at a Glance
Dan and Rosie Middendorf
Wadena County, Minnesota
The Middendorf farm is located
just north of Verndale in Wadena County, Minnesota.
Farm Type: Pasture
Size: 160 acre
130 crossbred cattle on pasture 200 days a year.
August 1, 2003: Feeding human food by-products
to the cows he milks and keeping them outside through Minnesota’s
winters are among the strategies that are working well for veteran
dairy grazier Dan Middendorf. He once had a conventional dairy with
40 Holsteins in a stall barn. His herd average of almost 26,000
pounds of milk per cow per year was among the highest in the state.
But he switched to grazing 12 years ago and now says “it’s
the only thing that makes sense” for the 130 crossbred cows
he is currently milking.
Dan and his wife Rosie bought their present 160-acrefarm north
of Verndale in Wadena County, Minnesota in 2000. Their son Joel,
22, bought an adjoining 115 acres and works cooperatively with his
parents full-time during the cropping season. Their daughter Beth,
15, is responsible for feeding calves. Daughters Sarah, 27, and
Katie, 20, and sons Eric, 25, and James, 19, are no longer at home
and not directly involved in the dairy operation.
Family is important to the Middendorfs. All of their children except
their oldest daughter were home schooled for at least part of their
education. “It made our children each other’s best friends,”
says Dan. “In a lot of ways it brought our family much closer
Before moving north to Wadena County the Middendorfs had a dairy
farm in central Minnesota near Sauk Centre in Stearns County. They
had 150 acres on the edge of corn and soybean country, and land
prices in the area were going up. They wanted to bring Joel into
the operation, but they couldn’t buy land because one neighbor
owned land on all sides of their farm.
They looked at their current place, which has a lane from the road
leading to buildings at the center of the farm, for the first time
on Jan. 17, 2000. “One of our neighbors who has been in the
area a long time told us this was set up as a grazing place in the
1880s,” says Dan Middendorf. “The light pole is the
center of the farm. We can have a tremendous number of animals here
and never go far from the barn. Where we were before, we often walked
three quarters of a mile to get to a pasture. Here we have access
to a lot more acres with a lot less walking.”
The farm was what they wanted, and they bought it, sold their other
farm, and had all their cows moved by April 17 of 2000.
The farm was previously a 150-cow conventional dairy. The soil
is sandy and the land came with some older irrigation equipment
and was used mainly for row crops. It’s an hour north of where
they were before, and Middendorf says they “lost two to three
weeks of growing season.”
Looking for a kind of cow, not a breed
As the Middendorfs transitioned from their stall barn dairy to
grazing, they also transitioned from straight Holsteins to crossbred
cows. Dan recalls that an older AI technician recommended breeding
the hard-settling cows to Milking Shorthorns. He liked the cows
that resulted from the cross.
“There was a winter when we had a night of 40 below zero
and had a group of month-old calves in open-front sheds,”
he says. “The crossbreds kept their ears and tails and the
straight blood calves all lost them. That says something for hybrid
Later they bought a herd of 40 crossbred cows, predominately red
and white Holstein and Red Poll. They also decided in 1996 to start
using semen from Normande, a French dual purpose breed.
“They’re what sustainable farmers in France use,”
says Middendorf. “The cows are bred for grass and the steers
are finished on straight hay and grass without grain. The bulls
have to compete in feed efficiency trials as young animals before
they get into the bull studs. A bull has to be in the top half of
the feed efficiency trial to be used for AI.”
Along with the Normande, the Middendorfs started using some Ayrshire.
“All breeds have their strong points. We’re trying to
breed a kind of cow, not a breed of cow,” says Middendorf.
“We want a medium-sized, easy fleshing, smooth cow. She needs
to carry her shed on her back in the winter time. If our cows don’t
put on weight in the fall they have a hard time in the winter. That’s
one of the good points of the Normande and Milking Shorthorn.”
Middendorf likes the good udder, strong feet and legs and longevity
of the Ayrshires. “The closest to our ideal would be a quarter
Holstein, a quarter Normande and half Ayrshire,” he says.
The herd annual milk production average is about 13,000 pounds per
cow. Middendorf would like to get it a little higher, but not too
much. With the cows staying outside through the cold weather, he
doesn’t want wet teat ends. “If a cow gives over 80
pounds of milk a day we have more trouble with leaking milk,”
he says. “If she gets a drop of milk on the end of a teat
when it’s cold and windy we have problems. We don’t
feed for real high production in the wintertime; we feed for high
With cows calving outside on pasture, calving ease is critical.
Middendorf says they have had very little trouble with calving.
He believes the exercise the cows get while on pasture is a key
to calving ease.
He’s not high on selecting bulls for AI according to calving
ease scores. “That can backfire if you’re not watching
pelvic width,” he says. “Most calving ease bulls are
narrow animals. If you have two or three generations bred narrow,
pretty soon you can’t get a calf out of the animal.”
Holding down feed costs is a key to making the Middendorf operation
profitable, and grazing is a big part of that. They aim to have
the cows on pasture about 200 days a year. After moving to their
present farm in 2000 they tilled the ground and seeded it to perennial
ryegrass, Alyce white clover, brome and meadow fescue, with annual
ryegrass as a cover crop. Since then they have done frost seeding
as the ground thaws in the spring. Middendorf says he doesn’t
ever expect to plow the pastures again.
He likes a pasture mix that includes legumes to fix nitrogen. One
of the grasses he likes best is the meadow fescue, a cross of fescue
and perennial ryegrass. It has held up well to winters and grazing
Researching the benefits of low-input
The Middendorfs are active cooperators in a 5-year
low-input dairy research project conducted by the University
of Minnesota’s West Central Research and Outreach
Center at Morris, Minnesota. Called “The Systems
Evaluation of the Components of Reduced Input Dairy
Farm Programs,” the project is designed to address
the question: “Can a reduced input dairy system
provide economic, environmental and social benefits
that allow moderate-sized farms to be established or
The 5-year study will explore seasonal dairy production
(including a comparison of spring and fall calving),
intensive grazing, cross-bread genetics, outdoor bedded
pack for housing, water quality, and adding value on
the farm to milk and meat. Ten cooperative farm families
throughout Minnesota, including the Middendorfs, are
participating in the project. It’s a new program,
so there’s not much to report, yet, by way of
conclusions. We’ll follow up with another piece
when enough data has been gathered to offer some recommendations
The 130 cows on pasture are moved twice a day. They get 3-4 acres
each time they are moved, getting a little more area during the
day than at night. Once an area is grazed the cows don’t come
back for two to three weeks.
The Middendorfs rent some pasture for their growing heifers. The
even get some pasture free because grazing reduces the fire hazard
from tall grass and because the landowners find it aesthetically
pleasing to have animals on the land.
They also rent ground for alfalfa-grass and clover-grass mixtures
that they harvest for winter feed. They harvest these forages as
large round bales. They like to harvest at 40-65 percent moisture,
and they wrap the bales in stretch plastic for ensiling. Middendorf
says the round-bale silage is very palatable and easy to feed, and
storage space outside is unlimited.
The wrapped bales are the main feed in winter, but they’re
supplemented by low-cost human food leftovers—potato peelings,
sugarbeet tailings and pelleted corn gluten. The potato peelings
come from a Lamb-Weston plant at Park Rapids, about 30 miles away.
The plant processes potatoes into fries, hash browns and tater tots.
The sugarbeet tailings come from processing plants at Wahpeton,
N. D. or Moorhead, Minn., both about 100 miles away.
The pelleted corn gluten comes from Wahpeton, and is a leftover
of processing corn into the high-fructose corn syrup used to sweeten
soft drinks and other human foods. The gluten has the germ left
in and contains about 23 percent protein and four percent fat. Middendorf
says it’s higher in feed value and lower in cost than shelled
corn on a pound-for-pound basis.
The leftover feeds also supplement the pasture for the milking
cows during the summer. “Right now we’re getting 5,500
pounds of milk per day from 128 cows,” he says. “We’re
feeding 700 pounds of corn gluten per day at 3.5 cents per pound
and 10 dollars worth of potato peelings per day. The cows also get
two ounces of salt and two ounces of calcium per head per day. We
figure 20 dollars per day for pasture, including land cost, for
the milking cows.”
Winter feed costs are only a little more. Middendorf says the wrapped
bales contain 600 pounds of dry matter and are worth $25 per bale.
They feed two to three bales a day, depending on what other feeds
are available. They like to feed 30 pounds of sugarbeet tailings
per head per day during the winter, at a cost of about five cents
“Our goal for winter feed costs is $3 per hundredweight of
milk,” says Middendorf. “Pasture is still cheaper than
The cows stay outside during the winter on a bedded manure pack
in an area bounded by trees on the north, east and west. The bedding
is mostly “swamp hay,” sometimes harvested from low
areas as late as mid-December after the ground has frozen.
The Middendorfs are active cooperators in a five-year low-input
dairy research project conducted by the University of Minnesota’s
West Central Research and Outreach Center at Morris, Minn. The research
team is headed by U of M animal scientist Dennis Johnson. The project
is gathering and analyzing data to evaluate various aspects of low-input
dairying in Minnesota’s sometimes harsh climate. Some of the
areas of investigation are intensive grazing, crossbred genetics,
outdoor bedded pack housing and seasonal dairy production. The Middendorfs
are among ten Minnesota farm families who cooperate in providing
data for the project.
Joseph Kurtz is a freelance writer, editor and photographer.
He is based in St. Paul, Minn., and has previously worked in Iowa