In their own words, Karl and Robert Klessig are "passionate about pasture."
The two brothers, along with their wives Liz and Kathleen, respectively, own Saxon Homestead Farm just outside of Cleveland. Thefarm has been in the Klessig family since 1850, and the brothers are the fifth generation of Klessigs to farm the land.
When asked about their operation, Karl Klessig described it as a "spring seasonal-calving, pasture-based, dairy farm."
In short, that means the Klessigs calve almost all of their cows in March, April, May and June, and then during the "green months," the herd is allowed to pasture graze.
"The cows have their babies in the springtime and then we graze them for the months of April, May, June, July, August, September and October," Karl Klessig said.
During those months, their herd of 575 cross-bred Jersey/Holstein cows are rotated throughout the Klessig farmland, which includes 800 acres of grazing land. The Klessigs also own 200 acres of cropland.
"We try to rotate around the entire operation. We have almost 200 paddocks on the farm that are either temporarily subdivided or permanently subdivided with hard wire and the cows are marched around the grazing operation depending on the growth of the grass," Robert Klessig said.
Every 12 hours, after every milking, the cows go to a fresh patch of grass.
Robert Klessig said their farm is operated more like a ranch environment than a farm environment.
"We allow the cows to eat their own feed out on pasture where most farms bring all the feed into the barn," he said. "We're different in that our cows will help to collect their own feed for all of the green months. It's an intensively managed, rotational grazing operation."
Karl Klessig said approximately 25 percent of dairy farmers in the state of Wisconsin practice some type of grazing, although most not to the extent they do. The method is limited by access to land that is close to the milking facility.
The Klessigs' operation also differs in that most farmers calve all year.
"If they have 120 cows, they will calve in 10 cows a month all year so that they have a consistent income and expense cash-flow situation," Karl Klessig said. "We calve all of our cows in four months so we have a lot of income for six months, but not as much income — and very little income — for two or three or four months. It's a different kind of mindset."
The fact the Klessigs choose to calve in the springtime means they have to do a lot of planning to make sure their cash situation remains equitable. They also have to manage the pastures so they improve with age.
Management is both intensive and imperative to the operation of the Klessig farm.
"There is a lot more mental work, I believe, in the rotational grazing system than there is in the 'plant it, chop it, feed it' type of system," Robert Klessig said. "It takes a lot of forward planning and management to ensure the cows are on the best quality feed that we can possibly grow for them."
The Klessigs have been pasture grazing their herd since 1990. With all the planning and management this system requires, why do they run their farm in this manner?
"It's our desire to be on pasture. We feel that pasture grazing is a superior livestock system," Karl Klessig said. "We just love grazing."
Robert Klessig added: "It's a very natural system. There are lots of agents that we find in the milk because of the grass that the cows eat that aren't found in confinement-grazed milk. I believe it's a healthier milk."
That includes some healthy amino fatty acids and CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), a cancer-fighting agent that is only found in meat and milk that's produced directly from grass.
The Klessigs believe that while their milk quality is similar to that of other well-managed farms, pasture grazing provides flavors in the milk relative to what the cows are eating on pasture.
"So in the springtime, it's a different natural-flavored milk than in the summertime, fall time and winter time. And that is reflected in the cheese," Karl Klessig said.
Which is important to the Klessigs because cheese is another factor of the Klessig operation. They are part owners of Saxon Creamery, an artisan cheese-making operation, opened in 2008.
Saxon Creamery produces 11 varieties of cheese, many of which have won national and even international awards. The Creamery produces 276,000 pounds of cheese a year.
About a third of the milk produced on the Klessig farm is dedicated to Saxon Creamery.
"That's part of the messaging that we have at Saxon Creamery — the milk comes from one herd that's pasture-grazed," Karl Klessig said. The remainder of the milk from the Klessig farm goes to Baker Cheese in St. Cloud.
When the "green months" turn into the "white months," the Klessig operation switches to a more traditional style. About the middle of November, the cows are fed mechanically harvested stored feed, similar to other farms.
Passion for environment
Many of the practices on the Klessig farm come from their passion for the environment.
"I think we all have an environmental bent here in our family," Robert Klessig said. "Our dad had Aldo Leopold as a professor in 1938 at UW-Madison, and we've always enjoyed the outdoors and a good, healthy, clean environment."
In fact, Karl Klessig describes Robert's passion for the environment as "part of his soul."
"Robert has worked his whole life to develop a farming system and a habit and quality of life for animals as well as our cows. So wefarm about 1,000 acres, 800 of which is pasture, and we have another 135 acres of wild and wooded land and Robert manages all of that," Karl Klessig said. "Part of the goal of pasturing is to blend in more with the natural environment."
To that end, the Klessigs took steps to reclaim some of the low-lying land in their fields and develop duck scrapes or ponds, providing habitat for ducks and other wildlife. The Klessigs have four ponds on their land, two of which were developed with input from the Wisconsin Waterfowl Association.
"On behalf of WWA and Ducks Unlimited, we have done some pretty remarkable things here for wetland enhancement and development," Robert Klessig said, referring to their efforts as well as many of their neighbors' efforts. "I'm thinking we've probably produced hundreds and hundreds of ducklings every year. ... These (ponds) didn't just happen; these were all developed and created through organizations like the WWA."
John Regan, vice president of the WWA, explained how the reclamation project works. "About 100 years ago, farmers wanted the most land they could possibly get," he said. "They filled in wetlands and put in drain tiles.
"Today, progressive farms, like the Klessigs, are finding that the wetlands had a useful purpose besides the draining of the fields into those areas to hold water permanently and the habitat that it created," Regan added.
The Klessigs took the steps necessary to restore the wetlands, which will be on display Saturday, Aug. 27, when the Klessigs and the WWA sponsor "Lunch on the Farm." The event, which will be at Saxon Homestead Farm at 15621 Union Road, Cleveland, is advertised as "A Wine and Cheese Tasting Event," and will feature wine from Von Stiehl Wintery, Saxon Homestead Creamery Cheese, and meat from Howards Grove Meat Market. Cost is $30 per person and includes WWA membership, lunch, one bottle of wine and one wedge of cheese to take home.
Wagon rides are offered to view restored wetlands and other events are planned. For more details and reservations, contact WWA representative Regan at 920-946-9400.
"It's all about showcasing what rural Wisconsin is all about," Karl Klessig said of the planned Lunch on the Farm. "We have to help make our community better. Farmers take great pride in making our community just a little bit better."
Robert Klessig added, "It's a way to give back to the community."