Building for the Future

Peter and Jim Senn are first father and son Master Agriculturists.

Published on: Mar 31, 2006

The Senn family are from left, front row, Deb, Leverne, Tracy and Travis; back row, Jim, Peter, Ted and foreign exchange student Berit Bruns from Germany.

In 1977, Jim Senn started farming in partnership with his parents, Peter and Leverne, on their Campbellsport dairy farm. At the time, they were milking 60 registered Holstein cows. Today, Jim and his wife Deb milk 177 cows and raise 160 heifers on their Fond du Lac County dairy.

The Senns decided to expand their milking herd in 1996 after they remodeled their old freestall barn.

At that point they started looking at various parlor set ups throughout the state.

"We did a lot of looking and we didn't pick the nicest day to go out and look," Jim says.

They hired a consultant to help them decide what to do next.

"He worked up three options," Jim explains. "Our choices were to stay the same size, expand all at once or expand gradually, which is what we ended up doing."

Walking before they run

That year, Jim and Deb purchased 40 acres, the house and buildings from Jim's parents, Peter and Leverne, which made them reluctant to spend a lot of money on expansion.

"We didn't want to take on a lot of debt all at once," Jim says.

They chose build a 78 freestall, three-row, drive-by barn and convert their 60 tie-stall barn into a double-four, walk-through, flat barn parlor.

The freestall facility cost $88,979 or $1,141 per stall to build. It houses second-lactation cows and older. First-lactation cows are kept separate from their older herd mates in the remodeled freestall barn.

Their 24-foot by 34-foot parlor features eight Universal milkers with automatic take-off units, and a 10-foot by 70-foot holding pen that can accommodate up to 50 cows. The remainder of the old barn houses a 12-cow hospital area, maternity pens and a palpation rail.

The total cost - $24,800, which included the parlor equipment, concrete, gates, posts, a crowd gate and one automatic take-off unit. They already had seven units before building the parlor.

In addition to the 191 acres they own, Jim and Deb rent 300 acres, growing mostly corn and alfalfa and some wheat.

Team effort

They are quick to credit their employees and Peter and Leverne with much of their farming success.

At 76, Peter still drives tractor, hauls manure and helps with fieldwork, while Leverne milks weekday mornings and handles the financial bookkeeping for the farm. The arrangement works out well for Peter and Leverne, allowing them to remain active on the farm while giving them the freedom to pick and travel when they choose.

Steve Berres of Campbellsport is their herdsman. Brianna Beck is the lead milker and shares milking chores with one other full-time employee and two part-time employees. Deb feeds calves, handles registrations and milks Saturday mornings. She also substitute teaches for the Campbellsport School District.

Cows are milked twice a day. Jim says morning milking usually takes five hours while the evening milking takes four hours.

Newborn calves are kept in hutches until they are weaned at 10 weeks old. Then they are moved into group pens where they stay for three months. Heifers 5 months and older and dry cows are housed at a farm owned by Peter and Leverne a half mile down the road from their farm. Heifers and dry cows three weeks from freshening are kept in a lean-to next to the parlor.

Future plans

A decade after expanding their herd, the Senns say they have no regrets.

Their DHIA official rolling herd average is 26,157 pounds of milk with 931 pounds of butterfat and 788 pounds of protein.

"Our main goal is to be able to farm and enjoy our children" Deb says. "We want to continue to make a decent living and spend time with our kids."

Their children are Tracy, 17; Ted, 15; and Travis, 12. All are active members of Campbellsport 4-H Club and Campbellsport FFA of which Tracy serves as president.

Jim is a member of Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin and Fond du Lac County Farm Bureau, and is a county 4-H tractor safety program leader.

Jim is the second generation of his family to be selected a Master Agriculturist. Peter, who served as state ASCS director from 1983-1992, was named a Master Agriculturist in 1984.

"I'm humbled to be named a Master Agriculturist," Jim says. "There has been so many good farmers that I know who have won this award over the years. I'm honored."

While the Senns have plans to milk a larger herd of cows, they haven't decided when to expand or how many more to milk.

"I've said from the beginning I don't want to milk 500 cows, but times change," Jim says. "I'm not sure how big we will get."