It Takes a Team: Benthem Brothers Dairy named 2021 MSU Dairy Farmers of the Year

Working with family on the farm allows for everyone to use their strengths to better the business. For Benthem Brothers Dairy, the 2021 MSU Dairy Farmers of the Year, they rely on each other to continuously maximize efficiencies and find areas of improvement.

“There’s five of us on the farm. We all do something different. We all manage something different. There isn’t one guy running the whole show. It’s five guys,” Kyle Benthem said. “This allows you to see what goes on in every aspect of the farm every day.”

Originally started in 1940, the Benthem homestead in McBain, Michigan, became Benthem Brothers Dairy in 1981 when brothers, Doug and Bruce Benthem took over the family business with 30 cows and a stanchion barn. Since then, Doug’s son, Jason, and Bruce’s sons, Ryan and Kyle, became involved in the business.

As part-owners, each of the Benthems manage a different area of the farm, while also contributing to the grunt work. “Every one of us have day to day chores,” Kyle said. “Whether it’s small or big, we show up to the farm every day. We try to take work off of our employees.”
The active participation in what happens on the farm makes the Benthems strategic planners. During quarterly meetings with the entire family, they discuss the farm’s cost of production and plans for the future, including succession planning.

To prevent around the clock milking with the desire to continue growing, the Benthems installed a Waikato Milking Systems 60-stall rotary parlor in 2016.

Embracing the Future

“We’ve been meeting with a transition person for at least 10 years,” Jason said. “That’s been a real good thing because it gets everybody at the table.” Kyle added, “It’s important to start talking about that stuff really early, because otherwise it takes a long time for people to wrap their head around it.”

The Benthems’ progressive approach to transitioning the farm to the next generation comes from Doug and Bruce, the farm patriarchs. “They want to see the farm carry on. That’s their number one goal,” Kyle said.

“Doug and Bruce have been really open-minded, and we’ve been thankful for that,” Kyle said. “They could have done whatever they wanted, it is their farm after all, and they were gracious enough to come to good terms and make it so it’s not a burden on us, and yet, they get paid for what they worked for their whole life.”

Having a transition plan early on is part of what has led to the farm’s success today. They were able to take steps during the transition to ensure that everyone who wanted to be a part of the farm would be able to make a living there. Those changes included an expansion and installation of a 60-stall rotary parlor in 2016 that allowed their herd to grow to the 3,000 cows it is today.

During the renovation period of adding the rotary parlor, the Benthems installed 13 different types of energy efficient equipment, including low-energy livestock waterers, interior and exterior LED lighting retrofits and new construction interior and exterior LED lighting.

Expanding for the Future

“The rotary parlor has been working really well,” Jason said. “When the cows get on the rotary, they go through a detect system that forestrips every quarter, tests for abnormalities in the milk and stimulates the cow so everything’s the same every time. It’s hard to teach everybody to be the same all the time and with this, it’s automatic so we get great stimulation and milk letdown.”

They also credit the rotary parlor, along with their detect system, for being the reason that their somatic cell count is down, their milk production is up and there is less employee turnover. For the family, that’s all accessory compared to the changes that they’ve seen in their own lives.

“It seems like when we were smaller, it was so much harder to get away from the farm,” Jason said. “You were there every weekend and late at night and got up early the next morning. Now, we’re able to get away for some vacation with our family and have a few weekends off. It’s really nice.”

While it may be nice now, Jason also is quick to point out that expansion comes with growing pains and the first couple of years weren’t easy. Despite the challenges, they are now to the point where everything is going well and their plans for the future revolve around making their farm sustainable.

Benthem Brothers Dairy received numerous MMPA Quality Awards and was awarded Silver National Mastitis Council Quality Awards in 2019 and 2020.

A Sustainable Future

“Greenhouse gasses is a huge thing. Sustainability is the way of the future. That’s the way the world’s going,” Kyle said. “Everyone is hounding dairy that our cows create the most gas. Being carbon neutral is the next thing in seven to ten years on these large dairies, I believe.”

While they’re not certain what that looks like yet for their farm, they’ve recently started draglining their manure to improve efficiencies and get one step closer to the future they envision. The draglining process, which involves the manure being pumped to a field and put in a hose that’s drug behind a tractor, has reduced their manure hauling costs.

“We’re always looking for efficiencies,” Kyle said. This year, their plans include installing more irrigation to mitigate the risk of dry growing seasons while taking advantage of the high corn prices.

Ultimately though, their future plans are always up in the air because “the opportunity generally opens itself, so we have no idea what’s next,” Kyle said. While that may be true, the Benthems take steps to ensure those opportunities become available by being involved in their community.

“If there’s a need in the community, we try to help and be involved in it,” Kyle said. “Opportunities that come about are generally due to being good neighborly people and people that own ground and want to sell ground, want to see it done well and I think that’s helped us out quite a bit.”

Doing things right is how you become successful. Despite the ups and downs with owning a business with family, the Benthem family make it look easy and their success is a consequence of five guys relying on each other to continue the legacy of their farm and their family.

“We truly love what we do. We might get frustrated, but it’s fun advancing and making our farm cutting edge,” Kyle said. “I’m most proud that we’re able to provide a good way of life not just for ourselves, but for our employees, and we’re all proud of the entire dairy itself.”

This article was originally published in the March/April 2021 issue of the Milk MessengerSubscribe »