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Delighting in dairy

First-generation dairy farmer Dennis Schnell finds harmony with nature, milk and cows

Sunshine makes happy cows and happy dairy farmers.

In the warm light of late spring, the grass grows, the mud dries up and Holstein cows graze green pastures to the delight of Dennis Schnell, a first-generation dairy farmer in Sturgeon, Mo.

“This has always been my dream,” said Schnell, who grew up in the area. “My father was a schoolteacher, so I did not have a farming background, but it was some-
thing that I always wanted to do.”

Schnell started his career in the construction industry, but his thoughts kept returning to working with livestock. In 1992, he and his wife, Becki, purchased a farm and began to build what was needed to make that dream a reality.

“There was nothing here when we bought it,” Schnell said. “We built everything from scratch and started milking at the beginning of 2000.”
For the past 24 years, Schnell has been learning new lessons about farming and running a Grade A operation that meets Dairy Farmers of America’s “Gold Standard” program guidelines.

“I’ve got to be honest, that first year of milking, we learned a lot real quick. I was greener than green. It was a challenge,” Schnell said. “There’s a lot to running a dairy.”
Calving was one of those lessons, he said. “I had some experience with beef cows and knew they calve pretty easily,” Schnell said. “Well, these Holstein cows like to build big calves. You have to live with them when they are calving.”

Schnell established his dairy farm with two herds—one from Southwest Missouri and the other from Kansas.

“We started with 55 cows that we didn’t know. You learn quickly which one is your trouble cow, which one is the good milker and which one likes to kick,” Schnell said. “Cows are like people. Each one has a different personality. Some you click with. Some you wish would go on down the road, but if she is a good milker, you keep her.”

Building relationships
Today, the Schnell Dairy herd mainly consists of Holsteins raised from those first cows he purchased more than two decades ago. Settling into a modest business model that has proven successful for their farm, the Schnells are currently milking around 70 cows once a day.

“The most we’ve ever milked was 150, and that was way too much,” Schnell said. “Sometimes you think bigger is better. That is not always true. A good number of cows for us is 80 to 100 because of the acreage we have and the bunk space. Seventy just works nicely.”

Healthy pastures and quality hay supply the bulk of the herd’s diet, with Schnell using multiple paddocks for rotational grazing.

“If it wasn’t for the grass, we wouldn’t be in business,” he said. “We try to graze at least nine months out of the year because it makes for happy cows. They are out there eating and naturally spreading the manure, which lightens the load in the barn.”

To help balance out his cows’ forage-based diet, Schnell also feeds a total mixed ration (TMR) to deliver all the necessary proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals for nutritious, quality milk production.

“We don’t push our cows, so we sacrifice some on milk production,” Schnell said. “I’m happy if I get 4 to 5 gallons of milk (per cow, per day). There’s a fine line there. How much feed do you throw at them to make it work?”

Schnell works with MFA Agri Services in Centralia and Clark, Mo., for spraying, seed and fertilizer for his forages and some feed for his cows.

“I appreciate MFA, and they help us complete the circle with our business. Our schedule just doesn’t allow us the time to do the spraying,” Schnell said. “Plus, with 800 acres, it really doesn’t make sense for us to own the big machinery, so we depend on MFA for assistance.”

During challenging times in the industry, Schnell has worked to improve the quality of his pastures and find ways to keep his feed costs down. One way is by using spent grain from two local breweries, Logboat and Bur Oak, and grape pulp from Les Bourgeois Winery in his ration.

“These relationships have proven to be invaluable,” Schnell said. “We thank them for their spent grain and pulp which helps supplement our TMR. When you drink locally made wine and beer, it benefits our cows!”

Milking it
The milking process begins early each morning and takes about three hours. The Schnells have a double-five herringbone parlor, allowing 10 cows to be milked at once. Schnell and his son, Alex, work together in the pit, cleaning and disinfecting teats before attaching each milking claw. The father-son duo manages each milking with a steady, efficient synchronicity. The humming of the machines and country music playing in the background add to the harmony in the barn.

“It’s a pretty simple milking system,” Schnell said. “We bought all used equipment when we started to help keep our costs low. It’s still running for us today.”
Every two days, a hauler collects the milk, which is delivered to Central Dairy in Jefferson City. Those bulk sales account for about 85% of Schnell’s product. The other 15% is sold directly to consumers as farm-fresh milk by the half-gallon or gallon. In Missouri, raw milk can legally be sold from a producer to an individual for personal use.

“About 10 years ago, I had a lady call me and ask if she could buy real milk from my dairy,” Schnell said. “She bought 5 gallons of farm-fresh milk each week, and I still sell to her today. The direct sale to our clients has been a lifeline for us.”

All in the numbers
As the number of Missouri dairies dwindles, producers like Schnell look for new ways “to make it work.” According to the University of Missouri Extension, there were 2,182 permitted dairy farms in 2001. That number shrunk to 525 in 2022, with only 393 Grade A farms.

“It’s difficult to compete with the big guys,” Schnell said. “Little farmers definitely help feed America, too, and we do what we can to hang on. Small family farms can provide food and products to communities, something we all saw during COVID.”

Schnell’s fresh milk business has grown by word of mouth, and he estimates some 50 to 60 customers visit the farm to purchase milk weekly.

“We’ve been through many ups and downs—droughts, extreme rain, financial crisis, COVID—so that forces you to think outside the box,” Schnell said.

After several different ideas, Schnell decided to purchase a refrigerated van and designate a location to deliver his fresh milk to customers. “We put out a really good product, and there are a lot of people who want real milk,” he explained. “I’m providing quality food for families, and that makes me feel good.”

For the past few months, Schnell has been running a “milk route” to deliver his farm-fresh milk to consumers in Columbia twice a week and Harrisburg once a week and is looking to add Centralia and Mexico. He charges $5 a gallon with a $5 deposit on his half-gallon jars.

The venture is one way Schnell is hoping to preserve the family farm for the next generation. Alex is finishing his college degree while helping his father with farm chores as well as milking every day.

“I have worked really hard for the past 24 years, and I would love for my children to take over the farm,” Schnell said.

“My Dad is one of the hardest-working people I know,” Alex agreed. “He started everything from scratch, and I’ve seen the amount of work and effort he puts in every day. I would be proud to eventually take over the farm, and that is why I am doing what I can now to be a part of the operation.”

Schnell invites visitors to learn more about how the dairy farm operates, as long as they’re prepared for a little mud and muck and to be put to work bottle-feeding calves. For more information, visit Schnell Dairy Farm on Facebook at facebook.com/schnell.dairy.2000 or call 573-819-6122.

Read more of the June/July 2024 Today's Farmer Magazine HERE.

 

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