Stearns County dairy farms made up 22 percent of the herds highlighted by the state for top-quality milk this year.
But the top producer on the Department of Agriculture’s newest list, a Stearns County family farm, sold its cows last November after four years in the red.
For more than 10 years, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture has celebrated farms with the lowest somatic cell counts, a measure for milk quality. Lower counts are better for cheese production and shelf life for bottled milk, according to department.
Daniel and Jolene Schlangen have kept low somatic cell counts and been recognized for their efforts by the state and dairy cooperative First District Association for 15 years, Daniel Schlangen said.They were at the top of the state list released this month.
“We just loved what we did,” Schlangen said Thursday. “We were extremely proud of what we were doing.”
The couple sold off their herd late last year — about 170 red and white Holsteins, he said. “Four consecutive years of complete red ink, you can’t survive that.”
It’s a tough time to be a farmer in the U.S. Labor prices are high and milk prices are low. First District Association has had more than the average number of farm quits this year, said CEO Clint Fall.
Lower somatic cell counts make milk more valuable to producers, according to a Wednesday press release from the Department of Agriculture.
“It’s especially important to recognize these dairy farmers at a time when milk prices are low and the dairy industry is struggling,” said Department Commissioner Dave Frederickson in the release. “Despite this adversity, these producers have worked hard to improve the management of their herds to reach this level of excellence.”
Minnesota groups have worked with dairy farmers for 15 years to lower somatic cell counts in an initiative called Quality Count$. It’s not a matter of food safety, but quality, and relates to a cow’s resistance to mastitis, inflammation of the mammary glands and udder tissue.
There’s been a big drop in those cell counts, as Minnesota farmers have worked to meet international standards from the European Union, said Fall.
“I take my hat off to those farms that are in the top 100. It’s quite an honor,” Fall said of the list of farms with the lowest counts. The co-op tests producers’ somatic cell counts upon delivery of the milk and average the counts for the state.
“(The Schlangen’s) were always our number one in First District,” Fall said. “They managed their cell counts like a hawk.”
The couple bought the farm from Daniel Schlangen’s mother 19 years ago. His father brought in dairy cows 12 years prior to that, he said. And four years ago he and his wife invested and added on to their barn.
“You lay it all on the line as a small farmer,” he said.
Unlike in other industries, farmers don’t get to set their own prices, and they are losing $5 on every 100 pounds of milk, Schlangen said. “It makes a grown man lay down and cry, but you can’t do anything about it.”
The couple still owns their farm in Eden Lake Township, near Paynesville, which they continue to run with help. They both have non-farming jobs now. He drives a truck from Wisconsin to South Dakota, and she works at Coldspring.
They took a camping holiday over Memorial Day weekend for the first time in about two decades. He loves that they get regular paychecks and health benefits.
“We don’t know how to act some days. We’re enjoying the weekends,” Schlangen said. But his heart remains with small businesses and family farmers.
“I really feel sorry for all our coworkers, I would call them,” he said. “Co-farmers.”
Stearns County milk producers with the lowest somatic cell counts in Minnesota:
- 1. Dan and Jolene Schlangen
- 5. Felling Dairy LLC
- 10. Gregory Dairy LLC
- 16. Joe and Kim Engelmeyer
- 17. Paul Mehr
- 18. Jeff Middendorf
- 21. Schefers Bros LLC
- 22. Herdering Farms Inc
- 27. Merdan Dairy Inc
- 37. Gary and Anne Meyer
- 44. Nicholas and Annie Stalboeger
- 45. Andy Varner
- 62. Travis and Angela Scherping
- 65. Phillip Schmiesing
- 69. Ron or Cindy Middendorf
- 73. Evergreen Acres Dairy LLC
- 82. Reuben & Janice Stommes
- 89. Schiffler Dairy LLC
- 91. SOO Line Dairy, Inc
- 92. Robert and Ann Cremers
- 98. Marvin Rademacher
- 103. Kuechle Dairy LLC
- 110. Brian Weyer
- 111. Frank and Ione Patrick
From the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s June 2018 list of 111 dairies.