The United States was often referred to as the ‘land of opportunity’ for immigrants from Europe during the 19th century. While the U.S. isn’t going through the same land rush as those days of the settlers and pioneers there is still great potential for new citizens to move into rural America.
Running the family dairy in the Netherlands and milking 150 cows Jan Boelen was looking for ways to grow the business, but access to land was limited. “We were maxed out there and it was too expensive.”
In 2007, Jan visited the U.S. with his wife, Dorine, for the first time. They saw the promise dairying in the U.S. held during a tour of farms in Ohio, Michigan and Indiana.
Going back to the Netherlands the couple talked it over and decided to come back to the U.S. in 2008, this time to look at possibly purchasing a dairy.
“We always wanted to farm bigger than what we did in the Netherlands and we wanted to have a future if one of our kids wants to be a dairy farmer,” Dorine says.
During the next visit Jan and Dorine toured Dutch dairies in Iowa to see what other immigrants were doing in the state. At the time Iowa was offering green cards through the EB-5 visa program for families that started dairies.
One of the stops was at a dairy farm that Jan and Dorine say was struggling. Milk production was low at an average less than 45 lbs. per day and many of the 238 cows were suffering from lameness issues.
“Later on we found out the bank didn’t support them anymore,” Dorine adds. After this discovery the Boelens decided the dairy could work well, but first the five children needed to visit Iowa to determine if it was the right fit for the whole family.
“We let them help make the pick. At the time the oldest was 16 years old,” Dorine says. “We had a fun schedule to help show them the nice things in Iowa and show them what it would be like to live here.”
Finally in 2009, the family bought what would become Bear Creek Dairy L.P. near Brooklyn, Iowa. After acquiring the dairy immediate changes needed to be made.
Previously cows were standing in the free stall barn because there was too much concrete and minimal amounts of sawdust was used for bedding. Jan took out some of the concrete and changed to sand bedding, this changed some of the leg issues but cows still had poor feet.
“They needed a hoof trimmer,” Jan says. Cows began to walk properly thanks to the initial hoof trimming and now the dairy has a trimmer come by every two weeks.
Growing the dairy has been a process that has involved purchasing more cows than the original herd. The Boelens have bought cows and bred heifers from across the country but prefer to buy herds when they can.
“You experience a lot of different things with how people treat their herds,” Dorine says. “You have to treat them like ladies.”
In one case cows bought from a farm using stanchions weren’t walking properly when introduced to the free stall barn.
“They were dragging their feet on the concrete and after a week their hooves were thin,” Jan says. “We couldn’t block them. We had to sell quite a few cows out of that herd, but there are still some left.”
Throughout the past five years Jan and Dorine have continued adding onto the farm with new barns and cows. This fall the finishing touches were put on the last free stall and the herd of 1,200 cows has more than doubled the average production to 100 lbs. a day.
“The rolling herd average is almost at 32,000 lbs. now. That’s some milk coming out,” Jan adds.
Some of the production can be attributed to BST, a technology Jan and Dorine could not utilize in Europe. They credit much of the increases to a focus on cow comfort and nutrition.
“It is important that you have good feedstuffs so you don’t slide down in production. Jan is always spoiling his cows,” Dorine says.
Some silage is grown on the 200 acres of crop ground at the farm, but the majority comes from local farmers within a 10 mile radius. The majority of hay comes from southwest Iowa and Nebraska.
The Boelens also attribute the nutritional success to their nutritionist who was introduced to them by their barn builder.
“If you don’t know that many people when you just come in here it’s really important that you make good contacts,” Dorine says.
The future looks bright for the Boelens with their eldest son showing an interest in returning to the farm. He’s currently attending Northeast Iowa Community College to focus his education on agriculture and working at the college dairy.
In the meantime Jan and Dorine will continue to buy more cows to help reach the permitted limit of 1,500 cows and 500 calves that can be housed at the farm. That’s 10-times as many cows as the family could milk in the Netherlands.
Jan says the biggest difference between the U.S. and the Netherlands, “It’s been easier to expand here.”