After 42 years in the dairy business, Willie Bylsma’s enthusiasm for his career of choice shows no signs of fading. Whether he’s talking about a new ingredient he’s trying in his feed or his crossbreeding program, Bylsma’s passion for dairying is undeniable. His enthusiasm for the business can be traced back to his desire to constantly try something new. Twelve years ago, Bylsma began crossbreeding, and says it renewed his excitement for dairying.
“When we started crossbreeding 12 years ago, it opened a whole new way of looking at dairying. We’ve always had that gut feeling that it worked well, and we haven’t looked back,” Bijlsma says.
Bylsma began with Jersey-Holstein cross breeds because he was looking for longevity and read that crossbred cows lived longer. He found that he wanted a larger animal, so he began looking at other breeds. “We went to France and looked at the various cattle they have there, which were Normande and Montbéliarde", he says. “We found that the best crossing we could get for what we were looking for in our dairy herd was the Swedish Red, the Montbéliarde and the Red Dane”. Bylsma continues to use those three breeds, plus Holstein, rotating the breeds each generation.
“We try to capitalize on the hybrid vigor that you have in your first generation. We try to keep that going by using a different cross on every generation. We’ve been very happy with that".
Bylsma was one of the first dairymen in the area to experiment with crossbreeding and find success. Today, he opens his two dairies in Oakdale, California, to other producers interested in crossbreeding and answers questions from dairymen throughout the world.
Bylsma says his crossbred herd has fewer health problems, lives longer and produces milk with higher components than when he milked straight Holsteins. In fact, his crossbred herd was part of an extensive eight-year study by the University of Minnesota to examine the difference between crossbred and Holstein dairy cows and the problems with inbreeding.
“For the study, they would come out periodically to pick up information and records to see if crossbreeding really paid for itself and was a viable option to straight Holsteins”, Bylsma says. “They found that it was successful, which we already knew”.
The crossbred cows have also proven advantageous as dairy-beef cattle.
“About five years ago, I started keeping the bull calves as dairy-beef cattle because they have that hybrid vigor. They gain better than straight Holsteins. It’s almost like having beef cattle in the feedlots”.
Bylsma and his wife Jolene’s, four children all grew up on the dairy and took on active roles in the business. Three are now dairying on their own. The Bylsma's son Wes, his wife Gina, and their three children own a 1,500-cow dairy in Merced, California, in partnership with Willie. Their son Brian and his wife Christina, run a seasonal organic dairy with their four children. Their daughter Laura and her husband Tom Koolhaas, live in Oakdale, California, with their two children and own a 700-cow dairy. The Bylsma's daughter Colleen, lives in Southern California with her husband Michael Verkaik and their son.
Bylsma began dairying in 1969, after he returned from a stint in the Army, where he served in Korea. His first thought upon returning to his parents’ dairy was to go to college.
“I didn’t really want to milk cows for the rest of my life. I wanted to try something new because dairying was really all I’d ever known. Then, the opportunity came up to rent a dairy, and I went ahead and grabbed it”.
Bylsma began at his current home dairy milking 88 cows. He expanded over the years and opened a nearby second dairy five years ago. Today, he milks a combined herd of 1,800 cows.
“I really enjoy working with the cows”, Bylsma says. “But what gives me joy is working with young people, whether it’s one of my sons or others, getting them started in the dairy business and seeing them have the same enthusiasm that I began with when I was younger. It’s neat to see how the next generation is carrying on”.
Bylsma has been involved in six partnerships with young dairy producers over the course of his career. When Koolhaas decided to start dairying on his own, Bylsma offered advice and support.
“He’s been really supportive”, Koolhaas says. “He really helped me a lot in the beginning to know what I was doing, and I kind of have to bug him to come by once in a while and make sure I’m not making too big of mistakes”.
Bylsma doesn’t limit his work as a mentor to young dairy farmers in the United States. He’s also involved in Partners Worldwide, an organization dedicated to connecting business professionals with those in need and works to end poverty through microloans and partnerships. Bylsma made three trips to Ecuador through the organization to help farmers and small businesses in the country.
“We usually visit a project, whether it’s helping a dairy farmer expand their herd from one cow to three cows or building a small cheese plant, that’s looking for a small loan”, he says. “We give our recommendation to Partners Worldwide’s board of directors, and then we’re the ones who fund that project if it’s approved. We go back every year to see how they are doing, and as they repay their loan, other small businesses can use those funds for their loans”.
His work with the organization makes him realize how fortunate he is in his own life:
"We see how blessed we are in America with what we have. For me personally, the Lord has really blessed us in many ways here in 42 years on the dairy”.