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This is the first in a two-part series "Farming into the Future" that explores the opportunities for farmers to be successful in this industry despite the economic challenges.

Crossing the stage three years ago at his graduation ceremony at Lakeshore Technical College,  Evan Schrauth had more on his mind than accepting his diploma. Within 48 hours, the 19-year-old was prepared to walk into the Farm Service Agency and sign loan papers that would help bring him one step closer to his dream.

"I came home from school one day and told my parents that if I'm going to farm, I'm going to do it on my own," Schrauth said. "My parents weren't really fond of the idea because they knew the hardship associated with farming."

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A lot of people bet against Evan Schrauth, saying the 19 yo could never get a dairy operation off the ground.-- 3 years later he's proving them wrong Colleen Kottke, Wisconsin State Farmer

Despite their misgivings, Schrauth wasn't deterred from pursuing a passion fostered inside him since he was a preschooler.

"My parents sold the cows when I was just 4, but I tagged along with my dad at his job at a large dairy until I was in 6th grade. I convinced them to let me milk cows and do chores at Jim and Evie Flasch's farm," said Schrauth.

When the Flasch family sold their herd two years later, they gave Schrauth a young calf which he named Hillary, after his grandfather. Hillary's daughter, Sabrina, is now one of Schrauth's best cows in the barn. 

"I have a special place in my heart for her because she reminds me of the days when I first learned to milk cows," Schrauth said with a laugh.

While attending Lomira High School, Schrauth began feeding cows at a dairy farm near Brownsville as part of a School to Work program. Following graduation, Schrauth sold his small collection of dairy animals to his father's employer and headed to FVTC to earn a degree in dairy herd management. 

"I told him that I would only sell the cattle to him with the condition that I could buy them back if I ever got the crazy idea that I want to start farming," said Schrauth, who continued to work on dairy farms all through college.

Schrauth said the notion to own his own farm took root during a class project requiring students to fill out loan applications.

"I figured as long as I'm filling this out, why not fill out an FSA application and start milking my own cows?" he said. "I think FSA loan officer Kelli Youngbeck was a little bit skeptical because I was only 18 at the time and still in college, but we sat down and crunched the numbers."

By living at home and renting a barn, Schrauth felt that he could cash flow the operation, with the provision that he continue to work at the Brownsville farm for extra income.

"My plan was to milk 40 cows, be a full-time herdsman at the other farm, trying to do both at the same time," Schrauth said.

While Schrauth was slowly starting to build his little herd, he had to ready an old milking barn that had sat empty for many years.

"My dad and I, along with the rest of my family, put in a lot of sweat equity cleaning and getting everything ready," Schrauth said. "In the meantime I was buying cows and calves and housing them here, there and everywhere."

A month later Schrauth moved his animals into the barn along Highway 67 just east of Lomira and began milking. He said that milestone would not have been possible without the help of Norm Fleischman, fieldman for Family Dairies/Farm First Co-op.

Schauth connect with the friendly fieldman while researching quality sheets at different milk processing plants as part of another class assignment at FVTC.

During the conversation, Schrauth would offhandedly ask whether or not they were taking on new clients, most responded no. Except for Fleischman.

"He told me that if I ever milked cows he would take my milk. He helped me through the process and even stopped in at the farm a few times. He was a really nice mentor to have," he said of the now late fieldman.

Things were moving fast forward for Schrauth who says he had initially planned tp wait a year after graduation, working to set money aside before applying for a loan.

"I was afraid if I did that, I might get too content and never do it. It was really now or never," he said. "Looking back, I'm glad I did it or I would have never gotten into a milk plant."

Getting started was relatively easy compared to the lean months that followed the elation of that first milking.

"For Christmas that year I asked for a silage fork and a pair of shoes. I had nothing left in my bank account and it was to the point that if another thing broke, it was over," Schrauth said. "A lot of people in the area said things like 'he'll never make it', 'it will never work',  and 'why is he doing this?' A couple even had bets on how many months I would last.

"The cows still weren't producing as well as I thought they should...I even had doubts. That was a lot of stress for a 19-year-old," he added.

With the steadfast help of his family, friends and neighbors, Schrauth got through the winter. By the spring of 2016 things began to turn the corner. Working together with his long-time girlfriend, Taylor Klein, the couple began to see the their hard work bear fruit with increased milk production and low somatic cell counts.

"Both of us know the cows and we strive for consistency," he pointed out. "Right now we're milking around 70 head and are raising heifer calves and a few bull calves for market and some as potential studs."

As a dedicated cow man, Schrauth says he has opted to purchase feed for his herd from what he calls a good, reliable source. 

"If I had to make my own feed I might as well sell my cows because I don't like tractors, I'd rather spend the day with cows," he said. "Besides, how is a guy with 70 cows, just starting, out that doesn't have a whole lot to his name, going to compete against the large dairies and cash croppers for the land?" 

Schrauth says he had hoped to buy the milking barn near Lomira. Unfortunately the owner sold the barn out from under him and gave notice that the farm was to be vacated by November. In the meantime, Schrauth applied for another loan to purchase additional cattle and a small farm.

"We had looked at quite a few options for renting or buying, but we weren't going to settle on a place just to keep milking cows if it wasn't just as good or a better environment for the cows than what they were living in at the time," Klein said. "Besides, we also had to live by what the milk processor wanted."

The waiting for loan approval was nearly as agonizing with dead end leads and rejected offers.

"The decision on whether or not we got the loan really would decide whether or not the cows would be sold," Schrauth said. "I felt that I had worked too hard to give up just because we couldn't find a place."

Luck was with Schrauth and Klein after Youngbeck informed them of a farm in the town of Oakfield that featured a larger milking barn and calf facility, as well as a house and more pasture ground.

"Our offer was accepted and hopefully the farm will fit our needs for a long time to come," Klein said. 

Schrauth says he knows farmers are still struggling with reduced income and tight profit margins but believes there is still a place in the industry for young farmers.

He says it's sad to hear that many aspiring youth — including children of dairy farmers — are being steered away from seeking careers as a dairy farmer.

"That's what my dream was. But I don't know how someone can start out from the bottom up like I did unless you can find someone to work with and hopefully take over because the chance of finding a market for your milk is about zero right now," he said. "But still, I don't want to be like the person that told me that I couldn't do this.

But Schrauth got lucky. A lot of people realized how much he loved the business and reached out a helping hand or offered encouragement. And he hopes to be doing this for many years to come.

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