From Pennsylvania to a Minnesota Dairy with Robots
Left to right: Norm and Nicole Guisewhite and MLN nutritionist Jeff Thorpe.
Norm and Nicole Guisewhite took possession of the former H&JJ Johnson Dairy in September. Milking 250 cows with four robotic milking machines after milking 100 cows in a traditional double-6 parallel parlor is a challenge for this young couple with two young daughters: Hanna, 8 and Alexis, 5. But their closeness as a family is one reason the Guisewhites decided to purchase this farm near South Haven, Minnesota.
“We realized that we could double our herd size without doubling our labor and be able to spend more time with our family,” states Norm.
To understand their readiness to tackle robotic milking, you need to understand the passion Norm and Nicole have for dairying. This passion began in Pennsylvania where they both grew up—Norm on a dairy farm and Nicole the daughter of a butcher.
Fresh out of high school, Norm and Nicole went to work on a 400-cow Virginia dairy farm owned by Norm’s uncle, Ken Leber. They returned to Pennsylvania to farm on their own; but they couldn’t compete for labor and land with the growing natural gas industry. So in August 2014, the Guisewhites moved to Minnesota where Norm found work as herdsman on a 250-cow dairy.
Certain they wanted to stay, the couple bought a 100-cow herd at Mayer, leasing the barn and milking equipment.
“We owe our initial success to Mike Foust, the Munson Lakes nutritionist working with the farm where Norm was a herdsman, and to Lyle and Wanda Honebrink, the previous owners of the herd,” says Nicole, adding that Mike was the Honebrinks’ nutritionist, as well. Fast forward to today: the H&JJ Johnson Dairy came up for sale and the Guisewhites jumped at the opportunity. Bringing their best cows with them, they arrived this fall to take possession of the South Haven dairy. Now they rely on MLN dairy nutritionist Jeff Thorpe to help them learn the fine points of feeding cows that are being milked robotically.
“Most dairies have a one-month course before robots are installed,” says Norm. “We went from a conventional parlor to robots overnight.”
Nicole manages the milking while Norm takes care of the crops and feeding. She admits switching from conventional milking to robots has been hard. “I don’t have the hands-on experience with the cows that I really liked,” she says.
Calf-raising has been another learning process. At first, Nicole planned to switch from hand-feeding calves in hutches to a calf barn with automatic feeders. Now, to address ventilation and disease challenges, the Guisewhite’s will divide their calves between the barn with auto feeders and a new complex of calf hutches.
“We can manage their health better if we spread out the calves,” says Nicole.Norm and Nicole will address the challenges presented by their new dairy as they arise. Another challenge will be to acquire or rent enough land to raise all the forage needed by this 250-cow milking herd. The 250 acres of arable land that came with the dairy is not enough.
Also in the future, the couple will consider expanding their milking herd, building a new heifer and dry cow barn across the road.
“Milk prices may not rise much,” observes Norm. “We need to get more efficient.”
For now, the Guisewhites are just happy to have a place to grow their business and their family, and good friends like Munson Lakes Nutrition to walk alongside them.
“Dairying to us is not a job, it’s a lifestyle,” explains Norm. Nicole nods her head and adds, “We can’t imagine ourselves doing anything different, which is why we packed up and moved away from everything and everybody we knew in pursuit of our dream.”
“Unlike most people,” she smiles, “the topic around our dinner table is our cows and what we can do for them.”