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Dairywoman realizes dream to farm on her own

Progressive Dairyman Editor Peggy Coffeen Published on 24 November 2015
Cassie Zirbel and daughter

Some little girls grow up playing house and dreaming of their wedding day. But not Cassie Zirbel. She was much too busy making up charts and breeding dates for her herd of imaginary cows.

Today, Cassie has her very own barn of real cows near Greenleaf, Wisconsin, where she balances being the primary operator of her dairy farm and, with her husband, Jeff, raising their young family, including Josh (8), Audrey (6) and Harper (4).

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Cassie grew up on a dairy farm and worked on her uncle’s operation after her family sold their cows when she was 13. Her love for working with cattle prompted her to pursue a specialized education through the University of Wisconsin – Madison’s Farm and Industry Short Course.

After completing the two-year program, she gained further experience with both cows and people as she went to work on a couple of commercial dairies, quickly rising through the ranks to co-manage a large, expanding dairy by the time she was in her early 20s.

Although it had crossed her mind that the hours and dedication she put into her job would be the same as if she ran her own farm, Cassie knew that without an operation in her family to work into, it was nearly impossible for a young person to start from scratch.

“I just thought I couldn’t do it because I didn’t come from a farm anymore and didn’t have a barn,” she recalls. But her perspective changed when she heard of another young woman who had done just that.

While she could have joined Jeff on his family farm, Den-Mar Acres, working on their 700-cow dairy wasn’t what was on her mind or in her heart.

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“I know I could have went and worked for them, but I wanted to do something on my own,” she says.

So, at age 24, Cassie bought a herd of 60 cows and rented a nearby tiestall barn to milk them. With no manure storage or heifer facilities, she faced limitations there. Two years later, in April 2009, the opportunity came up for her and Jeff to buy a 13-acre parcel with a house, barn, manure pit and buildings owned by his family.

With some elbow grease and the help of an FSA loan, Cassie was able to set the dairy up to do most of the daily chores with limited help. They retrofitted the existing barn’s outdated step-up parlor to a basic swing-10 and built a compost barn to house her herd.

A small, older freestall barn was renovated to house dry cows and provide a calving pack, and they knocked the concrete out from the bottom of the two-story barn to make room for calf pens.

“We did quite a bit of the work ourselves,” she says, adding that Jeff was “Superman,” carrying out the heavy-lifting renovations while she was pregnant with their second child.

Cassie recognizes that the support from Jeff and his family has been, and continues to be, a key component of making her dairying dreams a reality. Each morning, the TMR truck from their dairy delivers feed to her cows, which eliminates the need for her to run crops or invest in machinery, and she knows she can count on them to lend a hand when needed.

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“Jeff and his family have been huge supporters,” she acknowledges. “They have been very accommodating to helping me.”

Dairying certainly has its good days and bad, and in 2009, when milk prices hit rock-bottom lows, Cassie felt the pinch. The milk check barely covered her feed costs, yet quitting never crossed her mind. “That’s one of the things about farmers,” she states. “We just roll up our sleeves and keep going.”

In fact, tough times early on taught her a valuable lesson. “I basically learned to farm like every year was a bad year,” she explains. “Get ahead while you can. If you do make money one year, carry it over to the next by pre-paying things. This has helped me a lot.”

Outsourcing her heifer raising is another strategy that helped Cassie manage her finances and her chores. Year-old heifers go to a grower who then uses them as recipients for his embryo transfer business, and she gets them back at a few days fresh.

Not only does this prevent her from having to take on more debt to build a heifer facility, but it also helps to keep her herd size at a consistent, manageable size because she is not getting the calves from her heifers.

Cassie is currently milking around 87 cows with no plans to grow, but she now shares her facilities and workload with another young farmer who also has her own herd of 40 cows.

The two women work together to do the milking shifts, and Cassie is happy to share her barn, bulk tank and workload with a reliable person who can be there if she needs to get the kids on the school bus or take a Sunday afternoon off to watch the Green Bay Packers.

As she looks around at her operation, Cassie takes pride in what she has built. “I am proud of this farm in general – remodeling it and getting to a nice place financially, that makes me feel good,” she says.

Yet her ultimate satisfaction is not in the cows she milks but rather in the kids she is raising.

“Your biggest achievements are probably not visibly seen,” she adds. “My kids and the environment we raise them in make me proud. They are good, respectful kids raised on a farm with parents that show them a good example, and that makes me very proud.”  PD

PHOTO: Cassie Zirbel is proud to be living out her dairying dream and raising her family on a farm. She is pictured here with youngest daughter Harper. Photo by Peggy Coffeen.

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