Watertown couple appreciates state
There's no better place in the world to produce milk than Watertown, Wisconsin, according to Mathew and Irena Blenke.
While some people may not appreciate the agricultural system in the U.S. or the weather in Wisconsin, the Blenkes said nothing beats it.
'This is the land of milk and honey,' Irena said.
Mathew said Wisconsin is ideal for cows that do well in cold weather and do not like extreme heat. He pointed out that it is a good place to raise alfalfa, a crop that is ideal for milk-producing cows.
Comparing agriculture to other countries in the world, they said the free-enterprise system in the U.S. is still the best, and agriculture, particularly dairy, is important for maintaining the economy.
'The cow contributes a great deal to the economy,' he said.
Mathew grew up in the Netherlands and farmed there under the quota system. Since the Netherlands has very limited land available for new farmers, making it difficult for young people to farm with their parents or take over their parents' farm, he searched for a place to farm outside of his home country.
His brother chose to farm in Canada, but he did not want to farm under the quota system because he said quotas are expensive and difficult to obtain.
Mathew admitted quotas are a good way to maintain the supply of product on the market without overproducing, but he said when Europe got rid of their quota system last year, the result was not good. Too many farmers expanded too much and too quickly, he said, leaving a glut of milk on the market and causing the price to drop for all producers.
While milk prices are down right now for Wisconsin farmers, Mathew said experience has taught him that the prices will come back again. He believes it will take a year or so, but he said farm commodities always have their ups and downs and farmers need to learn how to live with the price swings.
The couple is passionate about what they do. 'Without milk there would be no life,' Mathew said.
He pointed to all the natural minerals and nutrients in milk and added, 'If we lose what is natural, we will have problems. There is no substitute for milk.'
His wife, who has her PhD and was a nurse in her home country of Poland, pointed out that cows are like little production plants and have the ability to take the minerals and other nutrients from plants and the soil and turn them into a very nutritious product in a natural way.
When the couple married in 2009, she continued to work for a university in Poland for two years, doing some work on her computer at home and commuting to Poland.
In 2011, she left her job to farm full time with her husband in Wisconsin.
Irena said she could always return to her profession or she could teach, but for now she likes farming with her husband and accepting the new challenges that come with dairying.
They came here with a five-year business visa that they obtained by showing how they would establish and run their business. Now that they have met the requirements of that original document, they have a green card, and in 2019, they will be eligible to apply for citizenship and then vote as Americans.
The Blenkes found their Watertown farm via the internet. First they found the farm on Long Road but felt it was too small. Soon the farm next door also came on the market, and combined, the farms were ideally suited to their needs.
They now crop 170 acres and buy some of their feed from area farmers.
The Blenkes hire someone to hose in the manure from their pit as fertilizer on their land and on the neighbor's farm where some of their crops are grown. They believe that by being stored in a pit for some time, the manure is more beneficial to the crops because it is partially broken down by the time it is injected into the soil.
Once they came, they built all new, carefully-planned farm buildings for managing their 150-cow herd. The freestall barn is set up to limit the amount of walking the cows need to do to the holding area. The holding area is situated in the middle and cows come in from each side.
The barn has an automatic scraper that moves constantly through the aisles to keep it clean. The manure is scraped into a center tube that is buried, and manure flows by gravity to the storage pit.
Calf hutches are located under the roof next to the holding area, making calf-feeding convenient. Close-up cows and heifers are located in the special needs-transition area on the other side of the holding area.
Cows are on sand bedding in the freestall barn — something they believe provides the best comfort for the cows. The building is naturally ventilated with curtain sides, ridge ventilation and an insulated ceiling. Fans provide additional air exchange when needed.
Mathew and Irena milk together with help from a neighbor mornings and a couple of area youth in the evening. The Blenkes said the farm is the ideal size for them, and they don't want to go bigger because they like the personal contact with the animals.
While their system is modern and does employ some computerized technology, they like the idea of seeing and handling each cow personally and they recognize most of them just by sight.
They say they can easily monitor health issues, hooves and the well-being of their animals by this personal contact.
'For farmers who are rooted in the dairy business and started with a pitch fork and shovel in their hands, this system is good,' Irena said.
They begin with colostrum that Mathew said he puts directly into bottles to keep it from separating in a pail. He feeds it with a tube, believing this prevents any from getting into the calf's lungs and creating problems.
Mathew designed a simple calf-feeding system that eliminates carrying individual buckets of milk. He also built a simple cart that he uses to move calves from the birthing pen to the hutch.
Calves then receive cow's milk, rather than milk replacer, until they are weaned. Since they generally do not have enough waste milk to feed them, they take the milk from the higher somatic cell count cows for the calves.
'We want to keep everything as close to nature as possible,' Mathew said.
They are proud of the quality of their milk, and they received an excellent report when the farm was evaluated by Foremost, the dairy that buys their milk.
Irena is proud of the fact that their milk goes into baby formula. She also uses some of the milk herself, not only for drinking, but also to make her own yogurt.