, which move in and out of the parlor. Once the cows have given their milk, the milkers drop and swing to the center of the aisle and are ready for the next cow.
At Duane’s property, they have a swing-7 system in an enclosed barn that works far better for winter use when the cold north wind is sending a freezing breeze through the other building.
Duane said the state had to scratch their heads a bit about how to handle an operation that changes locations twice a year, annually.
“They’ve been really good to work with,” Duane said of the state inspectors.
Throughout the process, Lanny said it’s been in their best interest to work closely with the state on how they can run this operation, especially as they are an organic dairy.
The move to organic was prompted by a desire and need to improve the health of the herd. Duane said at one point he lost 15 cows in a span of 15 months, back when the cows were kept indoors.
“Yeah, the free stalls were nice, but it seems like they had to get out, you know. In the fresh air,” Duane said. So out they went on their pasture at home, but it wasn’t large enough to handle their grazing needs. The property that they now use for summer grazing includes a 100-acre pasture, mostly open ground with a center pivot irrigation that ensures grass keeps growing. The openness means fewer mosquitoes and deer flies, too. They have movable fences that they move daily as a means of adding rotational grazing to keep the cows from chewing things down too far.
They also visited with an organic veterinarian early on who shared thoughts on treatments for improving the herd health.
“And, I mean, the cows started responding,” Duane said. They were treating organically three to four years before they made the move to organic. Duane has been milking cows since 1976.
“It’s kind of fun to know that you can actually do it without the chemicals,” Duane said.
He said at times organic has been a much more profitable business. But not always. There’s more to it than money.
“I wouldn’t tell anybody to do it for the money,” Duane said. He said it can be frustrating knowing that a chemical can provide more instant response than the sometimes time consuming organic treatments.
“We’ve never ever regretted it,” Duane said. He said it took time, but his yields are now better than when he was running a conventional dairy.
“Different strokes for different folks,” Duane said of their decision.
On the move
While moving day is action packed, it’s the group’s favorite day — and seems to be a favorite of the cows, too.
“The cows it enjoy it both ways,” Lanny said.
Lanny said, while it’s not known if there’s another dairy that does it like them in Minnesota, others can think out of the box to find ways to make life better for their cows, too.
“There’s going to be some instances where I think it could work for some people,” Lanny said.
So if the summer site is so much more ideal a setting for the dairy, why not move everything there?
The winter operation remains even though it’s miles from the farm fields and the summer site. It remains there because of the infrastructure including the barn and a certified manure pit, and, as it turns out, it’s the rolling hills and trees on the edge of the Smoky Hills State Forest that keep beckoning to Lanny’s mom, Tyyni, to stay right where she’s at.
It’s a breathtaking location with a view and great skiing for the avid skier.
“It’s beautiful out there, but just not real conducive to grazing cows,” Lanny said.
In time, Lanny sees them building a winter facility at the summer site. But for now, they’ll continue the migration from one farm to the other, enjoying the change in scenery each time.
1/4: Lanny, left, and his son, Vernon Salmen, work to install milk equipment in their summer barn on Tuesday, May 16, 2023, near Wolf Lake, Minnesota.
2/4: The Salmen family, Abigail, Jill and Vernon, install the milking equipment Tuesday, May 16, 2023, near Wolf Lake, Minnesota.
3/4: The Salmen family installs milking equipment in their dairy barn on Tuesday, May 16, 2023, near Wolf Lake, Minnesota.
4/4: Scott and Cassy Makela work to unload cows to summer grazing on Tuesday, May 16, 2023.
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