Osakis dairy farmer continues to be optimistic after devastating barn fire

James Maus
James Maus kneels by younger milking cows that are not yet ready to produce milk. Once the cows get older, they will be bred using artificial insemination and be moved to the pasture.

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James Maus has been farming his entire life, just like his father and his grandfather before him.

Maus’ dairy farm on the outskirts of Osakis has been in the family for generations and has more acres than he can keep track of — just the way he likes it.

Maus, who starts his day at 4:30 a.m. every morning, said he loves the outdoors, loves setting his own schedule, and absolutely loves not having a boss. Winters can get a bit cold, he said, but trading it all for an office chair and a computer is out of the question.

The best part of it all, however, is being able to work with his dairy cows.

“Everyday is different working with the animals,” he said.

Maus now owns about 80 Holstein milking cows and sells their milk to the Osakis Creamery, which then sells it to Associated Milk Producers Incorporated (AMPI). From AMPI, the milk products are packaged and distributed to the stores.

When he is not busy milking the cows, Maus said, he is busy chopping corn silage for feed with his father or completing an endless list of other chores around the farm.

He would rather do nothing else than what he does now, he said, but two years ago, on the night of his son Justin’s birth, Maus said he came the closest he has ever been to giving it all up.

In mid-July of 2009, Maus went with his wife Jenn to the hospital for the delivery of their son. Maus’ sister went to the farm to watch the couple’s other child, Lynnea, who was 5 years old at the time.

Maus said he and his wife were at the hospital for no more than two hours before he received a call from his brother who said the old barn that held the hay and all the milking cows had caught fire.

“I said ‘I was just there an hour and a half ago and my truck was parked right next to the barn. There is no way,’” he said.

In the early morning of the next day, Maus was finally able to return home to see his old family barn completely destroyed — along with 74 cows inside.

“That was a mess, I don’t wish that on anyone,” Maus said. “If I had any intentions of quitting the farm, I would have quit two years ago.”

Maus, who obtained his four-year degree in animal industries management from the University of Minnesota Crookston, said he believes the fire started from a light in the barn, and because he and his family had just filled the barn with more than 2,000 bails of hay, the fire spread quickly.

The fire was a huge loss for Maus, and insurance never covers everything, he said. But in the end, it was the loss of all the cows that was the hardest to take.

“That was the worst part, losing the cows and the genetics,” he said. “Mom and dad had been breeding for years and years.”

Jim Hlatky, general manager of the Osakis Creamery, said maintaining a strong heard of dairy cows is very important for milk production.  Farmers are always looking for cows that have high yields, are very durable and are able to reproduce.

Because the Maus family bred their own cows for years, they were able to facilitate the continuation of genes that would ensure high producing and healthy cows. Losing that line of genes would have meant huge setbacks for the Maus family, not to mention the sentimental loss, Hlatky said.

“Your cattle are kind of like children,” Hlatky said. “You spend a lot of time around them and you are with them everyday — you get attached.”

The fire happened just one month after Maus and his family moved home to the family farm. He and his family rented a farm for eight years prior to moving, which Maus then returned to with a new herd of cows after the fire.

Maus said he was very grateful to have a place to continue his dairy business when his own barn was being rebuilt at home, but being forced to travel to and from work made him appreciate even more that his boyhood farm was where he was supposed to be. — Commuting would never be an option for Maus.

“I had my fill of traveling to work that winter,” he said. “I like getting out of the house and walking to the barn to work.”

After such calamity, Maus said he knows exactly what he is getting himself into by committing to a life of farming. Keeping his family in mind, he said, he knew he wanted to raise children on a working farm. Maus said he is lucky enough to have his kids on the very farm he grew up on.

In the end, Maus said he has to continue to remind himself to keep balance in life, taking time for family and fun, while still being a good farmer.

“I farm to live, I don’t live to farm … [but] my wife would still probably like me to get out more,” he said.

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