In a region that has lost 75% of its dairy farms in the past four decades one small operation has not only survived but is thriving through the family’s creativity.
Redhead Creamery is a working dairy farm, creamery and tourist attraction.
Based in Brooten, Minnesota, Jer-Lindy Farm is owned by Jerry and Linda Jennissen, who began their business in 1979 with just 32 cows.
Over time they have expanded to 200 cows and raised a family of four daughters – all redheads.
At the age of 16 daughter Alise Sjostrum announced she was going to stay on the farm and expand the business to include cheese making.
She crafted her course at Minnesota University around cheese and dairy quality and trained at the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese.
Returning home in 2013 she designed her own cheese making plant and started making cheese on farm the following year. Redhead Creamery was establiled.
Jer-Lindy Farm provides fresh milk through a tunnel from the milking parlour direct to the creamery. Sjostrom has a waiver from the American Food and Drug Administration to take warm milk directly from the shed. The milk is pasteurised before being turned into cheese.
The farm operates year-round and 7% of the annual production goes to the creamery, which pays 20 cents per pound of milk solid (about 31 New Zealand cents per 0.45kg). The rest of the milk goes to Bongards Co-operative at 18 cents a pound.
They enjoy sharing their slice of paradise with the world and on Fridays and Saturdays Jerry Jennissen hosts farm tours.
Sjostrom says “When we first opened Redhead Creamery our cheese vat was broken for three months so we started to give farm tours and we’ve been doing them ever since.”
About1800 people now visit each year paying $10 a head.
“Most visitors are local but we also get visitors from all over the country and international tourists.
“People are attracted to the opportunity to walk through a working dairy farm, connect with the owners and try the finished product, which in our case is cheese. It’s all in the experience.”
Jennissen enjoys dispelling myths and takes pride in teaching people about dairy farming. Two common misconceptions he encounters are that all dairy products contain antibiotics and farmers do not take good care of their animals.
“Perception is huge but it’s easy to change their mind when they see it themselves.”
The tours start with a talk about the history of the property and the Jennissen family. He explains how he has watched the number of local dairy farms decline since 1976 when there were 1600 farms. This year it will drop below 400.
He takes visitors to see the calves and explains the different stages of a dairy cow’s life.
The calf hutches are strategically placed away from effluent run-off. The biggest health concern for the herd is Johne’s disease. It can be carried in effluent.
Any milk the calves get is pasteurised first and they will not use colostrum from any cows that have been identified with Johne’s.
Calves are kept in their hutches for seven weeks and cereal is introduced early. By the time they go to the heifer pen they are eating 2.3kg daily and weaned from milk.
There they begin socialising and are fed an ab lib ration of balage, alfalfa, soybean meal, salt and minerals.
The vet visits once a month for health checks and calves are vaccinated and disbudded. Jennissen has an interesting perspective regarding pain relief.
“Three vets and I agree administering the pain medication is more painful than the procedure.”
All the calves have their picture taken and are given a tattoo and a tag. There are no tracing laws in the US but Jer-Lindy’s cows are registered with the US Holstein Association and their family lines can be traced back to the 1800s.
Pregnant heifers and cows are run together in another yard and are also fed ad lib, largely grass hay, minerals and anything the herd has refused.
Jennissen works with a nutritionist who visits every fortnight to monitor body condition and take samples of feed. He creates plans to maximise production.
The milking cows are fed 46kg of supplement made up of corn silage, balage, grain and minerals. They produce 11,340kg of milksolids annually.
Jennisen believes the production is competitive with bigger operations and wants to drive it further.
There is no market for replacement calves in Minnesota but bull calves are sold to the beef market. Breed is important and the cows are all Holstein Friesian, which allows a second source of income through beef. A quarter of all beef in the US is from the dairy sector.
They use beef semen on any cow they do not want a replacement from and the heifers are inseminated with sexed semen.
America measures reproductive success by a pregnancy rate, which is how many eligible cows conceive during a 60-day period. On Jer-Lindy they achieve 18-20% (Minnesota University extension targets at least 20%).
Calving year-round means mating year-round. Heat detection is by observation and Jennissen does the artificial insemination. A CDIR is put in non-cycling cows after 90 days. Some cows get up to eight chances to conceive to AI.
Several factors are taken into account when deciding if a cow will be given another chance including age, udder health, overall health and pedigree value. But the difference in cost of continuing to feed a cow for nine months versus raising a calf as a replacement for two years is most important.
Finding labour used to be challenging but in the past year there has been an increase in the number of people who have expressed an interest in working on the farm. The creamery appears to be a drawcard but there are still problems finding the right people.
“We need people who enjoy interacting with others and helping but they also need to understand food safety. There are lots of people with retail and food experience but not as many with animal handling experience,” Jennissen says.
Jer-Lindy runs at a high labour cost in relation to the herd size and production but Jennissen says the tourist venture is time-consuming.
Typically, a worker is paid US$12-$16 an hour (about NZ$18-$24).
A government insurance scheme protects the milk price. Jennissen acknowledges it must be a balancing act between the government support and driving production.
“The new Farm Bill is generous compared to the previous one.”
“I am excited for the subsidies and have locked in 40% of 2020’s milk.”
The family is enthusiastic about what lies ahead for Jer-Lindy and Redhead Creamery.
Their cheeses have won many awards and sales are growing 20% annually.
Sjostrum says they are shifting their focus more to agritourism, which they never anticipated.
“Demand and interest will continue to evolve our business and we will do our best to remain flexible in response to the market while continuing to follow our life goals and values.”