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50-year career culminates in Ameri-Milk dispersal

Callie Curley for Progressive Dairyman Published on 11 September 2017
Don Mielke with his Jersey cow

Football and farming. For many teenagers growing up on a family-owned dairy, this is a familiar combination. For Doug Mielke, who took over the farm from his father at age 12, however, the balancing act looked a bit different.

Hailing from Menasha, Wisconsin, Mielke was born the youngest of 10 children, and was first to step up and take on the responsibility of raising the commercial Brown Swiss and Holstein heifers remaining after health issues forced his father to sell their herd of dairy cows.

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“I was milking an average of 15 cows throughout high school, playing football on my school team,” Mielke says. “I also drove truck at night. I was pretty busy all the time.”

At the age of 15, he purchased his first seven dairy cows, Guernseys, from a retiring farmer in the area. At 17, as a recent high school graduate who turned down a football scholarship to pursue a career in dairy, he bought his first registered Holstein and a new era on the farm began under the prefix Ameri-Milk.

Those early years of hard work must have been a sign of the nearly 50 years to come.

With dreams of one day entering the export business, Mielke was driven and willing to learn what he needed to know in order to succeed. After beginning to breed within his own herd, he developed a love for genetics, and eventually turned that love into a 26-year career as an A.I. representative before being promoted to district sales management, a role he left in 1992 in order to invest more time and energy into his own herd.

And invest he did. Just one month after leaving his management position, Mielke had continued to develop his herd of registered Holsteins and began selling embryos internationally – meeting one of his original goals of entering the global market.

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“If you can set your mind to something, you do it, and if you can’t do it, make friends with the people who will teach you. Just ask for help,” Mielke says. “There are always people willing to help you learn and become better.”

Not long after he had returned to farming full-time, Mielke was approached by management at World Wide Sires to promote American genetics abroad. He traveled to Italy to promote dairy farming and A.I. practices, and continued to travel over the next four years, when he was asked once again to do something his 12-year-old self could have never anticipated.

“They said, ‘We need someone like you to take on the rebuilding of A.I. centers in Uganda,’” Mielke recalls. “I thought to myself, ‘How could I say no to an opportunity like that?’”

In the following years, Mielke made nine trips to the African nation, training more than 100 inseminators there. As an accredited dairy judge, he would go on to become the judge of the first Ugandan National Dairy Show.

In 1998, Mielke was then commissioned to do an A.I. training program for Select Sires. It was on a trip for that job that he became fascinated by the Jersey cow.

“In the heat of a 100-degree day, Jerseys were not showing any symptoms of heat. It was amazing to see the differences between them and other cattle I had worked with,” he recalls.

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On an A.I. promotion trip to Johannesburg, South Africa, later that year, he saw more of the breed that intrigued him. After talking with the South African farmers he met, Mielke returned to the U.S. in December 1998 and purchased his first two Jersey cows.

As he continued to purchase Jerseys and develop his herd in Wisconsin, Mielke believed he had finally discovered a way to make money milking cows: He was earning $3 more per hundredweight than his neighbors, all thanks to the components available in Jersey milk that he had not encountered in the other breeds he had worked with.

“One of my biggest regrets in life is not starting Jerseys sooner,” he says.

Don Mielke is 2013 Wisconsin Jersey Breeder of the year

By 2013, Mielke had been honored as a Wisconsin Jersey Breeder of the Year.

“People thought I was crazy,” Mielke says. “There I was, having an above-average herd of Holsteins, and I was slowly replacing them all with these little brown cows.”

What is important to note, according to Mielke, is that the transition did not happen overnight.

“Some people would ask why I didn’t just sell all the Holsteins and buy Jerseys to fill my barn,” Mielke says. “I never in my life borrowed a dime to buy a Jersey. It was a slow transition, and they eventually did take over the herd, not because I bought them and put them there, but because they really were superior.”

Udders, functionality and fertility are the traits that spoke to the dairyman and inspired him to continually improve his herd and practices.

Across the many breeds he worked with and the travels he experienced, Mielke sums his career aspirations into a simple statement: “Give me a reason to walk to the barn.”

Today, as a recent retiree, Mielke is able to pursue interests he hadn’t had the time for as a full-time dairyman. In addition to building a new, 100 percent solar-powered house on the farm property, he continues to learn more about the aquaculture industry and sustainable energies, give presentations to local youth and FFA programs sharing about his experiences in the industry, and working as a consultant with Scenic Central Milk Producers, a Wisconsin-based cooperative Mielke became involved with nearly six years ago.

“I have had the great privilege of helping four young couples get started in the dairy industry,” Mielke says of his experience with the co-op. “I do what I can to spark their interest and ask them ‘Why?’, because this is too tough of a job to get into without a real love for it.”

Looking back on a 47-year career capped by his herd dispersal in June of this year, Mielke expresses both pride and nostalgia, saying, “Being born and raised on Brown Swiss to then milk Guernseys, be honored for my Holsteins and want to die a Jersey breeder, and teach on three continents without ever attending college myself – that just shows you how many places this industry can take you if you let it.”  end mark

PHOTO 1: Don Mielke poses with a Jersey cow by his farm sign at Ameri-Milk Jerseys. Mielke fell in love with the Jersey breed after a trip for an A.I. workshop in 1998. He worked from then on to transition his barn full of Holsteins into a Jersey herd.

 

PHOTO 2: Don Mielke of Ameri-Milk Jerseys in Menasha, Wis., accepts the 2013 Wisconsin Jersey Breeder of the Year award. Photos by Jan Shepel. 

Callie Curley is a communications student at Penn State University.

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