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Mursu Dairy moves ahead

Robotic milkers allow the family to stay on top of herd health.

Kevin Schulz, Editor

May 9, 2023

5 Min Read
Six members of Mursu family next to Mursu Dairy sign
PRODUCERS OF THE YEAR: The Mursu family from New York Mills, Minn., were named the 2022 Minnesota Milk Producers of the year. They are Tom (left), Tammy, Vanessa (holding Johan), Mallory and Jeremy Mursu.Courtesy of the Mursu family

Dairy has been the backbone of the Mursu family for decades, as Tom Mursu’s parents started milking on the farm, near New York Mills, Minn., in the mid-1950s.

“Dad started off milking 11 cows by hand,” Tom says. “He had a full-time day job. He’d milk in the morning before he went to work, drop off the milk cans at the local creamery, went to work to build silos all day, then came home and milked the cows again.”

Holsteins have been the constant at Mursu Dairy, but the operation has evolved over time. Milking by hand gave way to milking machines, and 10 years ago the 100-year-old, tiestall, hip-roof barn gave way to a freestall barn.

Mursu family in front of tractor

“It had served its purpose,” Tom says, speaking of the century-old barn, “and it didn’t really pay to put what I would call new money into old money.”

Tom and Tammy and their son Jeremy milked about 60 cows in that 36-stall barn, “and it was very labor-intense.”

New beginnings

The new freestall barn and the addition of two Lely robotic milkers allow for around-the-clock milking of the family’s 150 Holsteins. Though the Mursus spend a lot of time in the barns monitoring the cows and equipment, the robotic milkers allow the family to step away.

“That was definitely a switch,” Tom says, “In the old facility, you didn’t leave until everything was done. Whereas now, the robot is milking 24/7, and you have to leave sometime.”

“Robots lighten the labor, but it still requires time,” says Jeremy, adding that the addition of the robots did not require additional farmhands even though they increased the milking herd.

Jeremy tends to the feed rations and stays on top of the herd’s genetics that have got the dairy to a rolling herd average of 26,500 pounds of milk. On the average, cows are kept for about three lactations. The computers backing the robotic system track individual cow’s milk production — and much more.

Cows enter the milking station on their own, as many times as they choose, but they may not be milked each time.

“Our goal is to collect at least 28 to 30 pounds of milk per visit,” Jeremy says. “We need to be efficient with our time, so we don’t want to milk a cow every two hours.” Each cow is identified by a computer chip on her collar.

Cows entering the robotic milker receive an “individualized amount of pellets or concentrate feed based on how much they milk,” Jeremy says. Cows that give more milk get more feed because “they deserve it. … Some cows get milked four times a day. Some cows barely get milked twice a day. And that’s just fine.”

In addition to identifying the specific cow, the transponder on her collar also keeps track of the time spent chewing her cud [herd average currently is 530 minutes per day], “so if she deviates down too much from that or what she normally does, that will show up as an alert that this cow is not eating normal,” Jeremy says.

The transponder also acts as a pedometer, monitoring each cow’s movements. “On the days when she’s in heat, she might spike because she’s way more active in the barn,” Jeremy says. “Also, vice versa — if she’s sick, she’s not moving around as much, and her footsteps can be down.”

Mursu Dairy sells its milk to Land O’Lakes, but due to strategic and economic milk trades, fluid milk is delivered to Bongards facility in Perham, Minn., to be made into cheese.

In addition to the 150 cows being milked, the Mursus also raise their replacement heifers, meaning they go through a lot of feed. They raise nearly 500 acres of alfalfa and high-moisture corn, and drought hasn’t been the family’s friend. “We bought a lot of feed this past year [2021]. We had quite a severe drought up here,” Tom says. “Feed costs were high, but we were fortunate that the milk price was in our favor also.”

Last year’s crop allowed the Mursus to build up feed inventory, “but the milk price is softer, so that doesn’t help,” Tom says. What 2023 holds is yet to be seen, as “we went into the winter very dry,” Tom says. “We did not do any tillage because it was so dry last fall.”

Mursu Dairy was awarded the 2022 Producer of the Year by the Minnesota Milk Producers Association prior to the group’s annual meeting in February.

Open barn doors

Beginning with the new barn in 2013, the Mursus have had an open door. With their daughter Bridget being a kindergarten teacher in the local school, and their oldest granddaughter, Audrey, in kindergarten in 2014, it was only fitting for the class to come to the farm for a field trip.

Kindergarten class visits have continued since then, and Audrey is now a high school FFA member helping with these field trips. The class is divided in into eight groups, so each can rotate to all the different stations. Kindergartners get to visit the barn and see the robots in action; visit the milk house and the feed station, where the children make their own total mixed ration mix using various feeds that are put in a big tub and stirred. The students also get to see calves, a baby donkey, chicks, bunnies, kittens and baby goats.

In addition to the annual kindergarten visits, the Mursus open their farm to other groups such as a technology class, a field day with the University of Minnesota, nursing home residents and Lions clubs.

The family sees these farm visits as a way to inform the public about modern agriculture.

“There are a limited number of dairy farmers — and if somebody doesn’t reach out, how are they [the public] going to have a chance to see what a dairy farm is like?” Tammy says. “We do what we can in our corner of the world.”

About the Author(s)

Kevin Schulz

Editor, The Farmer

Kevin Schulz joined The Farmer as editor in January of 2023, after spending two years as senior staff writer for Dakota Farmer and Nebraska Farmer magazines. Prior to joining these two magazines, he spent six years in a similar capacity with National Hog Farmer. Prior to joining National Hog Farmer, Schulz spent a long career as the editor of The Land magazine, an agricultural-rural life publication based in Mankato, Minn.

During his tenure at The Land, the publication grew from covering 55 Minnesota counties to encompassing the entire state, as well as 30 counties in northern Iowa. Covering all facets of Minnesota and Iowa agriculture, Schulz was able to stay close to his roots as a southern Minnesota farm boy raised on a corn, soybean and hog finishing farm.

One particular area where he stayed close to his roots is working with the FFA organization.

Covering the FFA programs stayed near and dear to his heart, and he has been recognized for such coverage over the years. He has received the Minnesota FFA Communicator of the Year award, was honored with the Minnesota Honorary FFA Degree in 2014 and inducted into the Minnesota FFA Hall of Fame in 2018.

Schulz attended South Dakota State University, majoring in agricultural journalism. He was also a member of Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity and now belongs to its alumni organization.

His family continues to live on a southern Minnesota farm near where he grew up. He and his wife, Carol, have raised two daughters: Kristi, a 2014 University of Minnesota graduate who is married to Eric Van Otterloo and teaches at Mankato (Minn.) East High School, and Haley, a 2018 graduate of University of Wisconsin-River Falls. She is married to John Peake and teaches in Hayward, Wis. 

When not covering the agriculture industry on behalf of The Farmer's readers, Schulz enjoys spending time traveling with family, making it a quest to reach all 50 states — 47 so far — and three countries. He also enjoys reading, music, photography, playing basketball, and enjoying nature and campfires with friends and family.

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