GREEN BAY – Despite the mindset that farming is a risky occupation, Andy Jaworski of Green Bay was always attracted to the possibility he could make a living as a farmer. At 35 years of age he’s in the rare position of being five milk checks away from paying off his debt.

He entered into a share-milking agreement in 2011 with a nearby grass-based dairy-farming couple. Jaworski then in 2013 began converting the home farm he grew up on to accommodate a herd of dairy cows. The bulk of the project involved having a freestall-coverall building erected and installing a single Lely robotic-milking unit to do the milking. Arranging the purchase of the farm real estate is the next challenge Jaworski and his parents face.

Jaworski purchased the 65-cow grass-based herd in 2011 when he began his share-milking agreement. He began shipping milk on his own to Organic Valley on the renovated home farm by 2014. The land had been in organic production as a crop farm; it grew a diverse mix of crops including soybeans, green beans and sweet corn.

Using his education as a finance major at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to crunch numbers, he developed a business plan that has served him well. He’s also a graduate of the Wisconsin Farm and Industry Short Course. He returns annually to the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy Farmers to talk to students about his business model.

He can’t remember what first attracted him to the GrassWorks Conference, he said. But after attending in 2007 Jaworski said he was convinced it would be part of his plan to eventually farm. He’s currently in his second term as treasurer for GrassWorks, the grassroots organization that hosts the conference.

Jaworski describes his system as a hybrid.

“You can expect it to be a necessity if you want to be a grazier that utilizes a robotic milker,” he said.

Having cattle locked out on grazing paddocks during the growing season is a common practice for grass-based farmers.

“That won’t work with a robotic milker,” he said.

He always has a portion of the cow ration available at the feed rail adjacent to where the robotic unit is located. His cows learn the system. They develop a routine that has them grazing the paddocks and returning to the coverall barn for what he called a “partial mixed ration.” They have a walk through the robotic milker for grain while being milked. He has a Lely Grazeway automatic-gate system that won’t let cows go out to pasture unless they’ve taken a trip through the robot.

Training the herd to the robot was challenging for the first three months.

“(But now) training first-calf heifers to the robot isn’t much different than training them in a milking parlor,” Jaworski said.

One of the biggest advantages of the robot is that it doesn’t become mad. If a unit isn’t attached within seven minutes the robot sends the cow away; she’s forced to re-enter for another try.

Part of Jaworski’s daily routine is to check the cows via a computer that shows the herd’s performance at the robot. Production levels can be monitored; trips to the robot are also indicated. A milk-conductivity sensor flags cows that may have mastitis. There’s a wealth of information available; he admits he doesn’t use all of it.

He chooses to have calves year-round, though the majority of the mixed-breed herd calves in spring to maximize utilization of inexpensive pasture. He said he has a few cows that freshen through the summer followed by a portion of cows that calve in the fall. That’s to keep the milk checks coming through winter. The herd is a Holstein-Jersey mix along with Normande, Shorthorn, Ayrshire and a number of Fleckvieh cows.

Jaworski raises all the forage for his herd and utilizes baleage for the majority of its harvest. He’s a believer in summer annuals, he said. He’s particularly fond of a “cocktail” forage mix he planted this year that has a combination of Sudan grass, rye grass and clovers. He’s not interested in monocultures; he wants a permanent cover of grasses and clovers on his land. He says a trend away from monoculture row crops has environmental benefits even in a non-organic cropping system.

“Manure management is easier when there’s green growing crops that make application possible year-round,” he said. “That can’t happen with row-crop monocultures.”

He has no intention of increasing his herd size any time soon. With the prospect of being free of his current debt he said he thinks he’ll invest in labor to have more freedom from day-to-day farm activity. Utilizing robotic milking has worked well for Jaworski. He said it allows him more flexibility in that day-to-day routine.

“You’re not tied to that milking routine twice daily,” he said. “Being debt-free will only add to that flexibility.”

Visit grassworks.org or contact grassworksheather@gmail.com or 715-289-4896 for more information.

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Greg Galbraith and his wife, Wendy, sold their dairy farm after 30 years of grazing cattle. He now has 20 acres of his grandfather’s original farm with a sugar bush and cabin. From there he writes about the evolving rural landscape. Visit www.poeticfarmer.com for more information.