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Prairie Dairy raises heifers for fellow dairymen

"It's a bigger industry than a lot of people realize"

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May 1, 2024

OAKFIELD – When a business undergoes a difficult event, such as a natural disaster or economic downturn, they are typically left with two options: close down or rise from the rubble and try again.

The second choice is exactly what Jason Smith said he and his father did when the family’s long-standing dairy farm – started by Jason’s great-great-grandpa in 1898 – was heavily damaged after a tornado in 1996.

“At the time, I was only six,” Jason said. “(The tornado) put a big damper on things – we had destroyed barns and we lost some cows, some calves.”

After the destruction, Jason said his aunt and uncle decided to leave the farm, butwas able to convince his dad to stay.

“When I was a young kid, I wanted to start farming, so I convinced my dad to go on farming,” he laughed. “That’s how we got started raising heifers, and we’ve been doing it ever since.”

And that, he said, is how Prairie Dairy Inc. Custom Dairy Replacements came to be.

The business now has three partners: himself, Ed (his father), Nate Kollman.

After starting small, Jason said the farm, located at W8406 Prairie Road in Oakfield, now grows about 1,100 heifers at any given time.

A day in the life
As a heifer grower, Jason said he does just that: “raises heifers for other dairymen in the state” who don’t have the land, facilities or help to raise themselves.

“That’s where we come in,” Jason said.

Prairie Dairy, he said, will take heifers right after they finish weaning, and raise them for about 14 months until they are bred and ready to be sent back to their dairy.

The team, Kollman said, can keep track of the cows through ear tag identification numbers stored in its DairyComp software, which keeps track of herd management.

“We used to use a different software, and we went to this software because some of our clients are using it, so we can have our health records transferred easily back and forth between the farms,” he said. “The parent farm can see what’s happening as we weigh, or if we treat an animal for an illness, it’ll show up and they can see it in real-time.”

Once the heifers have been moved back to their respective dairy, Jason said they will start milking.

On the farm, he said the team pays close attention to weight to have the heifers at their healthiest before sending them back.

“We base our heifer growing on performance,” he said. “We weigh everything here. We do a lot of individual weights, especially in moves from barn to barn. It’s a little more extra work, but‚ that way I know what that girl is doing every day for average daily gains.”

If there is anything wrong with a heifer’s gains, Jason said he will contact the nutritionist Prairie Dairy works with.

Though each day on the farm varies, the heifers are TMR (total mixed ration) fed every day, the barns are scraped daily and they receive foot baths three days a week.

And, every Wednesday, Kollman said, the heifers have herd health.

“There’s pregnancy checks, shots, stuff like that,” he said. “With the DairyComp software, again, we’re able to track a lot of our vaccination protocols better.”

Jason Smith said one of the barns on the farm recently received an update, with new free stall mats added. Photo Courtesy of Prairie Dairy Inc.

With all that said, Jason said there is some flexibility in the day-to-day tasks.

“Most of the time we can plan what we want to do, but it depends on who calls and wants to move heifers,” he said. “I have at least one or two clients come a week.”

Jason said doing a consistently good job and communicating with clients is key.

“We run DairyComp 305, and a couple of our dairies (use it), so they can go on theirs and look at ours and see how we’re doing,” he said. “And if they have any questions, they can call me.”

Growing need
Throughout the years, Jason said the demand for heifer growers has continued to build.

“There is a need for it for sure,” he said. “I’m glad I’m in this business because there is a need.”

Kollman said it’s a bigger industry than a lot of people realize.

“There’s a lot of us who aren’t well-known because we’re so specialized,” he said. “I think we got lost‚ somebody sees we have dairy in our name, and they assume we’re milking cows.”

To keep up with demand and make sure the farm is running to the best of its ability, Jason said the team at Prairie Dairy has been making updates to the barns – such as free stall mats.

“It’s been on our list the last couple of years to update our cow comfort, and we’ve been doing a lot of research this last year,” he said. “This barn was built in 1975, so we’ve been slowly updating‚ The main thing for us is comfort.”

Prairie Dairy’s other barns either have sand or bedded packs.

Jason said proper ventilation is also important when it comes to cow health, which is why the farm has continued to add more fans.

“Eventually, I’m sure we’ll want to build another barn,” he said. “We’re always trying to keep things up and keep things as good as we possibly can.”

A fulfilling career
Being able to be work as the fifth generation on his family farm, Jason said, “is very rewarding.”

“(We’re) keeping up the tradition of the family here, and partnering with our partners to keep getting bigger,” he said. “(And) it’s rewarding (working) with our clients and talking to them. We do a good job, and that’s what I like to do.”

Kollman said the team at Prairie Dairy takes pride in all they do.

“We like to say we take better care of the animals than we would if they were our own because we are raising someone else’s animals,” he said. “We’re giving them every opportunity to succeed and to let that farm grow so we can grow with them.”

At the end of the day, Jason said it’s all about the heifers.

“The girls are the main focus of our operation, and they have to be because that’s what we do,” he said.

To learn more about Prairie Dairy Inc. Custom Dairy Replacements, visit its Facebook page.

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