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Jeff and Melinda Walz recover from tornado

By Jean Caspers-Simmet

Date Modified: 12/06/2012 2:31 PM

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WEST UNION, Iowa —Jeff and Melinda Walz are breathing a sigh of relief.

The West Union couple are thankful things are getting back to normal after a May tornado blew away the building housing their new milking parlor, ripped a third of the roof off the free-stall barn and destroyed two heifer sheds.

Just a few years prior to that, their home, the house Melinda grew up in, burned to the ground.

"The day after the storm, the plumber came and I walked up to him with a big old smile on my face," Melinda said. "He asked how I could smile after what we'd been through. I told him this was nothing. We were okay. The kids were okay. The cows were okay. Everything can be fixed."

The couple, who got married in 2007, have two children, Gracie, 3, and Greyson, 1.

Jeff grew up at Monona and Melinda, northeast of West Union. She majored in dairy science at Iowa State University, and he received an animal science degree from South Dakota State University. When they got married, Jeff farmed with his parents, Mike and Deb. However, he and Melinda started on their own that fall. They lived in the house that Melinda grew up in, renting from her father, Allen Mittelsted. They rented a barn from a retired farmer about five miles away and started milking 50 cows.

The house burned in January 2009. The man they were renting the barn from agreed to rent them the house on that farm because no one was living in it, and they started building a new house at their current farm.

During that time the couple bought Jeff's dad's and uncle's cows so they were switching cows, milking them all in the old stanchion barn.

"We were driving back and forth, and we had animals on three farms, and it got to be a lot," Melinda said. "We started drawing up plans, looking at numbers and talking to the bank."

In summer 2011 they started building a free-stall barn and parlor next to their new home. They moved into the new facilities in December.

"Things were just starting to go good when the tornado came in May," Melinda said.

She, Jeff, the kids and Jeff's cousin were in the barn when the storm hit. Melinda had taken the kids into the bathroom. Jeff was checking on them, and his cousin remained in the parlor when the building blew away. Everyone was shaken. The milking equipment was intact so they were able to keep milking.

"It's hard to say that we were lucky, but the barn caved in on the north side and those cows were in the holding pen to milk, and if those cows would have been in the barn, we would have lost cows," Melinda said.

They didn't lose any cows or heifers. They had good insurance and things were rebuilt by fall. They constructed a calf shed to replace their calf huts, over half of which blew away. The heifer barns were rebuilt on a nearby farm.

While rebuilding, the couple continued milking in the parlor. They and the construction crew worked around each other.

"It was a nightmare this summer with the heat," Jeff said. "It's good to get things back to normal."

Jeff and Melinda are now milking 130 cows, mostly registered Holsteins with a few Jerseys and Ayrshires. Their herd name is Walz-Valley.

The couple hosted an Extension low-cost parlor tour earlier this fall.

They milk in a swing-10 parlor, which has a drop rail and automatic takeoffs. Their DeLaval milking equipment is from United-Suckow Dairy Supply in West Union. Melinda credits Dave Melchert for helping them design the parlor.

Cows are housed in a four-row, 150-stall free-stall barn with sand bedding.

Melinda said the parlor is great.

"We milk more than double what we were milking in the stanchion barn, and we do it in less time," she said.

In September they started milking three times a day, and the cows have responded. Melinda milks at 4:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., and they have a part-time employee who milks at 8:30 p.m.

Their herd average is improving and this month, their somatic cell count dropped under 100,000.

Jeff and Melinda grow 130 acres of hay and 180 acres of corn. The couple said that their crops weren't too bad considering how dry and hot it was this summer.