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Marshall Korn of Atwater, Minn., has distinguished himself as producing some of the healthiest somatic cell counts in First District Association cooperative creamery based in Litchfield, Minn. (Mikkel Pates / Agweek)

South Dakota couple finds support for small herd in Minnesota

ATWATER, Minn. — In a few months, Marshall Korn and his wife, Melanie, will have milked cows for nearly a decade.

At age 32, Korn has taken an unusual, circuitous route to a small dairy dream, from South Dakota to Minnesota.

So, what brings the couple to Atwater, Minn.? Marshall says he was disappointed when he visited the Farm Service Agency in Minnehaha County, Sioux Falls, looking for financing help. “They really weren’t interested in someone wanting to milk less than 300 cows, in essence,” Marshall says. “The FSA guy literally laughed at me.”

So he went next door.

In Minnesota, he found the encouragement he needed to embrace a traditional craft, with its traditional commitments. The couple milk at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m., daily, with no outside help. They can count on two hands the number of days they’ve had off in 10 years, but say they’re happy anyway.

“You have to pick your battles,” Marshall says, smiling.

Dakota connection

Marshall was born in Willmar, Minn. His grandparents, Calvin and Alice Korn, milked cows on a 30-head dairy near Clara City, Minn.

“I was always around cows, since I was a little kid,” Marshall says.

When he was 12, his parents moved the family to Garretson, S.D., about 20 miles northeast of Sioux Falls. His father worked at a power plant in Brandon, S.D. That same year, his grandparents retired from dairying, not wanting to replace a rickety stanchion-style barn.

While in high school, Marshall worked for dairying brothers Brian and Steve Howe in Garretson. The Howes milked about 250 cows and had a parlor with a free-stall barn, and a cropping operation. “They kind of took me under their wing,” Marshall recalls, noting he was handling herdsman chores at age 15.

Marshall graduated from Garretson High School in 2001. He attended Ridgewater College in Willmar, where he acquired a two-year degree in farm business management and dairy. As a South Dakota resident, he was kind of the “odd man out,” Marshall says. “Most of the guys I went to college with were smaller dairy farmers from Minnesota,” he says. “There must have been 16 of us, and I’ll bet 10 to 12 of them were planning to milk less than 100 cows.”

The original plan was to go back and work for the Howes. But he befriended classmate Daryl Rylaarsdam, a hired man for Bill and Merri Post, who owned a dairy farm near Chandler, Minn. He would travel home with Rylaarsdam and struck up a friendship with Merri, who he describes as a “big sister” in dairying. She who worked off-farm as a dairy development specialist with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

About the same time, he met Melanie DeCramer, who had grown up in Edgerton, Minn., about 20 miles east of Garretson and about six miles from Chandler, Minn. Marshall and “Mel” were a couple — married in a private ceremony, with only parents and grandparents as witnesses, on Dec. 17, 2005.

Cloud of advisers

Minnesota seems to have embraced the Korn couple’s dream. They qualified for a $3,000 grant through the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and immediately sought help in finding land to start their operation.

In addition to Post, Jim Salfer, a University of Minnesota regional dairy educator at St. Cloud, also helped them look for dairies around Edgerton they could buy or rent.

In October 2005, they located a tie-stall stanchion barn in Pierz, Minn., in Morrison County. The owner offered to rent, with an option to buy on a contract-for-deed, if the Korns would separately buy the 51-cow dairy herd on a contract-for-deed.

They started milking on Nov. 27, 2005, but six months later, the landlord changed his mind. Taxes had gone up. The Korns had 30 days to buy the farm or vacate.

They loaded up the Pierz cows and moved to Edgerton, where they started milking on May 6, 2006. They bought 30 more cows with an FSA loan, and bought a John Deere 4020 tractor, a manure spreader and a skid-steer loader. Melanie picked up a part-time factory job in town to help make ends meet.

Soon, they ran into challenges.

Their 50 stanchion cows thrived, but the 30 they’d bought couldn’t make the adjustment to the indoors, suffering from swollen knees and breed-back failures. The Korns sold 15 of them after the first month and only had five of the 30 after one year.

In late summer 2007, the rent ramped up and they started looking for a place to buy.

Kandiyohi ho

Al Nelson, a Minnesota state dairy inspector they met in Pierz, told them about a dairy that had been sitting empty near Atwater after the death of the dairyman. The Korns closed on the deal April 15, 2008, and started milking on May 6.

The Atwater location totaled 20 acres, including 10 acres of the farmstead and 10 acres of pasture, meaning they had to buy the bulk of their feed.

They get silage corn from a neighbor, and the hay comes from a high school friend in Garretson, S.D. Among other things, they put in automatic take-offs for the milking machines, installed mats for cow comfort and bought a new Total Mixed Ration mixer.

Initially, the barns held 50 cows, and the Korns milked 25 more that were kept outside and rotated in for milking — a total of 75 cows. It was a lot of work for both of them. Their first son, Sam, was born Dec. 12, 2010, and they quit rotating cows outside Feb. 14, 2011. They’ve modified the barns to milk 55 today.

Marshall started milking the standard black-and-white Holsteins, but has shifted to the “red factor,” and has added Guernseys, Ayrshires and a few Swiss, and milking shorthorns from quality herds. About 65 percent of the herd now are breeds other than Holsteins, and he plans to have 80 percent red breeds in about four years.

“For us, it works better in the tie stall barn,” Marshall says. “My little boy can run around screaming his head off, making train noises, but them old Guernseys just keep eating.”

And it made financial sense. The Holsteins were averaging 70 to 72 pounds of milk per day, with up to 3.6 percent butterfat and 2.9 percent protein.

Today, the cows average 60 to 65 pounds of milk per day, but they’re delivering 4 percent to 4.1 percent butterfat and 3.1 percent to 3.15 percent protein.

Fortunate so far

Despite their moves, the Korns say they’ve been fortunate in many ways. When they started dairying, their first 10 calves were females — a big deal in dairies. Most years, they have been lucky enough to run 60 to 70 percent female calves. They have uncommonly low death rates.

“Our biggest advantage has been (somatic) cell count,” Marshall says, regarding the indicator for mastitis disease in dairy cows.

In the past six years, the farm always averages under 50,000 white cells per milliliter. Their lowest cell count has been 20,000, while the industry standard is 100,000 cells per milliliter for healthy cows.

The First District Association, a cooperative that buys their milk in nearby Litchfield, Minn., has recognized the Korns for producing the lowest raw cell count in the county, and in the top 10 percent of the creamery, with 1,500 patrons.

The dairy business is volatile. Prices were good in 2005, but declined in 2006. In 2007, the milk prices were higher, but grain costs also were high. The years 2009, 2010 and 2011 weren’t very good, but 2013 and 2014 were outstanding

They’re trying to find land, but that’s difficult. “The biggest enemy of the small dairy farmer is the big crop farmer,” Marshall says.

When prices collapsed in 2009, the Korns felt fortunate that officials of the Farm Business Management Program helped them. Marshall singles out Sarah Roerick, a dairy farmer and Central Minnesota Dairy Profit Team coordinator, as well as cash flow and financial planning help from Zach Rada, an instructor at Ridgewater College.

“If it wasn’t for Zach, we would never have survived 2009,” Marshall says. “He helped us work with the FSA. We had to redo our notes because we couldn’t pay. He gave us financial advice on how to best spend whatever we had left.” When prices were good, the Korns paid down debt. “There’s a lot more hope going into this low than into the last low,” Marshall says.

Bracing for ‘16

Marshall thinks dairy producers are in for a rough year ahead, financially.

“It ain’t going to be pretty,” he says. “I think the price is going to be about $14 per hundredweight of milk for the first six months, and $15 to $16 per hundredweight for the next six months. Most people’s break-even is $18 per hundredweight. The upside is that feed is cheap, but the downside of that we only have milk and livestock to sell.”

Regardless, Melanie is on board. She says the small dairy is a good fit for her family, and thinks small businesses offer a bigger “multiplier effect” for governments to support. “Plus, I get to be with my kids every day, watch them grow up,” she says. “I get to see them experience new things, including the cows.”

Mikkel Pates is a staff writer for Agweek. To subscribe to the weekly agriculture magazine, call 800- 811-2580 or email subscriptions@agweek.com.

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