Hemme Dairy and Creamery - Sweet Springs, Missouri
Hemme Dairy and Hemme Brothers Farmstead Creamery are located in Sweet Springs, Missouri, about 60 miles east of Kansas City. The dairy has farmland and pastureland scattered over a 10-mile radius in Saline County.
The dairy is jointly owned and operated by David Hemme and three of his four sons, Jon, Nathan and Michael. David and his wife, Janet, have a daughter, who works off the farm because she genuinely enjoys the work she does, not because the dairy cannot support her. Aaron, the youngest son, worked in the family operation for several years but has opted to pursue other ventures independent of Hemme Dairy and Hemme Creamery.
Jon and his wife, Brittany, have two children; Nathan and his wife, Ashley, have four children; while Michael and his wife have a foster child, and are expecting a child, as of this writing. Jon says their children get involved in appropriate activities once they are old enough and so far, his children and Nathan’s older pair are helping in various ways on the farm.
The Hemme Family on their Farm
Management duties on the farm, including the creamery, are shared among the sons. Jon’s dad raised leaders, and decision-makers, not mere workers. “None of us can really tell each other what to do, so we split things up to keep the peace,” Jon says. Each son has his own “management zone,” stepping into that role based on personal interest and passion, skillset and need at the time.
Jon oversees the row cropping enterprises and developing the replacement heifers. Michael has responsibility for the dairy, particularly managing the reproduction work. Aaron has been managing dairy herd nutrition and the new beef cattle enterprise but how those responsibilities will be distributed amongst the other brothers as he pursues other opportunities is yet to be determined. Nathan manages the creamery and cheesemaking. David has been involved in all aspects of the farm, dairy, and creamery and now his current role is as lead cheese salesman. “Dad is the one getting us all the cheese orders. He has indulged himself into the world of food and he knows every high-end chef in Kansas City and St. Louis,” Jon says. “He just waltzes in and sees what they’re up to and what they need. He knows that world, he’s really what has grown our business.”
The Hemme Brothers
By the spring of 2023, Hemme Dairy will have two full-time employees. Tony Gifford is the other cheese maker, with Nathan, at the creamery. Brenton (Bobby) Wright, who has been working for them part-time for several years while attending college, will move to full-time in spring 2023. In addition to the full-time help, they also have 4-5 part-time workers to help milk cows.
Hemme Dairy controls about 1,300 total acres, of which 1,000 is tillable. The remainder is pasture and hay ground with some timber. They dedicate 100 acres of corn each year for corn silage for their 150 lactating cows.
They retain all the heifers produced as possible replacements that graze on about 120 acres of grass pasture.
They also have a 30-head beef cow herd, an enterprise they added in the spring of 2022, when they took over their grandfather’s beef herd. The beef-cow herd grazes about 60 acres but since the beef herd is such a new enterprise, they haven’t decided just what its future looks like within the context of the operation as a whole.
Finally, the Hemmes have a small hog enterprise with 30-50 Berkshire hogs. Feeding whey to the hogs provides a way to utilize whey from the creamery. Because the hogs are not out on pasture, they use the facilities still available from when the Hemmes solely raised hogs, and direct market all of their whey-fed pork, which is very tender and flavorful, in contrast to commercially raised pork.
Hemme Farms was initially a 200-sow farrow-to-finish hog operation. David managed the conventional confined-hog operation but in the early 1990s, he didn’t like the direction the pork industry was heading and he knew he had to do something different.
In 1995, David pivoted to dairying. He started a New Zealand-style, grass-based dairy on the 180-acre farm where Jon lives now. With assistance from USDA-NRCS, they installed water lines and other water developments along with alleyways and subdivided everything into seven-acre paddocks. He did well for several years with this type of setup, but because it was a prescriptive type operation, he “hit a wall” and had to examine the possibility of doing things differently.
With a growing number of mouths to feed, David realized the family couldn’t generate more income on their acreage base, but it was a struggle. In a drought year, he would purchase feed like a conventional (confined animal) dairy but lacked the necessary facilities to do that successfully. “Over time, it morphed into a conventional dairy so we could get control of the environment for the cows,” Jon says. But with the shift to conventional production came increased costs, specifically significantly more overhead, which made going conventional tougher. “We had way too much overhead,” Jon says. “Once you build the barn you've got to have all the equipment to go with it. It just never ends. Things like manure spreaders rust out before they wear out. It's a double-edged sword, producing conventionally, for sure.”
“I'm not saying he couldn't have made the grazing dairy work,” he says. “It's just tough on our soils because we've got some deep, rich, silt loam soils on that farm. There were times when it seemed there was no bottom to that and the cows would get muddy and tear up the stand of grass. There's a lot to manage around for sure.”
Jon said they were strictly livestock producers his entire childhood and in 2010, his uncle decided to step away from his 400 acres, as he was having some health issues and Jon said he didn’t want the stress of it anymore. The Hemmes were asked to take that land over, becoming their start into “the farming part of things,” which has grown since.
Because they had never raised crops, it was all new to Jon. Initially, he followed what his uncle and grandfather had been doing, which was farming conventionally. Over time, Jon grew tired of doing all the tillage, so they implemented more minimum tillage practices, then no-till and eventually they incorporated cover crops. Now their cropland is much different today because when they first took over, Jon recognized that he was “a degrader of the soil.” He sees now that he just didn't know any better. Where their farm is located (Saline County, MO), the second highest-yielding county in the state, is a very fertile part of Missouri. The soils on the farm are very good for the most part and they grow primarily corn and soybeans with some wheat on their tillable acres.
They raise some forage crops as well, including millet, which they ensile for the lactating cows. When Jon has the opportunity to plan ahead, he designs a cover crop mix specifically for putting up a spring cutting as silage hay for lactating cows. They do some double cropping between the cash crops and the forage crops. ”Since I got into the regenerative ag thing, we've been grazing cover crops a lot more for winter feed, which has been really big for us,” Jon says. Their current production model is the total opposite of what they did previously, which essentially was a feedlot or drylot-type system. Jon says his current cost to develop a replacement heifer is about half of what it used to cost. He estimates that it was costing him more to raise a heifer than what she would have brought at the sale barn if he sold her. “I decided I was a little too young to have a hobby, he says with a chuckle.
The Hemmes started the on-farm creamery in 2016. Prior, the number of cows they milked and the number of acres they farmed didn’t provide enough income to have a full-time salaried person on the farm, a time Jon characterizes as “super tough.”
The key driver behind the move to start the creamery was to provide the opportunity to keep all the sons on the farm by generating sufficient net revenues so they could each make a decent living. “I'll just put it this way, my last brother, who came back to the farm would not be here now if we wouldn't have started the creamery. It came down to us either needing to scale up in a commodity system or do a value-added system. We thought the rate of return would be a lot better on the value added than on scaling up, either milking 500 cows or trying to secure enough farmland to lease.”
The other alternatives didn't seem very feasible for them financially. “Some guys can make it work because they have the funding to back it up, but we haven't come from entitled money or anything,” Jon says. Everything we've got is what we've made and we’re not to that stage where we can do whatever we want.”
Making Cheese at the Creamery on the Farm
They attempted to start the creamery five years before they were actually able to do it. Jon describes those years as “really tough,” experiences a stray voltage issue at the dairy and the whole herd got mastitis. They had to install a blocker at the transformer to take care of the problem, but it was too late at that point. “We lost a lot of money there and it took us a while to dig out of that,” Jon says, but the family endured.
It wasn’t until 2016 that the Hemmes were finally able to qualify for the financing required to construct the creamery and make their first batch of cheese. “We've grown that organically since the original investment,” Jon says. “We haven't borrowed a dime to grow that business since our original loan. We've just done everything on a cash flow basis. We've been burnt too much in the past with too much debt.”
Jon realizes they could have grown their business much faster than they have, had they borrowed more money, but he says, “It just hadn't been worth it to us.” In fact, Jon mentioned that they have more growth plans, specifically, establishing a destination agrotourism retail space with access from I-70. “The price tag on that will just blow your mind.” Jon says. “They plan to build cash reserves before attempting that venture, but with interest rates moving up, Jon admits, “It’s scary.”
The Transition to Regenerative Agriculture
When they started into crop production, the Hemmes farmed conventionally. Over time, they had some landlords who required them to use no-till practices on some of the ground they had picked up. Jon had been farming no-till on a few of their leased farms, farms he considered common farms and he was surprised with the yields they got on those farms. Based on what he observed, Jon started implementing no-till practices on their own “common” land and they saw their yields go up promptly.
“If I am not going to get a yield anyways, I might as well not do the tillage. And then I saw my yields go up, he says. his yields increased, he thought he was doing well. In 2017, Jon raised 90-bushel wheat, 220-bushel corn, and 65-bushel soybeans and was “blown away” by the yields. But as commodity prices fell, he didn't make any money, even producing such big yields.
That fall, the landlord who introduced him to cover crops, told him, “Jon, there's this guy from North Dakota who can raise corn for $1.74 a bushel or something like that.” Jon thought, “Bull. There's no way.” Jon estimated he was raising corn for almost $3 a bushel, and he was selling it for $3 a bushel. Obviously, he wasn't making money, but he thought, “Heck, if I could raise it for $1.70 or so, at least I can make money raising corn when it's that cheap.”
His landlord didn't even know the North Dakota farmer’s nameso Jon googled “North Dakota cover crop man,” and the name Gabe Brown appeared. He watched Gabe’s videos and was “blown away” because Gabe was discribing something that Jon never thought was possible. Intrigued by what he saw, Jon estimates he spent 200 hours that winter researching regenerative agriculture on YouTube. The next year he went to Gabe's ranch for a tour, began attending various conferences and meeting people who were farming regeneratively and started slowly implementing the principles and concepts on his own operation. It was a progression, proceeding step-by-step, not doing everything at once. In 2018, Jon had about 200 acres in cover crops, which he doubled to 400 acres the following year. Jon says the positive impact was too significant to ignore, so he has been seeding all 1,000 acres of tillable land to cover crops since that time.
Jon’s No-Till Drill
“The devil is in the details and just going out and planting a cover crop doesn't mean you're going to be successful,” Jon cautions. “You can have an awesome cover crop, and it can end up being the biggest detriment if you don't know how to manage it.” In Jon’s opinion, the cover crop is a facilitator, but it is not what dictates success. Success depends on how the cover crops are managed between planting and termination. Highlighting the importance of having the necessary tools and equipment to handle and manage the cover crop at planting, Jon says, “It’s a learning process, a learning curve. You're not going to get the stand you want if you don't know when to terminate it or how to make adjustments on the fly.” Adding, “I've heard that cover crops make a good farmer better and a bad farmer worse. There's a lot of truth to that.” For farmers who aren’t timely with field operations, chances are they aren’t very good at farming to begin with, trying to use cover crops likely won’t be of much benefit, instead, they’ll make things worse, he says.
The switch from a conventional system to a regenerative system requires a manager who understands how nature works and who can work within that context. “I was extremely gifted with the way I think.” Jon says. “I'm really good at straightforward things, linear things. I worked in construction for quite a while through college, becoming a crew leader quickly because I'm goal oriented and can focus on getting the job done and moving on to the next one. Managing regeneratively isn’t like that. You're not going to manage a regenerative system like that because it will not succumb to you.” He adds that producers need to work within the context of the farm and ask plenty of questions the answers to which may completely change how you do things, like planting dates, what you plant, cover crop mix designs, etc. Jon says the process is ongoing, “It's still me trying to learn, within the context in which I'm farming,” he says.
The first year Jon planted cover crops, he didn't have the necessary equipment on his planter to make it work well. He didn’t intend to let his cover crops get really big, but they did. It rained all spring, and they kept growing. Then he went out with his conventional no-till equipment and was left trying to figure out why he couldn't get seed in the ground. He found out that he had to remove his no-till Coulter (a wavy blade on the front of the planting unit that cuts and works a slot in the soil ahead of the disc opening blades) from his planter to keep it from hair-pinning. He also learned that the disk-opener blades on his drill weren't heavy enough, causing them to break and wear out far too quickly. He also realized he didn't have the right closing wheels on the planter., As he drove the planter through the field, the cover crops wrapped the closing wheels “like hay bales.”
Image left: Jon’s No-Till Drill with a Roller-Crimper Mounted on the Front Tool Bar
Jon called it his biggest nightmare. But by the next year, he had a completely different setup on his planter. He knew he needed equipment that could get the job accomplished, taking lessons learned from year one and making the necessary adaptations. Now, he gets great stands every time he plants, even when planting into heavy biomass cover crops. “It's not that I'm that much smarter,” Jon says. “I mean, I'm driving just the same as I did before, it’s just that I've got a different setup behind me that's equipped for the job.” He admits there is much to the process and that he is still learning.
The Hemmes try to graze cover crops extensively, as conditions allow. Going into the winter of 2022, Jon says he didn’t have much to graze. They hadn’t received any measurable moisture since June, leaving them in a D-2 drought for five months. Grazing cover crops is not something the Hemmes count on 100%, instead, they carry over enough feed, just in case conditions deteriorate. But when it’s available, they certainly take advantage of whatever grazing they can. Jon says that many of his crop fields adjoin pastureland and tries to plan accordingly, getting those crop fields planted in a timely fashion to increase the chance of winter grazing.
Jon says the pastures are permanently fenced, and they run a hot wire around the perimeter of the crop fields. “They may only be in there two months out of the winter, but that's two months out of the winter I don't have to feed,” he says.
Hemme Heifers Grazing Cover Crops
Changes Observed and Key Points of Progress Since Implementing Regenerative Practices
One major shift Jon has observed as they’ve incorporated regenerative production strategies is the change in focus from product yield and output to regenerative management. In their cropping enterprises, he reports dramatically reducing fungicide and insecticide usage. “I never liked the idea of something taking a 10-year average to get a positive financial gain from some products, because I've seen too many years when you spend the money and don’t see any yield response,” he says.
Once Jon began using cover crops, he started learning about the soil damage caused by many of the conventional production practices he previously used. They've tried hard to eliminate as many of those conventional practices that as possible. He acknowledges that he’s not saying he'll never use conventional methods again, but if he does, it will be because he is certain that it’s absolutely necessary for that specific situation. In short, chemical use and tillage practices are “tools in the toolbox,” available when needed, but no longer used prescriptively or indiscriminately.
The use of cover crops has allowed Jon to reduce his herbicide cost, especially in soybeans. “Honestly, I've got cleaner fields now than I ever did before using covers,” Jon says. “It's like I get significant weed suppression out of them, so that's been a big positive. Using the cover crops in the crop program has absolutely changed the way I manage things and look at things.” He said he would like to generate even more financial gain from using cover crops, but the primary reason he uses them is to add carbon back to the soil and to build resiliency in their cropping system.
Soybeans Planted into Rolldown Covers
Jon sees that their regenerative production practices are generating positive compounding effects that they will enjoy over the long haul, bus says one landlord he leases from is “cover crop crazy,” asking Jon to do things he’s not comfortable with, even now. “Everything's a theory for him,” Jon says. “Then I've got to put it into action and hope it works. But he's made me try a lot of things that ended up being good for me to try.” The Hemmes have been regeneratively managing that farm aggressively for seven years, and the soil organic matter levels (SOM) have gone from 2% to over 4% in that period. “Seven years, just blows my mind, but we have been super aggressive on that farm,” he says. Improving soil health has been a priority over anything else, which Jon thinks is necessary to generate such progress. Reports about a 1% gain in SOM in four or five years in many of the other fields they farm, Jon says they are making progress, but just more slowly since they are not nearly as aggressive on those acres.
The Hemmes have tried biological inoculants, such as compost and extracts. “We haven't seen a tremendous amount of success with those,” Jon says. “We're very much still learning, and I'm not going to sit here and say it's all been roses either. I've had a lot of failures along the way.” While those failed efforts have not resulted in any crop failures, Jon feels they haven’t made his life any easier.
One challenge Jon warns others about is a tendency to overdo things at first. He says it’s easy for cover crops to get too big, especially when soils aren’t very active, and if the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio gets out of whack with too much carbon on the soil surface, plant residues won’t break down very quickly, creating an issue during the next crop year. For the Hemmes, a cold, wet spring means they’ll have a lot of biomass still on top of the ground. Their soils will be cold and wet. Under such conditions, Jon says, “If I still think that I'm going to go out and plant corn when it's early, it's going to be a failure because I'm planning into wet, cold soils. That's where you’ve got to start changing the way you do things and start catering your management to what’s been given to you. You can't just force things.”
Jon has modified his no-till planter with rollers on the front so they can take a 6-footltall cereal rye cover crop and roll it flat as he plants. He is also equipped to spray herbicide out the back in case he feels that the rollers are inadequate to terminate the cover crop. Jon’s planter has worked well for him, but he admits that his success is contingent on the type of spring he has, and consequently, whether or not the biomass will keep him out of his fields. Grazing helps, especially in cold, wet springs because the livestock will graze much of the biomass and trample much that remains, effectively recycling it back into the soil, making spring planting easier.
A key point of progress Jon cites is cost savings in their cropping enterprises. By using cover crops in their soybeans, he estimates that he has cut his herbicide costs by about $40 an acre, his fungicide and insecticide costs close to $30 an acre, and he’s also saving another $13 an acre by not using any nematicide seed treatment. With a total cost savings of $83 an acre, Jon said he still consistently hits his yield targets, which are similar to what they were previously and to those of their conventional neighbors, so they are not sacrificing yields to farm regeneratively. In addition, his fields are now cleaner than they were when they were farming conventionally. He thinks much of that progress is due to getting cover crops established in the fall, effectively controlling many of the early-season weeds. “If you don't do that, you're trying to control Mother Nature with chemistry, and that costs a lot,” he says.
Jon calls the response they’ve seen farming soybeans regeneratively their success story but he hasn’t seen a response like that with their corn enterprise. “It’s definitely a harder one to manage, but we're slowly getting there,” he says. When farming corn regeneratively, Jon tries to manage his cover crops so he can accomplish the same on his corn as he does with soybeans. He admits that he’s had some flops, but when he manages it well, he estimates that he has been able to reduce nitrogen application by 40-50%. Jon stressed that while soybeans are forgiving, corn is not. When managed properly, they have not seen a decrease in corn yields, but when it’s not done right, it will be costly. Producing corn regeneratively definitely takes a much higher level of management to be successful and not see yields fall.
A key lesson learned with regenerative corn was the importance of getting his cover crops established early enough in the fall to get the species needed to keep that carbon and nitrogen ratio low enough that it wouldn’t result in yield losses. “It comes down to nitrogen management,” Jon says. If you get that carbon and nitrogen ratio out of whack and you're too high on the carbon side, you definitely cannot reduce your nitrogen. As a matter of fact, you may need to add some extra to overcome that.”
Image right: Corn Planted into Rolldown Covers
He related his 2022 experience to highlight the potential of regenerative production. In one particular field (65 acres) that Jon farmed regeneratively, he planted a cover crop (15 and 6 lbs. of wheat and hairy vetch, respectively) on November 6, 2021. While it had been too wet to plant when he wanted to, on June 6, 2022, he planted corn into the green cover, and he terminated the cover crop the following day. That summer, they received only six inches of rainfall from planting to harvest conditions resulting in a D-2 - D-3 drought designation. Applying 120 lbs. of nitrogen per acre, Jon harvested the corn from that field on October 29, 2022, yielding 150 bushels per acre.
Jon compared that regenerative field to conventionally farmed no-till corn, which received 180 lbs. of nitrogen per acre and yielded 120 bushels per acre. He estimates net cost savings of $102 per acre:
Nitrogen Savings: $60
Herbicide Savings: $60 (no post-emergent application)
Cover Crop Cost: -$18
Net Cost Savings: $102/acre
The conventionally-farmed corn yielded 120 bushels per acre, compared to the 150 bushels the regeneratively-farmed corn yielded, an increase of 30 bushels per acre. At a corn price of $7.20 per bushel, the additional yield had an estimated value of $216. Thus, the change in net revenue per acre is:
Net Cost Savings: $102
Value of the Additional Output: $216
Change in Net Revenue: $318/acre
Cutting nitrogen application without sacrificing yield was especially encouraging. At the same time, he is cautious. “But I'm not good enough at that to put all my eggs in one basket,” Jon says. “I don't like crop failures either. I think that's the balance, getting comfortable and being able to prove you can do it before you start doing a whole lot of it.”
Regenerative agriculture is often characterized as “a journey, not a destination,” one in which producers keep growing, and keep getting better. It doesn’t require going full scale at the outset. A better approach, Jon says, is to make it a gradual transition while keeping “all the tools in the toolbox.” “The worst thing a guy can do is get something wrapped around his head so that he can never use that tool again,” he says. “You really limit yourself, especially getting started. Some guys, on moral principles, say they'll never use a particular product ever again, no matter what, and they can have a real hard go at it. Often, the farmers are not ready for it, nor are their soils.”
When asked about his family’s response to the shift to regenerative agriculture, Jon said his Dad welcomed the shift to regenerative agriculture. His grandfather, on the other hand, was more reluctant. He called no-till, “no yield,” for years. He was not a fan of no-till until finally, based on how much he trusted Jon, he reached the place where whatever Jon wanted to do was fine because he was consistently delivering yields that his grandfather liked. The fall after he learned about Gabe Brown, Jon realized that he would never make progress with their soils as long as he continuously tilled. He approached his grandfather to discuss a possible move to no-till, explaining why he wanted to try it in their corn. His grandfather replied, “Well, we've got some neighbors who have been doing that, and it looks like that might work. Go ahead.” It happened to be a drought year that year, and their corn yields were awesome compared to their conventional tillage neighbors “I think that sold him on no-till. Maybe I just got lucky,” Jon says.
After Jon incorporated cover crops, his grandfather was amazed at the reduction in soil erosion. “He really likes that because he's the one paying the bulldozer to come out and fix the terraces when they fill up with silt,” he says. Jon surmises that when farmers are tilling, perhaps they don’t notice or perhaps they are just used to it, how every fall, they must go out and plow their terraces up because there's so much silt.
Planting Green into Rolled Down Cover Crops
Jon says they may have some neighbors who think they are crazy for farming regeneratively, but most seem fine with it. Some of his neighbors use cover crops, typically only in front of soybeans but they manage them differently. For example, they don't let the cover crops get very big, and terminate them early. “I know it's tough being the one guy out there, being a little bit crazy with it, because, you know, everybody is driving by, critiquing everything, and any time you have a failure (and you are going to have one), that's all they're going to talk about,” he says, adding “I really do love my neighbors, and I enjoy my neighbors, and I really value our relationship as neighbors. We're out here with each other, that is what we have. I value those relationships, and I never want to ever make them think that I think less of them because of how they farm, and I don't want them to think that of me either.”
Several years ago, Tori Dean came out to their farm and performed some water infiltration tests (At the time, Tori worked for MO Soil and Water Conservation District). On land they had been no-tilling for years, and more recently introduced cover crops, their water infiltration rate was about a half inch per hour. In contrast, on a farm where they had been intensively cover cropping for five years, the first inch infiltrated in just four minutes. They tested both locations on the same day and with the same soil types.
They’ve seen SOM increases of from 2- 3%, in five or six years on land the Hemmes have more recently started farming. Jon says he’s not quite as “aggressive with that land” and the increase in SOM has really occurred in the last four years. Increases in SOM have been higher in fields where they’ve had alfalfa in the rotation. “There's just something about having two- or three-year perennial crop in the rotation,” Jon says. Even though alfalfa is a legume, it seems like it really has helped in that regard.”
Jon reports that for as long as he has been farming regeneratively, he hasn't seen yields on their highly productive ground increase, instead, they have maintained those yields. But they have seen dramatic production increases on their thin soils, notably on their ashy, light timber soils. Previously, those soils yielded very little. “They were kind of garbage ground,” Jon says. “You didn't know why you farmed it.” Now some of those fields are matching the yields from their productive ground. Yields on that ashy soil seem to respond well in a higher residue cover crop system which Jon says has been fun to see.
The Hemme’s have leased several farms to add to their production capacity. One of these farms was very degraded with heavy tillage and 10 years of continuous soybeans and cover crops were never used in between the cash crops. When Jon took over the lease, he initially planted a cover crop and came back with yet another crop of soybeans, resulting in a paltry yield of 25 bushels per acre. Jon contrasted this to their home farm fields (within a quarter of a mile and the same soil type) that have had an increasing degree of regenerative management for almost seven years where they are yielding 48-50 bushels/acre and are showing significant resilience, even during a D-2 drought.
“You're talking a lot of money,” Jon says. “So, those economic benefits, you may not see them immediately, but they are going to show up in a drought like this and there are some years they're going to pay big. If we caught a lot of rain, the leased field would yield better. But that just goes to show the benefits of resiliency and consistency and not having to rely 100% on crop insurance.”
Incorporating Adaptive Grazing
In the fall of 2021, the Hemmes were invited to a workshop at the Noble Foundation on adaptive grazing. Understanding Ag’s Allen Williams, Ph.D., Shane New, and Burke Teichert, taught the class. Upon his return, Jon told his wife he wanted to do a trial with adaptive grazing so he established a grazing system on a 17-acre pasture that had adequate shade and a pressurized water system. It was one of their smaller pastures, though none are over 50 acres. He initially stocked the pasture with 16 head of dairy heifers, which is what he expected the field’s carrying capacity to be.
Dairy Heifers on Cover Crops
Throughout the growing season, Jon moved the animals only every other day because that's what he had allotted himself time to do. Within the first week of starting to move them, he saw that he was going to have a lot of extra grass and increased the stocking rate by adding 10 more heifers to utilize the extra grass. Then they went into a D-2 drought, which became a D-3 drought by fall. Still, he was able to maintain that heavier stocking rate all summer with good grass. “I've got numbers in front of me, and I can easily see my biggest win out of all of this,” Jon says. “It's been the grazing because I increased revenue $141 per acre by carrying those additional animals on that pasture. Those extra 10 head, in my book, got to eat for free all growing season because otherwise they'd have been somewhere else eating.”
Jon reported that they also started to see more diversity move into the pasture by giving it rest. The first time grazing through the pasture, without any rain that summer, took 70 days. His grass got a 70-day rest period before he grazed it again, and the next time through it was just under 60 days. The last time was only 30 days, based on the grass available without taking everything. With those long rest periods, in what was just a monoculture fescue pasture, Jon started to see native species emerge from the latent seed bank in their first season of adaptive grazing. They identified eastern gamma grass, purple top, and birdsfoot trefoil, as well as some phytonutrient-rich flowering forbs. They also saw a lot more monarch butterflies.
Jon says he has seen many native warm-season grasses in ditches and along their road banks and always wished they were as prolific in his pastures as they were in the ditches. He now realizes that the extended rest periods between grazing events were crucial to their emergence in the pastures, that the seed bank didn’t just exist in the ditches and roadsides but across the landscape. When the drought hit and the temperatures increased during the summer, the cool-season perennials went dormant, and the warm-season natives were able to express themselves with the combination of the longer rest periods and the cool season grasses diminishing. “It was fun to see,” Jon says. “I didn't see it in my other pastures where we weren't moving the cattle as frequently and providing longer rest periods. This is what we were told in the workshop, that the latent seed bank was still there. All we have to do is apply solid adaptive grazing practices and the seed bank can, once again, show up.”
One unexpected development was not having to clip pastures. Normally, in late summer when not adaptively grazing, Jon would have to clip his pastures to prevent a dominant ragweed infestation in his pastures the following growing season, a species the livestock don't want to eat. He noticed in 2022, using the adaptive grazing strategies, he never had to clip those pastures. “There wasn't a ragweed out there,” he says. “The cattle are now eating them and I have far better diversity out there for grazing and fewer allergies. And overall, [I’m using] less diesel fuel since I never had to make that mowing pass.” He also noted that it took zero extra fertilizer to generate that extra grass production.
“Adaptive grazing is very different from the farming part of it,” Jon says. “I've noticed that, with the farming part, you're still trying to raise a monoculture crop in a regenerative system. Sometimes those two things can be counterintuitive to the point where you must pick your battles of what you want to accomplish.” In contrast, working within an adaptive grazing system is more like working with a natural system, which makes regenerative progress easier. “It's just easy,” he says. “If you halfway know what you're doing and make sure you’ve got enough grass in front of them, it's not hard to do and you get really good results.”
Jon says he plans to use adaptive grazing with their replacement heifers moving forward. Managing the pasture is the easy part, and his challenge will be managing the divergent age groups of replacement heifers, ranging from freshly weaned bottle calves all the way to pregnant heifers. He says he must contend with lots of different groups, although he would love to combine them all into one big mob. His biggest constraint is pasture size and the geographic distribution of their pastures. “I've got a 20-acre pasture here, 17 acres there, maybe 30 acres three miles down the road. It's hard to do.” He says he’s trying to work out the logistics because of the great value he sees in adaptive grazing. Everywhere it makes sense and where he can do it, he plans to be pushing forward.
Jon is also looking to change the duration of the grazing periods, shortening them from every other day moves to daily moves. He now knows they could have made an even bigger impact had he moved his heifers daily. “My goal is to have my kids do it to give them something to do,” he says.. ”I found out quickly that with the drought, they couldn't get those step-in posts in, so it was me every time.” As busy as they were, Jon decided to see what would happen by moving the cows every other day. Even with those longer grazing periods, he was impressed by the extra production, even without rain and wonders what to expect with more normal rainfall and proper adaptive grazing management. Could he double his stocking rate? He says he looks forward to realizing the potential of adaptive grazing in future growing seasons.
Jon finds managing his heifers using adaptive grazing strategies to be enjoyable and his heifers adapted quickly to the use of polywire. “They're just so well trained,” he says. “They've got good behavior and they're just enjoyable to work with,” adding that the cantankerous ones are sent to the sale barn.
Jon says they have grazed cover crops quite extensively since they got into regenerative production and recalls focusing more intently on it since 2018, particularly planting cover crops after corn harvest to provide winter feed grazing. Jon says he will be able to graze deeper into the spring as well. The ability to graze crop aftermath and cover crops has significantly eased much of the pressure on their perennial pastures. With the opportunity to graze cover crops, their perennial pasture gets much needed recovery and rest.
Prior to 2017, Jon was developing his heifers in what he called a feedlot system, and it worked well, in terms of physical response. They put up corn silage. Using a feedlot truck he purchased out of Colorado, he loaded up with corn silage, corn gluten, and mineral, and fed his heifers. It was efficient, feeding everything in about an hour. “But man, when you put a pencil to it, by the time I had a third-period bred heifer, I had about $1,400 in feed alone tied up in that animal,” he says. “And that's just feed, no vet bill costs, not even what the calf was worth at birth. At the time I crunched those numbers, replacement heifers were bringing about $1,400 per head at the sale barn. And you know, I was too young and too poor to have an expensive hobby.”
Jon observed the compounding and cascading effects of his heifer development strategy. While they were beautiful animals, he noted with frustration, when animals raised like that got into the herd, they instantly became high-input animals, were lazy and they didn't know how to fend for themselves. Jon was experiencing compounding negative epigenetic effects. Raising animals on TMR-based rations with high levels of input was not conducive to building lifetime positive epigenetics.
“They would just as soon lay in a pile of manure than go out and do something else,” he says. Jon stressed the importance of not adding fat animals to the dairy herd because overweight animals are more likely to have fatty livers, be subject to ketosis, and have a host of other issues. Jon felt it made no sense to spend money to do that. “We’re not raising fat cattle, we’re in the breeding stock business for ourselves to make milk and milk components,” he says.
Now that he is using adaptive grazing in his heifer development, Jon estimates that it costs him from $700 to $800 per head in feed to develop a third-period bred heifer. In just a short period of time, he has been able to cut his heifer development feed costs by close to 50%. Of course, that will vary, depending on the year, commodity prices, etc. “Our heifer development costs are significantly less just by shifting our focus to marketing grass, through active grazing, rather than putting all the focus on feeding,” Jon says “And they’re still good heifers.” According to Jon these heifer development approaches represent the extremes. “That's the worst of the worst to the best of the best I can do. Now, those numbers aren't going to be the same for everybody. That was my situation back then,” he says.
Altering Genetics of the Herd
The breed makeup of the Hemme’s dairy herd has changed over their progression towards regenerative agriculture. “If you look at our herd, it's pretty colorful,” Jon says. They still have a strong Holstein influence, but they are moving to a smaller frame-sized cow since they are more efficient. Because they are producing for their creamery instead of the commodity market, the Hemmes are more cognizant of having good butterfat and protein content, traits important for making cheese. Jon’s brother Michael oversees the reproductive aspects of the operation and is working to develop a three-way cross with Holstein, Brown Swiss, and Jersey. Of the ones that entered the herd, Jon says, “They're pretty slick-looking animals. They are definitely more moderate than the genetics we started with. They look like good milk cows.”
Michael tried Montbeliarde crosses, but Jon wasn’t sure of his plans to continue due to the size of those calves at birth. He wanted the Montbeliarde to add strength and resilience to the Holsteins, “because your typical Holstein would just as soon lay over and die at the first glance of adversity.” The Hemmes don’t use purebred Holsteins, and never have, but Holstein genetics were a major component of their breeding program. Their current goal with the crossbreeding program is to reduce frame size while adding strength, resiliency, and longevity. Modern dairy cattle, in general, are noted for being weak and lacking resilience. Jon noted that when he is grazing half beef-half dairy heifers with his 100% dairy heifers, the half-beef heifers consistently outperform the pure dairy animals.
The half-beef-half-dairy heifers are being raised as replacements for the beef herd that they recently took over from their grandfather. Jon acknowledges that those heifers may not be awesome beef cows, but their offspring should be pretty good and their philosophy has been to work with what they have. Eight years ago, they needed every dairy replacement animal they could put their hands on, but not now. They don't want to raise and sell extra dairy replacement heifers. Instead, Michael identifies the bottom tier, those that may be lacking dairy character or chunky cows that get fat, and he breeds that group to beef bulls. They then retain those heifers as replacement females in their beef herd.
Jon said his family now has a very different and unique operation. The success they have had with their cropping enterprises on the farm side is just a part of what they do. From Jon’s perspective, regenerative agriculture is bringing all types of life back to the farm and they are observing significant ecosystem benefits and ever increasing diversity. This extends from life in the soil to beneficial insects and pollinators, to an explosion of bird populations, to plant species diversity.
Regenerative ag benefits extend beyond the soil and the ecosystem diversity to local rural communities and farm economics. What the Hemmes are doing with their value-added operation is bringing opportunity and life back to their part of rural America.
Milking Cows in the Parlor
By moving away from commodity milk production and focusing more on further processing and direct marketing, the Hemmes have been able to bring some of that wealth back from urban and suburban areas to their community by creating jobs locally “I've heard that it takes 1,000 acres around here to provide an income by farming conventionally,” Jon says. “When you look at our full-time personnel supported here at the Hemme Dairy, we are supporting a full-time person per every 185 acres. And I know there are regenerative farmers who are doing better than that, but we've kind of broken the mold in that arena for our local area.”
Key Influences and Key Influencers
When listing those who had the most impact on Jon’s thinking about regenerative agriculture, he said it starts with his landlord, Leland Steinkhooler, who was “hellbent on improving soil health.” “He still is, at 89 years old,” Jon says. “He thinks we're going to see his land get to seven percent soil organic matter before he dies. And I don't know how long he's planning on living, but we're going to keep making progress in that direction.” Jon gives much credit to Leland because he forced him to do things differently—things Jon didn’t necessarily want to do. “I still have that battle with him a little bit when he wants me to try things that I know just probably aren't going to work out,” Jon says. “However, we always try it to see what happens.”
Jon has spent many hours on YouTube learning about regenerative agriculture and while there is a lot of good educational content there, he felt hampered since he couldn’t ask questions. It is, though, a good place to start, he says.
Being able to interact with other farmers who are actively implementing regenerative principles and practices has been valuable. He attended the No-Till on the Plains conference with a friend in 2020 and got to meet a lot of people. “It’s really important, as you start down this journey, to get out of your house and go somewhere else,” Jon says. “Meet people who are like-minded; make those connections. If you try to figure it all out on your own, with YouTube as your only resource, it's going to be a hard road with a lot of failures.”
Jon says to find people who are good at regenerative practices, those who have demonstrated success over time and that just because somebody says they are implementing regenerative practices doesn't necessarily mean they know what they are doing. “It doesn't mean you can't learn something from them as well but you want to find a person who knows what they are doing,” he says.
Jon also stressed the important soil health principle of “context,” which is the first principle of soil health as originated by Understanding Ag, LLC. Context means being realistic about what you want to implement on your own farm, with your specific climate, your geographic location, your goals and objectives, and your unique human dynamics. “What works for me (in west-central Missouri) is going to be different than for somebody in Oklahoma, or Kansas, or Illinois,” Jon says. We just deal with different things so it's not all going to be the same. And that can be the most challenging part.”
Jon acknowledges that there have been many people within Understanding Ag who have been instrumental in influencing the Hemme’s regenerative journey. There are a number of others as well who played a major role in their progress.
For those new to regenerative agriculture, Jon cautions them to not jump in all at once. Instead, he says, they should select however many acres they feel comfortable with initially and focus on that and warns, “Don't risk the whole farm until you start getting comfortable with it. For example, with our regenerative corn that we do, I still don't put every acre into that,” he says. “I put a portion in each year as I am still learning. Sometimes things work out well and other times we have issues to work out. I'm still trying to iron all that out and get better at it, but had I put the whole farm in from the get-go, I'm sure I would have gotten myself into trouble.”
Jon’s Kids Enjoying the Cover Crops
Jon also stressed that they are not regenerative agriculture “purists.” They still do some things conventionally because he feels flexibility is an important part of it. He thinks being a purist makes it more difficult to get others to join the regenerative agriculture movement. “You must meet people where they're at,” he says. “This is definitely a journey,” adding that beeing able to recognize that and to keep all the “tools” in your toolbox is a very important part of the regenerative journey. If certain tools (i.e., tillage, synthetics, chemicals) have the potential to do damage, he says, it becomes a decision based on whether those tools are still needed and how to use them more judiciously and then how to gradually reduce and eliminate their use.
The transition to regenerative agriculture has not affected their relationship with their lender because they rarely see him these days. “We started making money, so we very seldom borrow money anymore as far as on the farm side,” Jon says.
For those who look at their operation and imply that the cheese business subsidizes their farming, Jon is quick to push back. “No. Nathan doesn't let me have any of his money from the creamery,” he says. “We maintain two separate checkbooks, two separate sets of books, even when it all goes under the same filing under our taxes. The creamery buys their milk from the dairy. Everything is a literal exchange of money, so we have complete accountability. The cropping operation and the dairy farm each must 100% pull of their own weight.”
Since they started operating as if each segment was an independent entity, their overall financial performance has improved dramatically. Being able to avoid extra input purchases to raise a crop while maintaining yields has been big. Even though crop prices have improved, Jon says their financial improvements are due to more than higher prices and they have been able to make tremendous capital improvements in recent years. “We're running through our whole line of equipment, doing some seriously needed upgrades and trying to get rid of some of the junk we've been running forever,” he says. “And we've been doing that with cash.” They have also been able to pay for a large portion of their operating inputs with cash.
When the Hemmes started the creamery in 2016, they borrowed 100% of what they needed to build the facility. Jon said they had zero dollars in the creamery’s checking account, but since then, they have doubled the production capacity, in terms of equipment in operation. In the fall/winter of 2022-23, they further expanded by doubling the size of the building. Even while the expansion was under construction, they expanded cheese product inventories and paid for the expansion and the new equipment with cash while paying off the original investment and without borrowing another dollar. Having the creamery has been a winner for the Hemme’s operation in many aspects. Besides creating the opportunity to market value-added products, as opposed to commodity milk, they have employed four full-time workers and one part-time worker.
With that in mind, Jon encourages other regenerative producers to explore alternative marketing outlets, and not just sell everything as a commodity. “If your goal is to always sell just a commodity, you may be doing pretty good for yourself,” he says. “I'm not saying you can't make a good living at that, but you are still getting the bottom-of-the-barrel price, that’s what it comes down to. If you want to go to scale, maybe you can do great things. But for us, that wasn't the route we could go. We wouldn't be down to that 185 acres per person to generate enough to cover our salaries. With the razor-thin margins of conventional production, there's only so much money you can generate from selling corn, soybeans and commodity milk.
Jon says that making a transition to regenerative agriculture isn’t easy, a factor that presents a barrier for some farmers. “What is easy is doing what the co-op says, they come up with a protocol and you follow it,” he says. “The conventional way is easy, it's A plus B equals C, IF it rains. I didn’t farm for very long at all and became very good at it. It works if you get rain. But at the end of the day, there is just not a lot of [profit margin], if any, left over. Everybody who sells you something has taken most of your margin.”
Jon stressed that starting with self-education is critical. Watching videos, listening to podcasts, reading, attending conferences and workshops, extended hands-on learning with opportunities like the Soil Academy, are all important followed by interacting with, and visiting the farms of farmers who are actively implementing regenerative practices.
Jon says that one of the most satisfying things they do because of the success of their regenerative business model is providing work opportunities for others on the farm. It started with their hired help, Tony and Bobby then extends to their part-time help, usually four at a time, hired hands who come and go. They also regularly hire FFA students who stay with them for three years and Jon says the entire Hemme family enjoys watching them grow up. “Farming is a very isolated business but now, we've been able to bring more people to the farm,” he says. “We get to create relationships, making everything more fun. You feel like you're at least contributing a little bit to society in that regard. We are looking for more ways to bring more people in while most farms, because of salary costs, are looking for more ways to get people out.”