Spring Planting 2018

I feel like every year for the last few years I’ve started spring planting by shaking my head and saying, “This is another interesting year.” Last year we had a lot of rain in January, where everything thawed but then re-froze. Because of that rain, our alfalfa fields took a pretty big hit, and some had to be replanted. It was a wet winter, followed by a wet spring, which meant spring planting was delayed.

This year, our spring planting has been delayed again. But, we’re finally in the fields cutting hay now, and we’ve planted some of the corn and soybeans. It seems like every time the ground is ready to be worked, and it will only be “one more day” until it’s dry enough, we get more rain… Just enough rain to delay us again.

The year started out really dry and everyone was talking about a drought. Now all of a sudden, it is super wet, so we decided to start cutting our hay now. We know it’s early to be cutting hay — it actually isn’t quite ready — but we have to be ready to plant the corn if we get nice, dry weather. This spring, I’m really wishing I had a degree in meteorology!

We’re at the point where if things are ready and look good, we’re hopping in the tractor and going. Last Sunday, I was checking the fields and noticed one looked ready to be worked. So, I just hopped in the tractor and got to work. I kept an eye on the weather forecast for Monday the whole time, and it kept changing. Rain one minute, clear skies the next. By 11:00 p.m., I decided it wasn’t worth it. If I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that I can’t control Mother Nature!

Good luck to all the farmers out there trying to get their crops in! And remember to watch for farm equipment on the roads. We’re doing the best we can and want to get home to our families safely, so please slow down and be safe!

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Meet Our Team: Rick Knoflicek

Here on Majestic Crossing Dairy, we have a team of 18 people that help us get things done every day. Some of the employees here grew up on a farm and have experience working on dairy farms, and others don’t. We are so grateful to have employees that come from many different backgrounds and bring their unique experiences to our farm.

Rick Knoflicek joined the Majestic Crossing team earlier this year as the Assistant Operations Manager. Rick grew up on an 80-cow dairy farm where he milked cows with his dad. In 1996, Rick started his own trucking company and hauled livestock all over the country. Then, this past winter, he wanted to get back to his roots of working on a farm. He parked his truck and started working here at Majestic Crossing.

In the trucking world, the regulations were getting more strict, and it was becoming more and more difficult for him to do his job and haul livestock. He was spending the majority of his nights away from his home and his family. He decided it was time for a change.

Working on the farm was like coming home for Rick. It’s also very different from what he’s been doing for the last 22 years. Rick likes all of the variety that comes with working on the farm. Some days he’s working in the shop; some days he’s working in the barns; some days he’s working in the fields.

Rick appreciates the challenges and the rewards that come with spring planting. Putting the seed in the ground, working through the weather and then being able to see the crop that is grown and harvested. Being back in production agriculture, Rick likes being able to see what was accomplished over the last year, taking that information and knowing if things should be improved or stay the same.

And, Rick is no stranger to Sartori cheese. At every holiday, the Black Pepper Bellavitano makes its way onto the table!

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Automatic Cow Brushes in the Barns

In addition to the robotic milkers we put into the freestall barns, we also added automatic cow brushes. The cow brushes are exactly what they sound like — they’re big, round brushes and give the cows a good back scratch when they are near them. Who doesn’t like to have their back scratched?!

The brushes work automatically. When a cow walks up to a brush and touches the brush with her back, the brush starts rotating. The cows just stand under the brush and get a nice, satisfying scratch for as long as they want. If the cows push too hard on them, the brush will automatically stop moving. We put a few brushes in each pen, and there are always cows using them. An added bonus of the brushes is that they help keep the cows clean.

In all honesty, I didn’t realize how much the cows would love them. Had I known, I would have installed the brushes a long time ago. They are so happy, and that makes me happy. We added the brushes to the barns purely for cow comfort. The cows are relaxed, clean, comfortable and content.

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Robotic Milker Spring Update

In the last couple of months, we’ve really hit our stride with the robotic milkers. We’re learning how to work with the milkers, and the cows are also adjusting well to the new process. We think a big part of it is because we’re adjusting so well to them by continually tweaking and learning as we go.

One thing we’ve noticed recently is that it has been really nice to have cows already know what to do when they come back into the milking groups after having a calf. Since we started using the robotic milkers last year, the cows were used to them before they were in their dry period (the vacation they take from milking before they have a calf). Now, when they come back to the milking herd, they don’t have to be trained to use the robotic milkers.

When we were in the process of putting in the robotic milkers, it was hard to imagine getting to this point — a place where we are more confident in the management of the robotic milkers and working with the cows to use them. There was a lot of stress in the fact that things were working well here before, when we just had the milking parlor. Our system and management weren’t broken, but we decided to make drastic changes anyway.

Our management style has changed since we’ve installed the robotic milking machines. When we milked the cows in the milking parlor, the management was more tailored to a group mentality. In the parlor, we were able to see each cow individually, but her milking time was determined by the entire group. Feeding was the same because all of the cows in each group got the same feed.

Now, it’s almost like going back in time to how we managed the cows when we were in the stanchion barn — on more of an individual basis. Each cow is able to decide when and how long she is milked for. Even for feeding, each cow gets a meal tailored right to her needs when she walks into the robotic milker. Because we have so much information on each cow, we are able to analyze it and make sure she is getting just what she needs.

Happy cows make for happy farmers!

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Ag in the Classroom

I talk a lot about how we believe in supporting our community. We try to be involved and educate not only consumers, but also the youth in the community. In the past, I’ve been able to talk to students in their classrooms, showing them pictures from the farm and explaining what we do on a daily basis. Now, we’ll have the classroom coming to us.

Ag in the Classroom is a program coordinated by Wisconsin’s Farm Bureau that provides teachers and K-12 students with the understanding of how their food is made. The goal of the program is to help students gain a greater awareness of agriculture’s role in the economy and society. In addition to the in-class portion where volunteers, local educators and representatives from agricultural organizations and businesses go into the classroom to teach the students about agriculture, in Sheboygan County we also have an on-farm portion.

Our farm will be the new host farm for Sheboygan County’s Ag in the Classroom program. Two days in early May this year, over 1,000 students will visit the farm. While they’re here, they’ll be able to see what they’ve learned at their desks in action. We’ll be able to educate them about the different things we do on the farm for cow care and milk safety and different ways our farm helps the local economy.

We’re excited for this new adventure! We’re very fortunate to have such a great opportunity within our community to contribute to educating our youth and sharing our story — agriculture’s story — with so many people.

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Spring is on its way

Every year I go to California to attend World Ag Expo. This year, my family came out with me for a few days before the Expo for a nice vacation. I love seeing the new ideas and technology available to the agriculture community. It sure has come a long way since people were working their fields with draft horses pulling plows.

January seemed to be a long month getting our budget finalized and finishing up our planning for 2018. Now, I blinked, and February is done, and we’re halfway through March. This year’s weather hasn’t been as crazy and unpredictable as last year’s. Early in March we got about five inches of snow, but that’s ok. What really hurt us last year was the extreme freezing and thawing we had throughout January and February.

We don’t have any water sitting in the fields at this time of year like we did last year. As of right now, our alfalfa fields should be fine and not need replanting. We always know that anything can happen though — a late spring snow storm followed by 60-degree temperatures. Hopefully that won’t happen this year!

Our winter wheat fields are also looking pretty good. Winter wheat is planted in the fall and harvested in early August as a grain. Winter wheat is used as a cover crop for us, so it prevents soil erosion over winter. One of the benefits of winter wheat, aside from the fact that it’s really easy to manage, is that it helps build organic matter in the soil. The organic matter holds nutrients and water, so it is essential for plant growth.

Right now, we’re in a sort of holding pattern waiting for spring to come. We’ll be ready when it does.

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A NEW day in the life

A while back I wrote about what a cow’s typical day looks like on our farm. Now, for about 800 of those cows, the days look a little bit different. With the addition of the robotic milkers, our cows have a much more leisurely lifestyle.

The main change in our cows’ daily routine is that they don’t have set times to be in the parlor anymore. Now, they can walk to be milked whenever they want during the day. If the cows don’t go up to the milker by themselves, they are put on a list called the “fetch” list, and someone guides them to the robotic milker. Aside from that, they have total freedom as to when they go to the milking machine. The cows have even more time for eating, resting and socializing than when we had them on the parlor milking schedule.

Instead of the cows being away from their pens for around three hours per day, they are now in their pens walking around constantly. Because we renovated our freestall barn to accommodate the robotic milking machines, the cows still have all the same housing perks they had before — fans keeping them cool in the summer, curtains that go up and keep them warm in the winter and constant shade and protection from the outdoor elements. Of course, they still have their free-choice buffet all day long.

The other routines the cows have had are also the same as they were before. Every Tuesday, the veterinarian comes for herd health, where he does consulting, checks the cows for pregnancies, does ultrasounds and makes note of anything we need to be aware of. Twice a year the cows get their hooves trimmed to keep their feet healthy, so that they can continue to  get to their feed, water and the robotic milker easily and comfortably.

So far, the cows have been happier than ever with the new robotic milking machines and their new lifestyle!

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Robotic milkers and employees working together on the farm

Now that we’ve added the robotic milking machines, a lot of people think we don’t need people around the barns because the machines take care of all the milking. Even with thirteen robotic milkers on the farm, we still need people outside in the barns pretty much around the clock.

Every night we have one or two people out in the barns working. Small adjustments need to be made to the milkers, like tightening hoses or replacing milker cups if a cow kicks the unit off. Also, the lenses that locate where the cows’ teats often need to be wiped clean.

The robots’ computer system is available on a mobile phone app, so whenever something happens and the robotic milker isn’t working correctly, a mobile notification will be sent to the employee working at the time. The employee can go directly to the machine that needs adjusting and fix the issue. On farms that have one or two robotics milkers, there isn’t a need to have someone in the barns constantly, so this app is key.

Even though the robots are automatically milking the cows, there is a certain percentage of cows that need to be “fetched.” Cows on the “fetch” list are ones that don’t walk themselves to the robotic milker. These cows tend to be at the end of their lactation, so they aren’t milking very much anymore. They are starting to dry up and preparing to have a calf. The “fetch” list is generated on the computer, and is based on the cows who haven’t been milked for a certain number of hours. Once they are at the robotic milking machine and have the grain offered to them, the “fetch” cows are more than happy to be milked. They just need a little bit of motivation!

Aside from checking the robots and making sure they’re doing their job, there are other things happening at night, too. Cows may be calving, and barn alleys need to be scraped. We are consistently milking around 800 cows with the robotic milkers. There is always plenty of work to be done around the farm!

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A different farm tour

We give a lot of farm tours every year. From restaurant owners, to cheese makers, to people in other industries, to dairy farmers from other countries, we enjoy sharing our farm with people from all different types of backgrounds. For the past 20 years, I’ve pretty much stuck to the same routine for all of our tours.

The route I take on the tours hasn’t changed much over the years, but now with the robotic milkers installed, we have something completely new to show our guests. The robots are still new and exciting for all of us here at the farm, so it’s a lot of fun for me to explain. It’s cutting-edge technology, and we’re very proud to be an innovative farm in the area that can show this new technology and advancement in the dairy industry.

One of the things tour guests tend to be the most surprised about is how quiet the barns are. They look around and see a very calm and comfortable environment — cows laying in their waterbeds, eating at their “buffet,” or walking up to the robot to be milked.

On a lot of the tours, one of the favorite stops is the maternity pen. Every once in a while, people can see a cow give birth to a calf, and it’s always the highlight of the tour when that happens!

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A challenging year ahead

January is always a trying month as we work on finalizing our budget for the upcoming year. This is when a crystal ball would come in handy! Our process usually involves creating a first-round of the budget and then deciding what we can cut from there.

Looking back, 2017 was an interesting year. And, looking forward, unfortunately the 2018 milk-price forecast isn’t that great. The milk price hasn’t been horrible by any means — especially compared to what we saw a few years ago — but it seems like the prices for everything else has gone up. For example, with all of our recent construction, we had to buy a new manure pump. We bought almost the exact same pump back in 2009, and this past year, it was almost double the cost of what it was then. This is the reality of what farmers are dealing with right now.

As with every year, the plan is to use as much of our own feed as we can instead of having to buy feed, but in January, it is very difficult to predict what the fields will yield nine months from now. We look at the additives (vitamins and minerals) we put in the feed and decide if we can live without something for a little while without sacrificing any milk quality and animal health. Both are always a priority, so before we make cuts, we make sure they stay the same.

We also try to take advantage of every discount we can find. Buying seeds early, buying other items in bulk, paying up front for purchases… A lot of companies offer discounts for doing these kinds of things.

When it comes to budgeting, we believe in starting with the big picture and then cutting it down. With the huge addition of robotic milkers last year, we have to be especially conscious of our budget plans for 2018. But, I have all the confidence that we will make it work, just like we do every year.

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