The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Dairy Farmer: Karen Bohnert

Dairy Farmer: Karen Bohnert

From the Farmer's Tractor

September 24, 2014

Karen Bohnert, along with her husband Scott, and his parents and brother, owns and operates a 500-cow registered Jersey dairy farm and farms 1,300 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat and rye in East Moline, Illinois. Karen was born and raised on her own family’s 100-cow dairy farm in central Oregon.

How did you get into farming?

After graduating from Oregon State University in 1998 with a B.S. in agricultural economics and a minor in writing, I moved east. For the last 11 years, I have been married to a hard-working dairy farmer, Scott Bohnert, and along with his family, we run a Jersey dairy farm.

How have your farming practices changed over the last 10 years?

Through our decade of expansions and evolution of our family dairy business, Bohnert Jerseys in East Moline, Illinois, our commitment for excellence in cow care, milk quality, and stewardship of the land has never been compromised.

The dairy portion of our farm debuted in 1984, with a couple of Jersey dairy heifers that served as 4-H projects for my husband, Scott, and his siblings. The dairy grew quickly from hobby to business thanks to our family's willingness to incorporate efficient, progressive tools into our dairy and our management. 

By 1989, the herd had grown to 10 animals, and the cows were milked by machine in a flat, four-stall barn built by our family. We thought we'd never outgrow the new accommodations.

Two years later, our family added 60 stalls to the barn. By 2000, Bohnert Jerseys was milking 100 cows and four years later, a new parlor, with the capability to milk 24 cows at one time was installed. That parlor featured a system through which each milking unit detaches automatically from each cow, and meters help track individual production and quality.

In 2006, we invested in a 250-cow free-stall barn and concrete manure storage facility with enough capacity for an entire year. Another 250-cow free-stall barn was finished last summer, allowing us to milk 500 cows.

How will farming evolve in the next five years?

Technology and communication will be a driving force to help famers of all kinds to efficiently and sustainably produce food for our growing global population. The reality is there are fewer farmers, yet more people to feed. We constantly strive to find ways to be more efficient with our resources. 

One thing that hasn’t changed is our commitment to providing consumers with safe, affordable food that is produced in a responsible way. 

What is your greatest challenge as a farmer?

Farmers are constantly faced with a variety of challenges, from unpredictable weather to varied feed and fuel prices, but the capital expense to run a dairy farm is among the nearly insurmountable hurdles. Investing in equipment and/or repairs on our farm can range from $50,000 to millions of dollars. 

Farmers are business people and have to look at every division of their farm with a sharp mind. Time management becomes a challenge for farmers because of a never-ending to-do list and the need to focus on what must get done first – and each day that starts and ends with caring for our cattle.

At the same time, we have a new responsibility driven by our consumers – helping them understand what we do on the farm. Too often, there is misinformation spread about farming, and our newest challenge is to tell our story. 

How does a farmer know what a retailer will want a year from now?

We understand what consumers want because we do the same shopping and make the same decisions about food as they do. Ninety-seven percent of all dairy farms are family owned and operated; and like our consumers, the family is our focus. We need good nutrition, convenience and good value. 

I serve my family quality food and dairy farmers, like me and my family, are proud and committed to produce wholesome, quality dairy foods for the world to enjoy. 

What steps are you taking toward conservation on the farm?

We farm 1,300 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat and rye. We rotate crops to help improve soil quality, prevent soil erosion and manage potential crop pests and diseases. All of the manure from our dairy is used as a natural fertilizer and injected into the soil to maximize absorption and minimize odors. Our family lives and works on our farm. It is important to us to protect our land, water and air for our animals, families, surrounding communities and for future generations.

Do you sell any of your products locally, and if so, what is the process?

All of our milk is sold to Stockton Cheese, a subsidiary of Kraft cheese, which is located about 80 miles away. Our milk is used for Swiss cheese. Interestingly, most milk on grocery store shelves in the U.S. comes from farms that are nearby, and that milk reaches the stores shelves within 48 hours of being picked up at the farm, making it a really local product! 

When milk is picked up from our farm, it’s co-mingled with milk from other dairy farms. A sample from our farm is tested for quality and purity, and tracked directly to our farm. At the processing plant, it’s tested again, to ensure its safety. 

We’re paid for the milk by Stockton Cheese, which sets the price according to federal milk marketing orders; contrary to what many people think, dairy farmers don’t set their milk price – we accept what the market dictates.

What kinds of reactions do you get from consumers when they meet you in person?

When consumers learn that I'm married to a dairy farmer, they are often surprised – farming is such a lost art because today so many generations are removed from agriculture. They are eager to learn about how modern technology plays a role on our farm and their smiles widen when they learn about the wonderful opportunities my children have on the farm – from feeding calves, to showing cows at fairs, to helping clean the barns and riding in the tractors. I’m really proud to share my family’s story with them.