Serendipity. Fate. Destiny. Call it what you will, but someone had their hand in it the night Linnea Kooistra drove a friend to her boyfriend’s basketball game.
With a wide smile and sparkle in his eye, 2017 Master Farmer Joel Kooistra, Woodstock, vividly describes seeing Linnea’s blond hair and blue eyes in the gym bleachers. Linnea joined Joel and a group of friends for pizza after the game. The rest, as they say, is history.
Joel still looks at Linnea like he’s seeing her for the first time. Even — and especially — when they’re milking cows, as they’ve done for 37 years. It’s a deeply rooted tradition that goes back further than they imagined on the night they met.
Family, fate and love
Joel’s grandfather started milking cows soon after arriving at Ellis Island from the Netherlands in 1903. Unable to speak English, he had a note pinned to his jacket that helped porters direct him from train to train to reach his brother’s Mississippi dairy. Health issues would soon spur Joel’s grandfather to answer a Hoard’s Dairyman ad announcing milking opportunities in Montana. In Montana, Joel’s grandfather sold milk from his 100 cows by pulling a milk wagon door to door.
The Depression and drought brought Joel’s grandfather back to the Midwest to work in Kenosha, Wis. Joel’s father started his own dairy herd in 1950. Joel started farming with his dad in 1971 and purchased the farm in 1980. “He handed me the reigns and said, ‘I will not tell you how or what to do. You can ask me what I think, and I will offer advice,’ ” Joel remembers. “I always respected that.”
Years later, Joel and Linnea discovered a deeper family connection scribbled on their barn wall: “Jake Oost took Ann Nolan to a nickel show.” Jake Oost was Linnea’s grandfather. He owned the Kooistra farm in the 1920s.
There’s more, from another continent: Joel and Linnea’s great-grandparents were friends and neighbors in the same small village in Holland.
Serendipity. Fate. Destiny.
Joel and Linnea agree they were meant to be together; raise two children together, Danik and Andrea; and milk cows together — a fate Joel says gets better every day.
Change, knowledge and connections
Joel runs production while Linnea manages the marketing and recordkeeping for their 500-head Holstein herd and 700 crop acres. The grain and dairy operations are managed separately. Why?
“There will be life after cows,” Joel says with a smile. He admits it’s hard to think about retiring from milking, especially when the dairy enterprise is more profitable than grain production.
Both operations have evolved over time. Joel and Linnea paid off their farm debt in the 1980s despite 18% interest rates. They maintained a 112-cow herd and managed about 1,000 rented acres with help from two full-time employees.
In 1990, they scaled back to 90 cows and participated in bovine somatotropin, or BST, trials with the Food and Drug Administration and Monsanto.
“It was one of the best experiences of our career,” Joel notes. They went to the Monsanto test facility and received media training, attended university seminars in New York and Michigan, visited large dairies, and testified to the efficacy of BST in many venues.
After observing different barn styles and bedding options, the Kooistras built a new milking parlor and freestall barn in early 1992. They doubled their herd size to 230 cows and increased their cropping enterprise to 1,500 acres. A new heifer barn and more land purchases followed.
Joel and Linnea downsized their cropping operation in 2004. They enjoy being together, traveling, advocating for the dairy industry and grandparenting. A team of employees and advisers, who Joel says are more like family, help run their dairy herd and crop operation.
Surrounded by good people
Joel and Linnea credit the innovators and fellow farmers they met during the BST trials and primarily their management team — which includes their hoof trimmer, veterinarian, insemination technician, financial specialist, nutritionist, and son, Danik — for finding new ways to constantly improve production and quality.
Joel proudly turned over his job of mixing rations and feeding the herd to Danik — a task the Kooistras have down to an economic, nutrient-rich science.
“We’ve surrounded ourselves with some of the best people in the industry,” Joel says. Joel, Linnea and their management team meet quarterly to discuss positives, negatives and new ideas. They compare the Kooistras’ meticulously kept DairyComp 305 reports to benchmarks provided by their nutritionist, who advises several larger dairies.
“The best operators have more than one person at the table,” Joel notes.
Joel and Linnea rely on a long-standing relationship with their crop adviser for hybrid, variety and product recommendations. “These relationships are so important to us,” Joel adds. “They can say anything to us, and that is valuable.”
Joel and Linnea divide and conquer during planting and harvest. Linnea works the seedbed, and Joel runs the planter. In the fall, Linnea runs the combine and Joel hauls grain.
Working together, the work gets done. The cows are healthy. And they still find time to give back to the ag industry and community. “And we have fun,” Joel adds.
Joel admittedly had mixed emotions about his Master Farmer nomination. He is very proud of Linnea, who was the first woman to earn the Master Farmer award in 2011. “I’m proud of what Linnea is. There was a glass ceiling that needed to be broken,” he explains. “In our industry, so many women are everything in their operation. Linnea was just the first to be recognized.”
“This makes us even,” she says with a smile. With a knowing glance only a husband can give a wife, Joel nods his head.
IT’S A GOOD LIFE: After 37 years of farming together, milking cows together and raising children together, Joel Kooistra still calls wife Linnea his girlfriend. “Life is good,” he says.
Data, protocols and rations
You want numbers? Joel and Linnea Kooistra have numbers: financial statements, production reports, treatment reports and reproduction reports. They use data, protocols and resources to produce an average of 29,285 pounds of quality milk per cow per year.
The Kooistras use CenterPoint Accounting to calculate financials and DairyComp 305 to record milk production and herd health. They track everything from cost of production to vaccination schedules.
Joel’s calf vaccination protocol includes nine treatments before they start milking at 2 years old. The vaccines protect calves against salmonella, mastitis, Johne’s disease and brucellosis. What if a cow gets pneumonia? Joel has three go-to protocols. If one doesn’t work, they move to the next.
Herd health starts with their diet, Joel notes. They use a total mixed ration of silage, alfalfa hay, straw, hominy, canola, gluten, cottonseed and soymeal. The byproducts are mostly sourced from Chicago.
Farmers. Government officials. Consumers. Kindergartners. Joel and Linnea Kooistra have hosted hundreds of visitors on their farm who’ve learned about BST, animal care and milk production. From 1994 to 2000, the farm served the Harvard Milk Days breakfast for more than 700 people and was featured on radio and television with WGN’s Orion Samuelson.
Off the farm, Joel’s favorite project was Conference Point Center, a nondenominational Christian camp at Lake Geneva, Wis. He attended the camp as a young man and vividly remembers spending hours at the lake and meeting people from all walks of life. When the camp was in financial trouble, Joel served on the board and helped negotiate an agreement between Conference Point Center and the Lake Geneva Youth Camp.
MASTER AT A GLANCE
Children: Danik Kooistra, Andrea Overstreet
Operation: 250 Holstein dairy cows, 250 Holstein dairy calves and heifers, 450 acres of corn, 150 acres of soybeans, 50 acres of forage rye
Leadership: McHenry County Soil and Water Conservation District, Harvard Milk Day, Dairy Producer Peer Group, Harvard Community Education Foundation, Family Health Partnership Clinic, Land Conservancy of McHenry County, board of directors of Conference Point Center, a nondenominational Christian camp
Nominator: Linnea Kooistra, Master Farmer Class of 2011