food: Pastures provide much of the feed
for Dan Middendorf's 130 dairy cows. This pasture
contains a mixture of grasses and clover.
August 1, 2003: Feeding human food by-products
to the cows he milks and keeping them outside through Minnesota’s
winters are among the strategies that are working well for
veteran dairy grazier Dan Middendorf. He once had a conventional
dairy with 40 Holsteins in a stall barn. His herd average
of almost 26,000 pounds of milk per cow per year was among
the highest in the state. But he switched to grazing 12 years
ago and now says “it’s the only thing that makes
sense” for the 130 crossbred cows he is currently milking.
at a Glance
Dan and Rosie Middendorf
Wadena County, Minnesota
The Middendorf farm is
located just north of Verndale in Wadena County,
Farm Type: Pasture
130 crossbred cattle on pasture 200 days a year.
Dan and his wife Rosie bought their present 160-acrefarmnorth of Verndale in
Wadena County, Minnesota in 2000. Their son Joel, 22, bought
an adjoining 115 acres and works cooperatively with his parents
full-time during the cropping season. Their daughter Beth,
15, is responsible for feeding calves. Daughters Sarah, 27,
and Katie, 20, and sons Eric, 25, and James, 19, are no longer
at home and not directly involved in the dairy operation.
Family is important to the Middendorfs. All of their children
except their oldest daughter were home schooled for at least
part of their education. “It made our children each
other’s best friends,” says Dan. “In a lot
of ways it brought our family much closer together.”
Before moving north to Wadena County the Middendorfs had
a dairy farm in central Minnesota near Sauk Centre in Stearns
County. They had 150 acres on the edge of corn and soybean
country, and land prices in the area were going up. They wanted
to bring Joel into the operation, but they couldn’t
buy land because one neighbor owned land on all sides of their
They looked at their current place, which has a lane from
the road leading to buildings at the center of the farm, for
the first time on Jan. 17, 2000. “One of our neighbors
who has been in the area a long time told us this was set
up as a grazing place in the 1880s,” says Dan Middendorf.
“The light pole is the center of the farm. We can have
a tremendous number of animals here and never go far from
the barn. Where we were before, we often walked three quarters
of a mile to get to a pasture. Here we have access to a lot
more acres with a lot less walking.”
The farm was what they wanted, and they bought it, sold their
other farm, and had all their cows moved by April 17 of 2000.
The farm was previously a 150-cow conventional dairy. The
soil is sandy and the land came with some older irrigation
equipment and was used mainly for row crops. It’s an
hour north of where they were before, and Middendorf says
they “lost two to three weeks of growing season.”
Looking for a kind of cow, not a
As the Middendorfs transitioned from their stall barn dairy
to grazing, they also transitioned from straight Holsteins to
crossbred cows. Dan recalls that an older AI technician recommended
breeding the hard-settling cows to Milking Shorthorns. He liked
the cows that resulted from the cross.
emphasis is on family: 22-year old Joel
heads up crop production; 15-year old Beth is responsible
for the calves; while Dan and Rosie make sure family
stays a top priority.
“There was a winter when we had a night of 40 below
zero and had a group of month-old calves in open-front sheds,”
he says. “The crossbreds kept their ears and tails and
the straight blood calves all lost them. That says something
for hybrid vigor.”
Later they bought a herd of 40 crossbred cows, predominately
red and white Holstein and Red Poll. They also decided in
1996 to start using semen from Normande, a French dual purpose
“They’re what sustainable farmers in France use,”
says Middendorf. “The cows are bred for grass and the
steers are finished on straight hay and grass without grain.
The bulls have to compete in feed efficiency trials as young
animals before they get into the bull studs. A bull has to
be in the top half of the feed efficiency trial to be used
Along with the Normande, the Middendorfs started using some
Ayrshire. “All breeds have their strong points. We’re
trying to breed a kind of cow, not a breed of cow,”
says Middendorf. “We want a medium-sized, easy fleshing,
smooth cow. She needs to carry her shed on her back in the
winter time. If our cows don’t put on weight in the
fall they have a hard time in the winter. That’s one
of the good points of the Normande and Milking Shorthorn.”
to be tough: For Middendorf a cow should
be a medium-sized, easy fleshing, with good udders
and enough vigor to withstand harsh Minnesota winters.
Middendorf likes the good udder, strong feet and legs and
longevity of the Ayrshires. “The closest to our ideal
would be a quarter Holstein, a quarter Normande and half Ayrshire,”
The herd annual milk production average is about 13,000 pounds
per cow. Middendorf would like to get it a little higher,
but not too much. With the cows staying outside through the
cold weather, he doesn’t want wet teat ends. “If
a cow gives over 80 pounds of milk a day we have more trouble
with leaking milk,” he says. “If she gets a drop
of milk on the end of a teat when it’s cold and windy
we have problems. We don’t feed for real high production
in the wintertime; we feed for high (milk) components.”
With cows calving outside on pasture, calving ease is critical.
Middendorf says they have had very little trouble with calving.
He believes the exercise the cows get while on pasture is
a key to calving ease.
He’s not high on selecting bulls for AI according to
calving ease scores. “That can backfire if you’re
not watching pelvic width,” he says. “Most calving
ease bulls are narrow animals. If you have two or three generations
bred narrow, pretty soon you can’t get a calf out of
Holding down feed costs is a key to making the Middendorf
operation profitable, and grazing is a big part of that. They
aim to have the cows on pasture about 200 days a year. After
moving to their present farm in 2000 they tilled the ground
and seeded it to perennial ryegrass, Alyce white clover, brome
and meadow fescue, with annual ryegrass as a cover crop. Since
then they have done frost seeding as the ground thaws in the
spring. Middendorf says he doesn’t ever expect to plow
the pastures again.
He likes a pasture mix that includes legumes to fix nitrogen.
One of the grasses he likes best is the meadow fescue, a cross
of fescue and perennial ryegrass. It has held up well to winters
and grazing pressure.
Researching the benefits of
The Middendorfs are active cooperators in a 5-year
low-input dairy research project conducted by
the University of Minnesota’s West Central
Research and Outreach Center at Morris, Minnesota.
Called “The Systems Evaluation of the Components
of Reduced Input Dairy Farm Programs,” the
project is designed to address the question: “Can
a reduced input dairy system provide economic,
environmental and social benefits that allow moderate-sized
farms to be established or retained?”
The 5-year study will explore seasonal dairy
production (including a comparison of spring and
fall calving), intensive grazing, cross-bread
genetics, outdoor bedded pack for housing, water
quality, and adding value on the farm to milk
and meat. Ten cooperative farm families throughout
Minnesota, including the Middendorfs, are participating
in the project. It’s a new program, so there’s
not much to report, yet, by way of conclusions.
We’ll follow up with another piece when
enough data has been gathered to offer some recommendations
The 130 cows on pasture are moved twice a day. They get 3-4
acres each time they are moved, getting a little more area
during the day than at night. Once an area is grazed the cows
don’t come back for two to three weeks.
The Middendorfs rent some pasture for their growing heifers.
The even get some pasture free because grazing reduces the
fire hazard from tall grass and because the landowners find
it aesthetically pleasing to have animals on the land.
They also rent ground for alfalfa-grass and clover-grass
mixtures that they harvest for winter feed. They harvest these
forages as large round bales. They like to harvest at 40-65
percent moisture, and they wrap the bales in stretch plastic
for ensiling. Middendorf says the round-bale silage is very
palatable and easy to feed, and storage space outside is unlimited.
The wrapped bales are the main feed in winter, but they’re
supplemented by low-cost human food leftovers—potato
peelings, sugarbeet tailings and pelleted corn gluten. The
potato peelings come from a Lamb-Weston plant at Park Rapids,
about 30 miles away. The plant processes potatoes into fries,
hash browns and tater tots. The sugarbeet tailings come from
processing plants at Wahpeton, N. D. or Moorhead, Minn., both
about 100 miles away.
The pelleted corn gluten comes from Wahpeton, and is a leftover
of processing corn into the high-fructose corn syrup used
to sweeten soft drinks and other human foods. The gluten has
the germ left in and contains about 23 percent protein and
four percent fat. Middendorf says it’s higher in feed
value and lower in cost than shelled corn on a pound-for-pound
The leftover feeds also supplement the pasture for the milking
cows during the summer. “Right now we’re getting
5,500 pounds of milk per day from 128 cows,” he says.
“We’re feeding 700 pounds of corn gluten per day
at 3.5 cents per pound and 10 dollars worth of potato peelings
per day. The cows also get two ounces of salt and two ounces
of calcium per head per day. We figure 20 dollars per day
for pasture, including land cost, for the milking cows.”
Winter feed costs are only a little more. Middendorf says
the wrapped bales contain 600 pounds of dry matter and are
worth $25 per bale. They feed two to three bales a day, depending
on what other feeds are available. They like to feed 30 pounds
of sugarbeet tailings per head per day during the winter,
at a cost of about five cents per pound.
“Our goal for winter feed costs is $3 per hundredweight
of milk,” says Middendorf. “Pasture is still cheaper
The cows stay outside during the winter on a bedded manure
pack in an area bounded by trees on the north, east and west.
The bedding is mostly “swamp hay,” sometimes harvested
from low areas as late as mid-December after the ground has
The Middendorfs are active cooperators in a five-year low-input
dairy research project conducted by the University of Minnesota’s
West Central Research and Outreach Center at Morris, Minn.
The research team is headed by U of M animal scientist Dennis
Johnson. The project is gathering and analyzing data to evaluate
various aspects of low-input dairying in Minnesota’s
sometimes harsh climate. Some of the areas of investigation
are intensive grazing, crossbred genetics, outdoor bedded
pack housing and seasonal dairy production. The Middendorfs
are among ten Minnesota farm families who cooperate in providing
data for the project.
Joseph Kurtz is a freelance writer, editor and photographer.
He is based in St. Paul, Minn., and has previously worked
in Iowa and Kentucky.