MONROE – She wanted to keep on milking cows, but this spring Emily Harris realized her dream of being a dairy farmer had come to an end.
The price she and her wife, Brandi, received for their farm’s milk fell by about a third under a new contract implemented in May — and there wasn’t another milk buyer to be found.
So when Emily found a job driving construction equipment, she put their herd of 30 or so Jerseys on Craigslist. They had to sell the cows, she said, before the dairy operation lost any more money.
More than 300 Wisconsin dairy farms called it quits between Jan. 1 and May 1, according to state dairy herd license records, and about 90 farms — three a day — closed in April alone.
Ed Flood, a livestock broker from Ellenburg Center, New York, bought the cows from Emily and Brandi sight unseen. He had a home for them on organic dairy farms in New York and Indiana.
“Everything came together really fast,” Emily said.
“We were thinking that if we could have made it another two years, to get our debt down to a more manageable level, it would have been easier for me to transition to a new job. But we are just going to have to wing it,” she said.
Brandi will continue in her administrative job at Blackhawk Technical College in Monroe. She and Emily plan to keep their 92-acre farm, where they also live, and raise some crops for other farmers.
“It’s going to be really tight for a while … but we were not taking on more debt,” Emily said.
They also may raise “family cows” for people who want a cow or two for their own milk.
“We’re basically selling them pets,” Emily said.
They’ll keep a few cows of their own — for milk, butter and yogurt and to keep the barn at least partially occupied.
Their Jerseys have been bred to produce what’s called A2 milk, which doesn’t have a beta-casein protein that some say makes conventional milk less digestible, almost intolerable, for a large number of people.
A2 milk has grown in popularity, but it’s unlikely that Emily and Brandi will return to dairy farming full time. Once their dairy operation license lapses, it would be hard to requalify unless they spent a lot of money on upgrading their milking equipment.
“It doesn’t feel like it’s worth it,” Emily said.
MELLEN - Kendra and Peter Thewis know it’s important to educate people about agriculture because less than 2 percent of the population is directly employed in farming. When their four-year-old son, Skyler, was student of the week at his school, Kendra visited his classroom to talk about life on a dairy farm. She showed the kids what it was like to milk a cow by hand, using a glove filled with water . She also had the class make butter. The highlight was Peter Thewis bringing a small male calf named Ironman to interact the kids.
MELLEN - With a $1,000 grant in hand from the Wisconsin Ayrshire Breeder’s Association, Kendra Thewis went to the association’s annual spring auction in Neillsville looking for a registered cow her family might show at future competitions.
With an additional $1,050 she was able to buy Royale-Divide B Starkissed, a pregnant 3-year-old cow.
Winning bids came from as far away as Colorado.
MELLEN - Life experience might be the biggest difference between growing up on a farm instead of a city.
Spend some time with 7-year-old Starr Thewis and her 4-year-old brother, Skyler, and you’ll see.
“They see how things are born, how they live, how they die, how things are made. They see Peter and me work together,” said their mom, Kendra Thewis, who farms along with her husband and her father-in-law, Mike.
They have a work ethic formed through chores and helping tend the family's cow herd.
“I think they (farm kids) just have a better work ethic,” said Kendra, who also grew up on farm. “Their work ethic is better than a lot of adults because they know what it’s like to feed something all the time. Chores have to be done before you can go somewhere.”
Even at the age of 7, Starr is starting to assume some responsibilities.
“I have to feed the calves. It’s hard work and I don’t like doing it sometimes,” she said with a smile.
Kendra, who grew up on a farm near Almond, in Portage County, used to watch her parents do chores from a playpen in the barn. That’s common on farms, she said. Farmers who might not have easy access to child care or don’t have grandma or grandpa available to watch the kids just take their kids with them into the barn while they do chores.
And for some, that’s just how they want it.
“I never wanted to live in town … ever!” she said. “I just don’t like the small little spaces.”
Editor's Note: Town of Frankfort farmer Jim Briggs wrote this piece about his interest in the concept of dairy supply management, an effort currently used in Canada to coordinate supply and demand for dairy products, with an ultimate aim to provide farmers with more consistent prices for their products.
In early 2018, Dairy Together, a movement to rebuild a viable dairy economy for family farmers and rural communities, was off the ground and running.
Two members from Dairy Farmers of Ontario came to Wisconsin in March of 2018 and explained their supply management system to us by way of five very well-attended meetings held throughout the state.
Most who attended left with a new sense of hope and firsthand knowledge of how to move forward, even though we also knew that supply management has been an unpopular idea for decades in the U.S.
Dairy farms have become more efficient at adapting new technology and producing more product, which is why a supply management system of some sort is more important than ever.
A whole book could be written to explain how milk is priced and farmers are paid, but essentially the current system is constantly pushing each farm to produce as much milk as possible from that farm, which in times of surplus pushes the price lower. Then you are back looking for ways to produce more milk to replace the lost income -- and as soon as milk prices come up, everyone wants to produce more milk to capture the higher prices.
We are always on this treadmill going nowhere. We only want long term, sustainable solutions. The taxpayer-funded “bailouts” do little for the average family farmer and only draw more distance between farmers and consumers. In my opinion, a properly managed system would make these unnecessary. In the last couple of years, farmers have been paid about the same as farmers were getting paid in the mid ’80s! Have you checked the price of farm equipment or supplies lately? They are definitely not 1980s-priced. Dairy farms are huge economic drivers, when we have money we like to spend it on equipment upgrades, facility maintenance, supplies etc. Our local economies are far better off having many farms, rather than just a handful of large scale farms scattered throughout the state.
Bottom line is that a properly designed supply management system would benefit more than just farmers, and since we currently don’t have one it could essentially be “built” how it will work for the US. Beginning in late March, the Dairy Together movement will be hitting the road and traveling around the country with the goal of sharing information and ideas and engage farmers and policymakers in community conversations. More information at www.dairytogether.com.
MONROE - For Emily and Brandi Harris, spring can’t come soon enough.
“It wasn’t one thing this winter, it was the length of winter,” says Emily. “Cows have been in(side) far longer than they normally are. It requires a lot more manual since all the feeding is done by hand.” Once spring is in full bloom, the cows graze while out to pasture most of the day.
Emily says cows weren’t alone in feeling the effects of winter.
“Every time it snows it creates more work, shoveling doors and bunks, more fuel in the skid loader to clear the driveway for the milkman.”
Like many farmers, she feels her place needs some cleaning and tender loving care to bring it back to normal.
“This has been a winter if just being happy everyone gets milked, food and water every day,” says Emily.
MELLEN - Starr and Skyler Thewis are farm kids.
They are steeped in the value of hard work and have witnessed the cycle of life and death in a barnyard.
But they're still kids. So a trip to a water park is a special thing, a time to join their parents away from a milking parlor, to splash and play.
Last weekend the Thewis family took time between the morning and afternoon milkings to visit a waterpark 30 minutes from their farm for a few hours. Before the waterpark, the family stopped by the local implement dealer for a free lunch.
When your herd needs to be milked twice a day, it’s difficult to get away. They have been able to go on two-night camping trips in the past when a neighbor will do their milking for them and then they will repay the favor.
TOWN OF FRANKFORT - The little calf had her own stall in the Briggs Family Farm barn.
She was less than a week old, and a bit unsteady on her legs, as if she had too much to drink or was standing on the deck of a rolling ship. She was light brown, had floppy ears and wide dark eyes. She looked like a cross between a fawn and chunky brown Labrador puppy.
The little calf was a Jersey, and she stood among a crowd of more than 50 other full grown versions of herself. Owning a Jersey herd sets the Briggs Family Farm apart from most farms. Holsteins, the familiar black and white cows, are the most common of the dairy breeds.
When Jim and Jenny Briggs purchased their farm in late 2014, they chose to buy Jersey dairy cattle for both sentimental and practical reasons.
Jim Briggs is a third-generation dairy farmer, and both his grandfather and father owned and milked herds of Jerseys on their family farm located about 25 miles southwest of Boston. Jersey cattle tend not to produce as much milk as their larger Holstein cousins, but the concentration of butterfat and protein in their milk is much higher.
That higher quality of milk was important to the Boston-area farm, because the Briggs pasteurized and sold their milk directly to consumers.
"If you drank that milk," Jim Briggs said, "you would never want to drink store-bought milk again. I'm convinced that's part of the reason why people are drinking less milk than in the past. Today's milk just doesn't taste as good."
Jim Briggs had other reasons why he wanted Jerseys on his and Jenny's town of Frankfort farm. Jerseys are smaller, so they are easier to handle in the barn. An average Jersey weighs 1,000 pounds; Holsteins average 1,400 pounds. Jerseys also have nice, curious personalities, Jim Briggs said, and tend to be healthier than other breeds.
The Briggs Family Farm is struggling for survival, and being a farmer is stressful. But the animals are a big reason why Jim and Jenny were willing to take financial risks to start up their dairy, and why they work so hard to keep the business afloat. They love the animals.
"They're our lifestyle. They are our income, so it's in our best interests to take care of them," Jim Briggs said. "We know every cow, their names, their personalities. ... They are essentially an extension of the family, more or less. You're around them seven days a week. It's hard not to (love them)."
BRILLION - The weather hasn't been any warmer lately, but that hasn't stopped Amber Horn-Leiterman from thinking about spring.
Horn-Leiterman, 36, runs Hornstead Dairy in Brillion with her parents and brother. The snow hasn't melted yet — in fact, it just keeps falling — but they're already making plans to spread manure on their fields in anticipation of planting crops this year.
The winter hasn't been ideal. A combination of frequent snowstorms and frigid temperatures have made life more difficult for Horn-Leiterman and anyone else who frequently spends time outside on a farm. Horn-Leiterman spends her mornings feeding calves — a job that requires her to spend time outside, which can be especially trying on bitterly cold mornings.
"You're ready to throw your hands up in the air and go back to bed," she said. "But that's obviously not possible in this line of work."
Despite the harsh winter weather, the dairy is forging ahead toward planting, a crucial step that ensures the cows have enough to eat.
"We are stuck in this cold weather trying to keep everything rocking," she said.