The Gudenkauf farm in Watertown is considered small according to today's agricultural statistics, but when the family hosted the two-day Watertown Agri-Business Club's June Dairy Month breakfast on Father's Day weekend, visitors found the farm has a whole new look since the family hosted the breakfast in 2003 and 2004.
A freestall barn for the family's 120 milking cows has replaced the 55-stall barn, and other buildings provide housing for the younger animals on the farm. Cows come to the milkers in a D-8 Herringbone parlor.
The changes have made it easier to find someone willing to milk cows when the family is gone, Mike Gudendauf said.
'It's hard to find anyone willing to milk in a stall barn, but since we have the parlor, people are willing to help out,' he said.
The cows are happy with the changes, too, since they rest on comfortable sand-filled beds any time they choose. They are free to walk around in the comfort of the curtain-sided barn or to wander outside to the pasture behind the barn.
They actually choose to spend most of the time inside the comfortable barn. High ceilings and numerous fans, together with the curtain sides that can be adjusted according to the weather, make it more comfortable for them in the barn.
They have about 70 acres of pasture next to the barn where one group of 88 animals – fresh cows and dry cows – can go out any time they want. Mike said the pasture provides exercise and good nutrition for these groups. When they want to come into the barn, they can do so any time on their own.
When they go to the feed bunk, they can find a steady supply of fresh feed.
Truly a family farm
The farm is truly a family farm. It includes Mike and his wife, Anna, and their two children, Maryann, 12 and and Greg, 11. They took over the farm from Mike's parents, Alvin and Judy, in 1999. Alvin's parents, Bernard and Emma, had originally started the farm in 1940.
Bernard and Emma came from Germany in the 1920s and rented in Iowa while they worked off their ticket to this country. Bernard then worked in Milwaukee but got laid off during the Depression, so he rented a farm in Mapleton and then Ixonia before buying this farm.
While Mike's parents have officially retired, his dad still comes to the farm on a regular basis to help with calves and tractor driving. They have some neighbors who help with milking if they are gone and a neighbor, Rachel Novotny, helps with milking each evening.
Anna works off the farm, but she helps with milking at times.
'With the parlor, I look at it like I would look at making supper,' Anna said. 'It's not hard, but it just takes some time, and someone has to do it.'
While the family has expanded the farm to allow for modern facilities and milking system, Mike noted, 'We're not high-tech here. We don't spend a lot to get milk from our cows.'
Their maternity pen is located next to the holding area at one end of the six-row freestall barn. That makes it easy for anyone around the farm to see when a cow is about to deliver her calf.
The barn is easily cleaned with a skid steer loader, pushing the manure into a pit that is big enough to hold a three-month supply of fertilizer.
They converted the former stall barn into a calf facility.
'The water was available and there is good ventilation in here,' Mike said.
Removable panels between pens make it easy to clean the pen before a new calf comes into it.
They built the freestall barn in 2009 when milk prices dropped to an all-time low. They were already started when the prices dropped, so they continued in hopes prices would go back up.
'We built the parlor and remodeled the old barn in 2012, the year of the drought,' Mike said. 'Again, we hoped we made the right decision.'
The new facilities have made it easier to get chores done quickly. With all the animals in the 178-stall barn, they can just open some gates to move animals from one area to another. There is no need to use trailers or move animals from one building to another.
They raise all their feed on 800 acres of land and also market some soybeans and corn each year. They select their varieties according to how it will be used.
Mike also utilizes his equipment by doing custom combining on about 650 acres in the neighborhood each fall and about 200 acres of custom planting, as well as a little baling. This allows him to use newer bigger equipment on the farm.
What's in the future?
The family does not intend to get much bigger in the future, but they designed their facilities to allow for some expansion if their children decide to join them some time.
'We want to keep it family,' Mike said. 'We don't want to start working with a lot of employees.'
Running a family dairy farm was Mike's goal since he was a child. He got off to an early start, beginning to accumulate cattle when he was in high school. His parents provided heifer calves for him as the animals matured so he could gradually take ownership of the herd. Then as machinery was depreciated, he purchased the replacement pieces.
'I bought a 120-acre farm from a neighbor when I was just 18 years old,' he said. 'It's not every day that an 18-year-old goes to the bank for a loan, but I did because I wanted to farm.'
Anna grew up near Amherst and came to the Watertown area to work. Both of her grandparents had farms, and she still has family on the farm. Coincidentally, they hosted the dairy breakfast in their county the same day. They have four robots helping with milking on their farm.
When the family hosted the breakfast, Alvin and Judy also celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. They believe this was a great way to celebrate both their wedding anniversary and the dairy industry they love.