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The Lena, Wis., family grows high-quality forages for their dairy cattle.

October 28, 2020

4 Min Read
A man crouching down in a forage while examining the plants
HIGH-QUALITY FORAGES: Daniel Olson says his farm’s location 30 miles north of Green Bay, Wis., along Lake Michigan, helps his family grow forages with a high level of fiber digestibility. Courtesy of Olson Farms

The cancellation of the 2020 World Dairy Expo meant farmers couldn’t feel or smell the winning entries at this year’s World Forage Analysis Superbowl, but that didn’t stop contest entries from flowing in from across the country.

The competition drew 266 entries from 16 states — down from 336 entries in 2019 — and included a Wisconsin farm that was the only entrant to earn a top-five finish in three different categories.

Related: Wyoming grower wins World Dairy Expo forage competition


Olson Farms of Lena, Wis., finished first in the Mixed/Grass Haylage Division, third in the Dairy Hay Division and fourth in the Grass Hay Division.

The multiple placings are nothing new for Olson Farms. The farm has finished in the top 10 in at least one division in every year but one since 2015, and has earned multiple top-10 finishes three times.

Focus on forages

“It’s kind of a highlight for us — it’s something we enjoy doing,” Olson Farms co-owner Daniel Olson says. He and his brother John represent the seventh generation of Olsons to operate the farm since it was founded in 1887. Their father, David, is still active in the operation, too.

“Definitely every year is a challenge,” Daniel says. “[The contest] provides us with a way to compare ourselves to what others are doing.”

The Olsons milk about 130 cows on their home farm and 160 cows at a dairy they established about six years ago. The newer dairy has a nonfamily farm manager. The Olsons also operate a store on the home farm that features pasture-raised beef, sheep, pork, lamb and poultry products, all raised on the farm.

“We enjoy having people out to the farm,” Daniel says. “Our biggest challenge this year has been demand is way up, and we can’t get enough butcher dates for our animals. We’re out of pork and have pigs ready to go, but we don’t have any butcher dates until February. But it has been a really good year for the direct sales end of things.”

The family runs about 1,200 owned and rented acres between the two farms. John oversees the machinery and cropping while Daniel manages the dairy and other aspects of the business. David is still in the barn for almost every milking, too.

The Olsons’ World Forage Analysis Superbowl mixed-grass hay entry featured meadow fescue, red clover, alfalfa and festulolium. Festulolium is a cold-season forage that is a cross between perennial ryegrass and meadow fescue.

“Our location being farther north and along Lake Michigan certainly helps with fiber digestibility on forages,” Daniel says. “We always try to work with premium European-type genetics in the grasses, and then we manage them pretty closely. The samples we normally win with are either late-fall or early-spring entries.”

Bumper crops

“We had an excellent year,” Daniel continues. “We have more forage than we know what to do with. And a lot of it is really high quality. It’s a good problem to have.”

Those late-fall and early-spring forages are fed to the lactating cows, while the forage harvested in midsummer are fed to young cattle and dry cows.

The Olsons’ third-place entry in the Dairy Hay Division featured a sample from a big square bale and was a highly digestible alfalfa with a little grass mixed in. The fourth-place grass hay entry included orchard grass, tall fescue and meadow fescue.

The Olsons generally get four crops of alfalfa and five with their grass mixes. They apply manure through the summer to boost the crops’ growth and persistence.

The dairy herd on the home farm is certified organic, so milk production isn’t as high as on the family’s newer dairy. But Daniel expects their organic milk price to average about $30 per cwt in 2020, which will make up for the somewhat lower production.

“Our goals are to maximize the amount of forage in the diet and focus on components and animal health,” he says.

Future farmers

It is highly likely that Olson Farms, also known as Norske Farm, will someday be operated by the eighth generation of Olsons, as Daniel and his wife, Hannah, have eight children. The oldest is 16.

“They have a lot of interest in the farm, so who knows what happens in the future,” Daniel says. “Our goal is to create enough enterprises on the farm that if they want to do something here in the future, they can take that project on and run with it — whether it’s direct sales or something with the cropping or maybe another dairy.”

Daniel says they are experimenting with registered animals and flushing some heifers on one of their farms, with the goal of creating another potential enterprise for a future generation.

“[The kids] have lots of different interests, so we want to provide lots of different options,” he says.

Massey lives in Barneveld, Wis.


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