At 23 years old, David Berning of St. Michael isn’t your typical dairy farmer. That’s because, in the U.S., the average age of a dairy farmer is 52. But that fact didn’t deter Berning from seizing an opportunity to start farming in 2014, soon after graduating from college. “I am fortunate, because there is not always an opportunity to farm right after graduating college,” Berning says. “A lot of producers have to work in other areas of the agriculture industry before becoming a producer themselves.”
Berning is following in the footsteps of his parents, Mark and Julie Berning, who started their dairy operation, Green Waves Farm, in 1993. They first expanded the dairy farm in 1999 when David was 8 years old by adding 140 cows and a milking parlor.
David’s uncle, Paul Berning, is also involved in the business. Mark, Paul and David work full time at the dairy along with part-time help to assist with everyday chores.
In 2014, they built a new barn that uses robotic milking technology. David, who graduated from South Dakota State University with a degree in agriculture systems technology, manages that technology and oversees their 310 cows.
“We’re using technology to make dairy farming less labor intensive, so we don’t need as many employees,” he says. “We milk 240 cows in our robotic barn and the other 70 in our milking parlor, depending on their milking speed.”
Every cow is individually tagged, allowing the robot to feed them according to specific dietary needs. The robot recognizes each cow, storing collected information in a computer system and recording how much milk each produces. The computer flags cows that exhibit abnormal behavior and may need additional care.
“My day starts at 4:30 a.m., and I’m lucky if I’m done by 5 p.m. I start the day by checking our computers to see what happened overnight and take care of any issues with the robots. Then I gather up the cows that didn’t get milked or need attention,” Berning says.
While new technology has helped with labor demands and data collection, there is still plenty of work for a farmer to do.
“We have new calves born just about every day. I’m on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so if something happens with the robots in the middle of the night, I get a phone call.”
The Changing Face of Dairy
Minnesota milk production has a value of $2.26 billion, with approximately 460,000 head of cattle and 9.13 billion pounds of milk produced annually.
Technological advances on dairy farms such as Green Waves are attracting younger workers in an industry dominated by older generations.
“We expect there to be a sizable turnover of dairy farmers in the near future due to age,” says Pat Lunemann, who owns Twin Eagle Dairy in Clarissa and serves as president of the board of directors for the Minnesota Milk Producers Association. “I recently sold 30 cows to a man in his mid-20s who’s just getting into the dairy business. Minnesota has tremendous resources for more dairy farms. It’s a sustainable industry that’s good for our economy.”
Lunemann, 56, knew he wanted to be a dairy farmer when he was just 16. A third-generation producer, Lunemann began farming in 1979 with 50 cows. His operation eventually grew to 800 cows. His wife, Jody, is a retired teacher and also his business partner.
“In high school speech class I’d give speeches about cow genetics, and my classmates would roll their eyes,” Lunemann says. “I’ve always enjoyed the cows and working the land. A dairy farm is a great place to raise a family and a fun place for kids to grow up.”
The Lunemanns raised five sons and a daughter, now ages 19 to 31, on their farm.
“They learned how to work hard by helping out and filling in for our employees who didn’t show up or were sick. They worked in the barn, fed calves and did fieldwork,” Lunemann says. “The older our children get, the more they realize the value it had on their lives.”
Robotic Technology on Farms
Many dairy farms across Minnesota and the nation have gone by the wayside, but the thriving ones have made significant changes.
“Dairies planning to stay active have had to modernize their farms to make them more efficient,” Lunemann says. “Our calves have radio frequency ID tags, so when they come up to a robotic feeder, the robot recognizes the calf, delivers the amount of milk it needs and then cuts it off. A few hours later, that calf is eligible for another feeding. The machines keep track of the amount each calf consumes over the whole day.”
Such careful monitoring of nutrition helps enhance the health of the herd.
Twin Eagle Dairy and Green Waves Farm both sell their milk to Land O’Lakes Inc. Some of it is bottled as fluid milk, while a large portion is made into cheese.
“Our milk goes to the Melrose plant where they make hard Italian and cheddar-style cheeses,” Lunemann says.
Berning says although he’s new to the industry, he has already made several friends and connections.
He appreciates his agricultural upbringing now more than ever.
“There aren’t many people in their 20s who are doing what I’m doing,” he says. “Some of my friends wouldn’t like having a job like this. But I grew up working hard, so it comes naturally.”