7/29/2013 12:58:00 PM Starting up at 50 Unemployment drives Alderink's return to dairy farming
The Alderinks sit outside their 32-cow tiestall barn on their 80-acre farm near Grasston, Minn. Sue is holding granddaughter, Amelia. Jeff is holding granddaughter, Matilda. Back row is Maddy and daughter-in-law, Kristen. PHOTO BY MARK KLAPHAKE
Alderinks’ granddaughter, Maddy (11), spends a lot of time helping on the dairy farm. She helps feed calves, milks and feeds cows. PHOTO BY ANDREA BORGERDING
by Andrea Borgerding
GRASSTON, Minn. - After his job application was refused by almost 20 different businesses, Jeff Alderink knew he had to change where he was looking for a job. He looked right outside his kitchen window - at the small tiestall barn sitting empty. "I thought to myself, 'what is the one thing I know how to do. I know how to milk cows'," said 56-year-old Alderink. Six years ago, Alderink left his job of 15 years as a parts manager. He was driving 40 minutes one-way to work and working sometimes 70 hours a week. He left that implement dealer to find a job closer to home. At his age, Alderink felt no one wanted to hire him. After applying for jobs for several months with no success, Alderink went to his wife, Sue, to discuss the possibility of milking cows. "Me being a city girl I said, 'Oh what fun,'" Sue said. "I thought it was a great idea." Jeff and Sue were already raising 30 beef cows on their 80-acre farm. The 32-cow tiestall barn was sitting empty but still had the pipeline and bulk tank. In September 2007, the Alderinks began preparing the barn for dairy cows again. They sold their herd of beef cows and used the money to purchase a vacuum pump and fix the barn cleaner. Two months later, they purchased a herd of 26 Holstein cows from a neighbor and began milking cows. "I hadn't milked cows for years," Jeff said. "I grew up on a dairy farm and milked my own cows up until 20 years ago." Besides milking for his sister several times, Jeff felt awkward getting back into milking. "I was scared of the cows at first," Jeff said. "I worked with beef cows, but Holsteins are more hands on." Jeff said he had quite the learning curve to managing the dairy cows again. Since he hadn't milked since the '80s, many of the drug treatments don't exist anymore. Foot problems were something he never had to tackle in his early days and the overall cow, he said, is very different. "I was surprised by how cows are nowhere near as strong as they used to be," Jeff said. "I'm getting the same milk production as I did when I milked 20 years ago and the Holstein seems like such a weak breed." Jeff has since focused on genetics to improve his herd. "We bought a herd with good breeding but bad feet and legs. I need the 1970s cow. The ones that were tough," Jeff said. "Now I look for cows with strong legs and good milk production." The cows have also become a family affair for the Alderinks. "One of the best things that has come from this is having the grandchildren involved," Sue said. The Alderinks have seven adult children and eight grandchildren. All of them enjoy the cows and calves. Eleven-year-old Maddy spends much of her time at her grandparents' farm helping feed calves, milk and feed cows. Another grandchild, two-year-old Matilda, puts photos of some of the cows on her headboard and before she goes to bed says good night to the cows. Sue also feeds calves and has a part time job with the township. "People told us that we would not get along working together," Jeff said of working with his wife. "But we just had to readjust and it has worked just fine." "The cows start looking for him when it comes feeding time," Sue said. "They really love him." The feeling is mutual for Jeff. He said he had no regrets in being tied down again to the daily milking routine. Jeff hasn't missed a milking since starting in November 2007. "It doesn't bother me," Jeff said. "I'm getting up in the morning and going to work right here instead of driving 30 miles to work." Today, the Alderinks are milking 28 cows and have 30 bred heifers and Jeff said his cow intuition is coming back. "I can tell if a cow is sick by the hair on its back," Jeff said. The Alderinks grow alfalfa, corn and oats on their 80 acres plus another 80 acres they rent. Jeff milks at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. and leaves the cows outside for 4-5 hours a day. The cows receive free choice hay outside and are fed grain and silage in the barn. Their herd average is currently about 18,000 pounds. Jeff said he isn't getting rich by milking cows, but he is doing just as well as he was working out. "Our net worth is growing and we can pay stuff off," Jeff said. The Alderinks agree, the change to milking cows was worth it. They plan to continue for as long as they can. "I like seeing the cows doing well - seeing them eat and produce milk," Sue said. "And I like being with Jeff everyday." "My advice to others would be to think twice before starting milking in their 50s if they have been off for 20 years," Jeff said with a smile. "It's definitely a challenge."