A cheesy twist on farm succession

By Dairy News

AS A teenager, Alise Sjostrom told her father she would take over the family’s dairy farm.

But she would not be milking cows.

Instead, the redheaded 16-year-old would put her own touch on their registered Holstein business.

She would make cheese.

This dream became a reality in the autumn of 2014 when the first cheese from Redhead Creamery came off the production line.

This farmstead, artisan cheese was made just mere metres from the dairy and barn where Alise’s parents Jerry and Linda Jennissen run more than 200 registered Holstein and Brown Swiss.

Now Redhead Creamery sells produce through distributors in capital cities, at markets and online, and has a thriving on-farm café where agri-tourism — including a new annual “Curd Festival” — has further diversified the dairy operation.

About 100 pounds of cheese (45 kg) is produced a week on-farm at North Fork, a town north-west of Minneapolis in the US state of Minnesota.

The creamery uses about 7 per cent of the herd’s total production, with cheese production two-to-three days a week. About 12 pounds (5.4 kg) of cheese is produced for every 100 pounds of milk (45 kg), according to Jerry.

A pipe runs from the eight-a-side double-up herringbone dairy straight across to the specially designed cheese-making facility and Jerry explained the creamery has a “waiver” from the United States Department of Agriculture to take warm milk.

Normally the milk would have to be cooled to 45 degrees Fahrenheit (7.2 degrees Celsius).

Calves are kept in individual hutches at the Jer-Lindy Farms, which supplies the milk to the Redhead Creamery, for Bovine Johne’s Disease management.

In late July, Alise and her husband Lucas paid $US0.20 cents a pound for the milk ($A0.60¢/kg) for use in the creamery, with the remainder of the farm’s production sold to Minnesota cheese production Co-operative Bongards for about $US0.18 cents a pound ($A0.59¢/kg).

Jer-Lindy Farms, which is 101ha, with an extra 27 ha leased, is a separate business to the creamery.

Milking 180 cows housed in a barn and feeding a total mixed ration, Jerry said his cost of production was about $US17 cents a pound ($A0.55¢/kg) “all included”.

Margins are tight and Jerry was coy when asked about how the creamery and agri-tourism ventures had helped the farm’s bottom line.

“For the past five years, the creamery has made its payments,” he said.

“But there’s been nothing extra for us.

“We’ve worked hard to cut costs. We have a long list of things we’d like to replace.”

When Dairy News Australia spoke with Jerry, he was waiting for news of how much money he would be eligible for under the US government’s most recent Farm Bill.

“It better be coming, I’ve already written the cheques out,” he joked.

Like many family farms his size, Jerry lamented the rise of larger farms and how, through scale, they were able to drive down production costs.

He said there were about 1600 family farms in his region of Minnesota when he and wife Linda bought their first 16 ha at North Fork 36 years ago, he believed there were less than 400 now.

Apart for diversifying the farm business, Jerry believed increasing production would help his business compete with the lower production costs of the large farms. They were also investigating beef production as a second income, and hoped this could be sold through the cheese shop.

The predominately Holstein herd averages about 25 000 pounds/milk/cow/lactation (11 340 kg/cow/lactation) with a 4.1 per cent butterfat and 3.2 per cent protein.

Alise Sjostrom is the CEO and president of Redhead Creamery, a farmstead and artisan cheese business in the US. She studied cheese production and worked in several roles within the industry before returning to her family farm.

Genetics is one way they plan to lift production, with the top 15 per cent of the herd genomically tested and mated accordingly. Sexed semen is used on some heifers while older cows have been joined to sexed Angus semen in a bid to develop the beef-arm of the business.

“We are aiming to get the bottom 20 per cent of the (dairy) herd joined to beef,” Jerry said.

Bull calves stay at the property for one month and then are raised by Alise’s husband Lucas’ parents and sold into the beef market.

Dairy heifers are mated on signs of their first heat at 13-months-old. All heat detection is done “with our eyes” Jerry explained, but if a cow shows no signs of heat 90 days post-calving an ovulation synchronisation program will be implemented.

All animals are fed a free choice total mixed ration in barns or stalls. Calves are housed in individual hutches away from the main herd for Bovine Johne’s Disease management and to monitor health and weight-gain and prevent the spread of potential illness.

The TMR includes bailage — with lucerne — and a little soybean meal with a salt mineral mix. Pregnant cows and heifers are fed a low-potassium grass hay and the ‘refusal’ from the milking herd. Most of the feed is produced on-farm.

The businesses labour cost were “too high” per hundred weight of milk, according to Jerry, but he didn’t provide the figure. He said about eight people were employed across the entire business and each milking included three staff — two milking and one at the back of the yard bringing in cows from the barn.

“With the agri-tourism though, we have to spend two-to-three hours more a day getting the farm ready for tourists,” Jerry explained.

Wages were $US12-$16/hour ($A17-$23).

Dairy animals are fed a total mixed ration diet and kept together in their age groups at Jer-Lindy Farms.

Farm tours run at the weekend, where Jerry spends a lot of time debunking myths about dairy production and explaining vaccination and health requirements.

Last year the family hosted their first Curd Fest with 700 people attending. The festival is a celebration of cheese, but specifically curds, and included live music and farm tours.

This year numbers swelled to 1200. There are plans to develop this part of the business.

As for the cheese production, Jerry said interest continued to grow with the café also gaining in popularity.

Some of the cheeses include Lucky Linda Clothbound Cheddar, aged six-plus months; this won fourth in its category at the US Cheese Championships Contest this year and sixth in its class at the World Championships. Also, North Fork Whiskey Washed Muster, a wheel aged 4–16 weeks, which came third in the Artisan Cheese competition at the Minnesota State Fair this year, as well as fresh cheese curds and Little Lucy Brie — named after Alise’s daughter.

When it comes to the succession plan, Jerry has accepted nothing will stay the same.

“(The next generation) might be able to make big money out by farming and not milking cows,” he joked.

“Perhaps they will have robots.”

- Simone Smith reporting from USA