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Paynesville Press - Oct. 29, 2003

Zenner family takes ninth in national farm contest

By Michael Jacobson

Like many modern farmers, Allan Zenner doesn't get a farmer's tan anymore in the summer. In fact, he barely gets a tan at all, at least not from driving tractor, where he sits in climate-controlled comfort.

This year, he didn't start getting sun at all until June, when the spring field work was done and he and his family finally had time for some fun at the lake.

Allan and Julie Zenner, who farm 160 acres and milk 83 cows a couple miles west of Lake Henry, take a very businesslike approach to farming, which resulted in their being finalists in a recent nationwide competition. The Zenners unknowingly entered the Farm Progress Companies' Best Managed Farms contest for 2002. Allan found information about it on the Internet and, in March 2003, sent their farm records from 2002.

What Allan really wanted was to compare their operation against other farms, and they later learned that this information was being used for a contest. The Zenners ended up being a finalist and taking ninth in the country.

They were interviewed last spring for the Farmer Minnesota, and their article appeared this month.

The Zenners developed their businesslike approach to farming out of necessity, when they bought their own farm in 1987.

Both Allan and Julie grew up on dairy farms, Julie near Brooten and Allan near Belgrade. After high school and college, though, they worked for a few years each before they could afford to buy their own farm, purchasing a 160-acre farm near Lake Henry.

Zenner family photo They continued working, commuting to the Twin Cities, while farming crops the first couple years. Around 18 months after they bought the farm, they purchased 60 cows and started milking.

As young farmers, with no equity at the start, the Zenners needed their farm to cash flow. They needed to run a profitable operation from the start.

Since farmers cannot control prices, they need to look closely at what they can controlÉtheir own operation, the Zenners said. So they need to manage their time and look at efficiency and cost-cutting. "There's always a different way to do things," said Allan.

The Zenners - from left Julie, Aaron, Allan, Brianna, and Daniel - took ninth in a national farm contest and were featured this month in the Minnesota Farmer. They farm 160 acres and milk 83 cows near Lake Henry.

For instance, the Zenners used to bale their own hay, into the traditional small bales. But one year they bought some large bales and sold their baler the next month. "Why would we want to do that again?" asked Julie.

They felt traditional baling was very inefficient, and risky, compared to custom baling. They get four or five hay crops on their farm, and these crops are crucial for feeding their dairy herd. Traditional baling requires a week of work and a week of dry weather, but with custom baling, where the hay does not have to be as dry, it takes only a couple days of work for the Zenners, who also store some of their hay in a silo, and less dry weather.

The Zenners also have contracted to have their young heifers raised. Their farm does not have the proper facilities for raising calves, and Allan doesn't think he has the feel for doing it.

"It's one of those things that you should do it all and do it right or you shouldn't do it at all," he said.

When they first started milking, in 1989, the Zenners tried to contract to have their heifers raised but could not find anyone to do it. "Back then, it wasn't popular, so I waited a few years and a lot of people were doing it," said Allan.

Now, the Zenners send their calves to their contractor a day afte they are born and get the cows back 22 months later, when they are ready to have their first calf and start milking.

Having a contractor available to raise calves is one benefit to having strong dairy in the area. The dairy community is crucial for farmers, said Allan, because it means they have access to good supplies and they have better, competitive markets. One thing they would still like to have is a better supply of relief milkers, in order to be able to get away from their farm for longer periods of time.

The workday at the Zenner farm starts at 5:15 a.m. with morning chores: milking and feeding their 83 cows. It takes about an hour to milk the cows in their tie-stall barn with a pipeline milker and eight milkers.

After two hours, they come in for breakfast. In mid-morning, they feed their dry cows, make repairs, let the cows out into the cow yard, and clean the barn.

Zenner Family farm In the evening, feeding and milking the cows also takes around two hours with the help of their three children: Daniel, a seventh grader at Paynesville Area Middle School; Aaron, a sixth grader; and Brianna, a fifth grader at PAES.

Allan and Julie Zenner purchased this 160-acre farm in 1987 and started milking cows in 1989. They take a business-like approach to farming, focusing on efficiency, controlling costs, and making time to have fun.

The Zenners see dairy farming as a family-friendly business. Their children have the opportunity to help on the farm, though Allan and Julie take care to make sure they are ready for whatever job they do.

Allan and Julie also like the flexibility that farming allows them. While during spring planting and fall harvesting they are very busy, during the summer they have great flexibility to spend time with their kids. If they get the morning chores done right away, they can be ready to leave home by 8 a.m. and not have to return until 5 p.m. for the evening chores.

A key to having a good family farm is having fun, Allan and Julie agreed. They have a personal watercraft in the shop and try to spend as many days at the lake as they can in the summer.

"I think we've gotten more efficient in chores and farm work," said Julie. "Nowadays younger people don't want to spend all their time on the farm."

The Zenners once thought about building a huge dairy operation, say 500 cows, but decided that they had enough for the two of them to do with their current operation.

"We have all we need right now," said Julie.

They would like to raise some beef steers, since they grow enough feed for more animals, but they need another building on their farm before they can start this.

If one of their kids wants to farm, then they might reconsider that decision at some point, but they don't want to pressure their kids into farming. "Whatever they want to do, good for them," said Allan. "I want them to be happy."

Their farm life is not all chores and working. Allan helped the boys build their own clubhouse, where the boys learned about carpentry, framing, and shingling. And he helped them build a go-kart, where they learned about welding and sandblasting.

They also encourage their kids to be involved in activities away from the farm, with the biggest challenge being to arrange rides during evening chores.

Allan - who does most of the field work himself, except the hay chopping, where Julie helps - spends as much time in their office on the computer as he does in the barn or in the fields, said Julie. They use the computer to keep their farm records, and the Internet to check the milk market everyday, to research farm equipment, and to monitor the weather.

"You've got to have a toolbox full of tools. This is one of them," said Allan, who enjoys the problem-solving aspect of farming and says that their management time is no different from any other business.

Successful farming these days, said Julie, is more than "just using your back."

Right now, the Zenners are watching the milk market closely. So far for 2004, they have contracted their milk for seven of the 12 months. They have contracted their milk for four or five years and like knowing what revenue they will get.

"We don't need record prices to make money," said Allan. "We need stability."

In high school, Allan thought he knew a lot about farming. In college, he learned a lot. And he is still learning, he said. He rates himself only as average in most areas - like breeding, genetics, and feeding - and constantly sees things that his neighbors are doing better than they are. Julie, however, rates Al a little better, saying that her husband is good at everything.

Why do you want to farm? That's what Allan was asked when he said in high school that he wanted to be a farmer. While there is no perfect job, farming does not have to be drudgery, he said. "You work hard and you play hard," he said. "You work hard and get things done right, and you have time to play."

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