Olivia Hennes becomes first-generation farm owner of Ovina Holsteins

Dan Hansen
Correspondent
Olivia Hennes is surrounded by several calves that are part of her growing dairy herd.

SEYMOUR, Wis. – It’s almost always a positive sign for the future of the dairy industry when a new generation takes the reins of the family farm, but it’s likely even more significant when a young adult’s love of dairy cows leads them to become a first-generation farm owner.

Earlier this year Olivia Hennes, 25, took a leap of faith and purchased a farm northeast of Seymour. Although she probably didn’t realize it until fairly recently, the purchase was something for which she had been preparing since she was 8 years old.

Sitting in her farm office, Hennes recently shared with Wisconsin State Farmer some of the steps on her long journey to farm ownership.

The daughter of an A.I. technician, Hennes’ love for farming sprouted at a young age as she tagged along to farms with her father. The farmers loved to see her and let Hennes feed calves and help with other chores, and she gained a genuine affection for farm life and especially for the animals. 

“Everyone was so nice to me,” she recalled.

When she was in the third grade, one of the farmers asked Hennes if she would be interested showing a calf at the county fair.

“I was a pretty shy kid, but I ended up saying yes. I wasn’t into sports but showing calves was something I enjoyed,” she explained.

Mentoring partnerships

“Two years later, my dad bought some embryos and asked one of his clients, Marvin Karweick, if he could put the embryos into some of his heifers,” she said. The goal was to get a bull into stud, and Karweick would share in the profits with Hennes and her father.

“We put three embryos in and they all settled,” Hennes said. “We got two heifers – Basil and Juletta, and a bull named Flawless. All the stars aligned, and he went to stud right out of the gate.”

The early success led the trio to implant more embryos, and a total of four bulls made it to stud. Hennes and Karweick split ownership on the original animals. From a combination of Olivia’s and Marvin’s names came Ovina Holsteins, which Hennes continues to use for her farm today.

“I did embryos and flushing for a lot of years and started buying show cattle here and there,” Hennes said. “Marvin let me house my animals at his place.”

However, when Karweick was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, Hennes had to find a new home for her cattle. She had about eight head when Bruce Martin approached Hennes about buying Karweick’s half of the cattle and offered to house them on his farm.

“Like Marvin, Bruce was one of the people who was more kind than they have to be,” Hennes said. 

Hennes and her parents, Dave and Jeanne, had planned for her to sell her cattle before she started college. Instead, she continued growing her herd. While in high school, she received a $1,000 grant from the Seymour FFA Alumni to put toward an embryo flush, which resulted in many heifers.

“What my parents didn’t count on is that I really liked the cows,” she said.

In 2012, while still in high school, Hennes began working for Bob Schlimm who became another valuable mentor, and continued working for the dairy farmer throughout college

“I would come home from college every summer and milk cows for him,” she said. 

A summer sunrise greets Olivia Hennes as she heads out for the morning milking.

Farming after college

After graduating from Seymour High School, Hennes enrolled in the dairy herd management program at Lakeshore Technical College and then earned her bachelors degree in dairy science from UW-Plattville.

Following her graduation from college in 2017, Hennes continued milking her herd of 12 cows at Schlimm’s farm.

“Bob taught me a lot,” Hennes said. “He taught me how to use tools, operate machinery, and drive a skidloader.”

Schlimm was retiring and helped Hennes get on her feet. Thanks to the project she and her parents started years prior, Hennes came out of school with little debt. 

During her time partnering with Karweick and other farmers, Hennes continued embryo flushing, making breeding choices and marketing the animals, while splitting profits.

Her own farm

Hennes began thinking seriously about farm ownership, in January of this year.

“I take the farm management class each year at Fox Valley Technical College with Sara Maass-Pate, and Sara called after Christmas to tell me of a farm that might be up for sale, and told me I should look at it if I was interested.”

That farm was owned by Merlin and Peggy Rohm, also first-generation farmers, from whom she eventually purchased the farm. Since they received help once, too, the Rohms wanted to pay it forward by helping another first-generation farmer get started. They timed the sale of their cows with the sale of the farm, so the barn only sat empty for a month. 

Hennes moved her cows April 16 and closed on the farm April 22. The following week, she moved to the property as well. 

“Everything went as seamless as it possibly could,” said Hennes, who has spent the last seven months settling into her new home and farm.

The barn includes four maternity pens and a stationary TMR mixer upstairs. She started feeding a total mixed ration the day the cows moved in, and as a result, milk production went up 17 pounds per cow per day. She also has the option to send TMR to the outdoor bunk. 

A heifer barn with various-sized free stalls and individual calf stalls is attached to the tiestall barn along with a commodity shed where Hennes stores sawdust that is used for bedding. A loafing barn and freestall shed are connected to the main barn as well. In addition, the farm includes a heated shop and a large shed, but her only equipment is a skidloader and two blowers. 

Hennes owns seven acres and purchases her feed. She is also working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to turn 22 rented acres into pasture, and plans to raise heifers on pasture during warm months and rotationally graze. 

“I’d like to increase acreage someday,” she said. “My goal is to provide 20% of my cows’ diet from grass and 80% from TMR, which would give me the health benefits of pasture without losing production.”

Growing herd

Hennes built her herd over a 15-year timespan and now has about 100 head of livestock. She milks 45 cows in the farm’s 62-stall tiestall barn which she hopes to fill in the next year.  

“I buy cows as I can afford them from small, closed herds,” Hennes said. “I look for nice, vaccinated cows. That’s my buying strategy if the price is right. The cows are my babies, and they all have names.”

Many of the heifers are bred with sexed semen. Hennes also breeds quite a bit of beef, and calves born in winter are often Limousin crosses.

“It doesn’t make financial sense to raise more heifers than I need,” Hennes said. “I try to limit the amount of heifers I have; I would rather buy a cow.”

Her dad breeds and pregnancy checks her animals. 

Hennes ships her milk to Red Barn, a small area artisan cheese plant that pays a premium for milk but only buys from small herds with outdoor and pasture access.

“Red Barn has high standards, and you’re held accountable,” Hennes said. “I have to undergo a Humane Society inspection, which is more intense than a regular farm inspection. But I do get paid more for my milk, and have a reliable income, which helps with cash flow.”

From Karweick to Schlimm to Martin, Hennes has a long list of mentors, including people she met through 4-H and FFA. 

“Without them, things wouldn’t have worked out for me like they did,” Hennes said. “When it comes to caring for cattle, Sue Christensen and Debra Kiersch also were really good mentors to me,” she said. 

Hennes believes it’s important to keep younger people involved in agriculture, including those who don’t grow up on farms.

“Share what you’re good at with people who want to learn, and if people share with you, be thankful and don’t take it for granted.”