COLUMNISTS

After a successful run, Bjorges say it's time to sell the cows

John Oncken
Bob and Chris farmed together since 1986.

There were just about 7,000 licensed dairy herds in Wisconsin at the beginning of the year and fewer today and every day thereafter. A look at the auction listings in last week’s Wisconsin State Farmer advertised six dairy herd dispersals; four in Wisconsin and two in adjoining states, Minnesota and Iowa.  Here’s a list:

  • April 28—125 Holstein cows and heifers, Fergus Falls, MN
  • April 28—30 High  quality Holstein cows, New Richmond
  • April 29—28 Holstein tiestall cows, Bloomfield, IA
  • April 29—40 head of high grade dairy cows, Browntown 
  • April 29—190 Holstein cows, near 27,000 milk average, Dodgeville
  • April 30—90 cows, 28,000 herd average, Seymour

All are listed as “retirement” or complete dispersals with three being very small herds and three selling near or over 100 cows. One of those, the 190 cow herd at Dodgeville is owned by Bob and Chris Bjorge who I have written about (several times) on these pages over the course of many years.

The barn is now empty.

Time to sell the cows

The Bjorges are great people and great dairy producers and are selling their herd because as Chris says: “We are getting older, (Bob is nearing 70), it’s a lot of work and the milk price is seldom very stable".  

This is another normal, over the course of life retirement of hard working, successful farmers who now want to move into a retirement mode. Here is some of what I wrote about the Bjorges and their dairy operation in September 2013.

The milking herd was housed in a freestall barn.

Family farm since 1966

The Bjorge dairy dates back to 1966 when Bernard and Lucille Bjorge who had been renting a dairy in the Elkhorn area fulfilled their ambition to be in business for themselves by purchasing a farm in Iowa County near Dodgeville. 

Bob was the only one (of the five children) that stayed on the farm. He attended UW's Farm & Industry Short Course, began buying needed farm equipment and ultimately formed a partnership with his parents. 

Bought the farm

Robert "Bob" and Christine "Chris" Bjorge were married in 1986 and began dairying in partnership with Bob's dad, between Dodgeville and Ridgeway. Upon the retirement of his parents in 1988, Bob and Chris purchased the farm. 

Started small

They, like so many dairy farmers, started with a relatively small dairy herd and have grown over the years, but it wasn't easy.

"You'll remember that the mid- to late '80s were the years of the 'farm crisis' and 1988 still goes down as the driest of the dry years," Bob says. "We bought hay from Illinois, added water and put it into the silo. We sold all our livestock except for our 60 milking cows and the heifers." 

They survived those tough years and grew their farm and family and in 1999 built a freestall barn with pasture mats and wood shavings for cow comfort and the milking parlor to ease labor.

Over the years, the dairy herd gradually grew from 60 to 120 to 130 and finally to 170 milking cows. Unlike many expanding dairy farms, the Bjorges did not add a lot of employees as farming operations remained mostly in the hands of Bob and Chris: She milking morning and night, he responsible for the feeding and cropping. 

Bob Bjorge did the feeding and crop work.

Barn and a parlor

Along the way they added heifer and calf barns, a second Slurry Store and two more Harvestores to the existing three that Bob's dad had built. The Double 8 parlor was built into one end of the white, round roof, traditional dairy barn with the rest of the barn (the bigger portion) serving as the holding area. The former areas where cows stood serve as entrance and exit lanes to and from the parlor. There are no headlocks, rather the Bjorges have a chute at the end of the exit lane in which cows to be bred or looked at by a veterinarian can be held.

"It works very well." Bob says. 

The Bjorges raise their cows and heifers on a rather small farmstead located on a side hill on which everything works together and is truly labor efficient. 

The feed room is located just off one side of the barn and is truly the center of all feeding operations. The total mixed ration travels overhead to outside feeders for young stock and dry cows and into the freestall barn for the milking cows.

Dry cows and heifers were fed in an outdoor feeder.

"I can adjust the ration for each side of the freestall, a 48- by 250-foot building with 150 stalls." Bob explains. "The system works great." 

The Bjorges have two Slurry Stores that hold some 900,000 gallons of manure and are pumped twice yearly. The manure is applied to fields by Bob, who owns his own tanker. 

Chris Bjorge, in addition to being the milking guru, is the farm accountant and record keeper.

"I use a computer program called "Stock Keeper," she says. "It's easy to use and works well for me." 

Chris Bjorge milked the cows for many years.

Lots of milk

The 170 cows have a rolling herd average of 23,500 pounds of milk that is shipped to Stockton Cheese in Illinois and farm 340 acres, much of it contoured and strip cropped.

"It's been that way forever," Bob says.

The 170 acres of alfalfa is put in the Harvestores as is the corn. They buy dry hay in big bales locally. 

The Bjorges hosted the Iowa county June Dairy Breakfast on the Farm in 2000 but have since added cows and several buildings. The current 170-cow dairy farm is the result of a gradual process, truly something to be proud of. 

Bob and Chris have two children. Jenny, a UW-River Falls graduate who is now in her final year at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine. She plans to be a large animal veterinarian. Their son Jeff, who attended Southwest Wisconsin Technical College at Fennimore, is now an electrician apprentice. 

“We’ll see,” they said

"Son Jeff doesn't plan to be a farmer," Bob and Chris agree. "Jenny is a farmer at heart but who knows where her career will lead her? We have some time left - we'll see." 

The Bjorges, who have tripled their cow numbers over 27 years are happy with their current size. They were prime examples of farmers who have quietly grown their dairies and strengthened their position as independent family farmers when that was written in 2013 and in 2021 

The now

Today, in April 2021 the herd has 190 cows with a 26,800 lb. milk average. Son Jeff is an electrician at Fennimore and daughter Jenny is a veterinarian in Seymour. And the cows sold at auction on April 29th and I’d bet went at top prices to dairy producers seeking more milk. 

And now the the Bjorges are ready for a new chapter in life and are ready to farm without dairy cows (maybe some steers). They have done what most people seek to do: lead a successful professional career and now ready to enjoy the fruits of that work.  That’s what life is about, isn’t it?

John Oncken,  can be reached at 608-837-7406, or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.