Don Steege's connections run deep

Ray Mueller
Now Media Group


The Green Bay Reformatory dairy herd. The showing of prize winning cattle at county fairs. The Kaytee farm in Calumet County. The county's 400 Sale. The exporting of dairy cattle to 42 countries and sales to Holstein breeders in 47 states.

What do they have in common? All have a connection with Don Steege, who was in some way involved with the Calumet County Holstein Breeders Association for nearly one-half of its history in addition to the links he had with Holstein breed activities in 47 states and on four continents.

During his life's journey, Steege became a very identifiable name, face, and voice of the Holstein Association on every plane from the local area to the international stage. A couple of months before his 93rd birthday in late 2015, Steege was interviewed for this account of his life history.

Family tradition

A connection with Holsteins started with Steege's grandfather, who was an owner and breeder of registered Holsteins in the late 1800s, not long after the predecessor organization of today's Holstein Association USA was formed in 1885.

That continued with Steege's father Herbert, who attended a somewhat abbreviated course at the University of Wisconsin in Madison from 1911 to 1913. 'Dad's interest was Holstein cows,' Steege recalls.

In 1922, the year Steege was born, his father bought a farm at rural Clintonville in eastern Waupaca County. The agricultural economy was caught in an prolonged economic depression shortly afterward — a period that Steege describes as 'good training' as the family struggled to earn income from the raising and sale of strawberries, raspberries, and cucumbers.

Steege's father pursued the improvement of Holstein genetics through the purchase of bulls from the Green Bay Reformatory (now Wisconsin Correctional Institution) dairy herd and even by taking some cows there to be bred, he indicates. (The reformatory's dairy herd was dispersed at a sale on May 10, 1976.)

Coming of age

In his life on the home farm, Steege began to handle horses for plowing and cultivating fields by the time he reached age 10. An annual highlight for him was the showing of a blue ribbon Holstein calf every year from age 9 to 20 at the Waupaca County Fair in a judging protocol which awarded only one blue ribbon in each competing class.

Following in the footsteps of his father, Steege also played basketball. Although his high school team at Clintonville 'never won a game,' he was awarded a basketball scholarship to UW — Madison one year after that team had won its only national championship.

At Madison, Steege was a member of the freshman basketball team (freshmen were not eligible for varsity play until some 30 years later). There he encountered Harold 'Bud' Foster, whom he described as a strict disciplinarian. Foster was the head coach at UW — Madison from 1934 to 1959.

Military interruption

By February of 1943, Steege's stay at UW — Madison was abruptly interrupted by World War II. He was one in group of 12 — many of them from Clintonville — who entered the United States Army.

Of that group, 10 remained together for an engineering unit assignment to England. But one of the group was rejected for having feet that were too large for standard footware while Steege was also rejected on grounds of clothing because his arms were determined to be too long, he says.

As a result, Steege was assigned to the 41st Infantry Division, in which he rose to the rank of Captain through attendance at Officer Candidate School. The unit served in the Philippines and New Guinea. (In 2011, Steege recorded an interview for the Veterans History Project for the American Folklife Center which is housed in the Library of Congress.)

Once the war was over, Steege was sent to the army base at Kobe in Japan, where he worked in a supply unit. While there, he and his unit had a less than satisfactory encounter with the then General and later United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Return to civilian life

A period of hospitalization followed the completion of Steege's military duty. He returned to UW — Madison 'too old for basketball' in 1948 and graduated from there in June of 1951.

Steege's involvement with Calumet County followed immediately as he became the county's Extension Service 4-H program agent on July 1 of 1951. He held that position for two years before going to neighboring Sheboygan County for a one-year stint as the 4-H agent.

Kaytee Farms episode

The next stop and direct involvement with registered Holsteins was at Kaytee Farms along Killsnake Road in central Calumet County. That herd had been developed by Roland 'Chick' Tesch, who was a partner in the Knauf & Tesch company, which operated four feed mills in the area at the time. In addition to Chilton, those mills were at Greenleaf, Kaukauna, and Maplewood (Door County).

Steege was hired to manage the Kaytee farm, which he described as 'an experimental farm' where demonstrations and programs were held on milking, feeding, and other management practices. The owners also published Kaytee News, which was a monthly newsletter to promote the company's products, he notes.

In the fall of 1960, Steege left Kaytee Farms. The registered herd of about 40 Holsteins had been purchased by David Bachmann of Sheboygan Falls, who proceeded to develop the internationally-renowned Pinehurst Farms herd over the next three decades.

On the move again

Shortly after that, Steege and his late wife (Ruth Geigel) moved to a house on a CARM Farm near Plymouth in Sheboygan County but was not involved in its operation. Those farms, which specialized in dairy and hog production, were owned by Curt Joa of Sheboygan Falls, who founded a manufacturing company that is still operating today. There were four CARM farms — three in Sheboygan County and one in Waupaca County.

CARM was an acronym for the letters of the Joa family's first names — Curt, his daughters Anna Mae and Ruth, and his wife Martha. In association with the CARM farms, Joa had a youth camp in Milwaukee for boys age 14 to 16 who could apply to work on a CARM farm for nine weeks during the summer.

On the airwaves

For much of 1961 and 1962, Steege's distinct voice could be heard throughout northeast Wisconsin. That's because he became the farm news broadcaster on WBAY radio and television in Green Bay.

In that role, for which he admits he didn't have any formal training, Steege succeeded the legendary Orion Samuelson, who had moved on to WGN in Chicago, where he established a national reputation and is still engaged in broadcasting farm news. Steege also worked with Les Sturmer at WBAY.

Back to the farm

Steege's farm and registered Holstein roots beckoned him out of the broadcasting studios to, as he put it, 'to start my own business.' That began when he affiliated with Curtiss Candy to provide artificial insemination sire mating services (the ProfitMate program) for cows in the company's dairy farm client herds.

Before the end of 1962, Steege formed what became his signature business — Wisconsin Holstein Service. Originally housed in a barn on the Geenen farm near Freedom, it began as a Holstein cattle sale and herd dispersal business.

For those sales and dispersals, Steege counted on the cooperation of licensed auctioneers such as Victor Voigt of Manitowoc County, the late Sonny Barthel, and Bachmann, with whom he had a fallout (reconciled later) over the value to be placed on a very high quality herd of dairy cows in Calumet County.

One sale that Steege eventually managed, starting in 1968, was Calumet County's annual 400 Sale, which began in 1943. It was held in November at the county's highway garage through 1958 and then in the Calumet Arena on the county fairgrounds — both in Chilton. In 1960, the sale date was switched to September — either the 1st or 2nd Saturday.

On November 1, 1958, for what proved to be the last sale at the highway garage, an unpredicted snowstorm struck, resulting in cattle being sold as the highway department crews were attaching snowplows to the trucks, Steege recalls. As a result of the storm, the cattle in the sale were held overnight as arrangements were made to feed, water, and milk them.

The export business

The next phase for Wisconsin Holstein Service was the exporting of Holstein cattle — an activity which engaged much of Steege's attention for the next three decades. By that time, WHS was housed at the former Christoph farm along Highway 151 on the hill just east of Chilton.

With the availability of the barn on that property, Steege developed a registered Holstein herd of about 40 milking cows that was based in large part on genetics obtained from Canada. He had already been reselling many cattle that were imported from Canada and sold to breeders in the United States.

In cooperation with the national Holstein Association and with supervision by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Steege completed his first export sale in 1971 to Rumania (then a Communist country). The next shipment went next door to Yugoslavia, which was also a Communist country at the time.

Over the years, with the sale last shipment being made on February 3, 2002, WHS handled exports of Holsteins to 42 countries. This included totals of 5,000 head to South Korea, 15,000 to Saudi Arabia, and 5,000 to Iran. The largest individual shipment of 1,025 head went to Venezuela, for which 25 potbellied trucks were lined up along Highway 151 to begin the hauling of the cattle to the seaport.

Export fallout

Not everything went as planned with a few of the ventures, Steege admits. For instance, he learned that the 500 heifers which went to Iran were slaughtered for meat rather than being used, as intended, to create milking herds. This happened during the ascendancy of the Ayatollah Khomeini.

While many of the overseas movements were carried out by flights, including three planes on one shipment to Saudi Arabia, there were also a few movements by ship. Among the difficulties that cropped up were a delay in ship movement due to heavy fog at the port of Richmond and the unexpected necessity to load hay onto a ship, Steege recalls.

But there have been many successes, Steege points out. He cites Saudi Arabia, where herd sizes of 1,500 cows were the starting template that was eventually abandoned, apparently due to security concerns. As a result, a centralized facility near the city of Riyadh today houses about 47,000 head — cows which have a rolling herd average of between and 28,000 and 30,000 pounds of milk annually.

Steege explains that the king of the house of Saud in the country was interested in establishing an agriculture sector, including the domestic production of milk, because of the possibility that the country's oil exporting business would not continue to be as prosperous as it had been for a long time (now a fact).

At the home farm

When Steege purchased the former Christoph farm (208 acres) in February of 1968, it already had the distinction of having two All-American bulls which were the offspring of the same dam and sire. The names of those All-American sires were Christy Homestead Forebearer and Foreteller.

Of the cattle that he owned, Steege came across a few with strange traits. That applied particularly to two cows which earned an Excellent classification from the Holstein Association.

One of them had a penchant for biting humans, Steege indicates. The other one became furious whenever approached by a veterinarian.

Cardinal Cafe enterprise

Following the dispersal sale of that herd in the spring of 1995, Steege and his partner Jim Dedering turned the former dairy barn into a business titled Cardinal Cafe — a name which misled numerous online sites and users to think it was a restaurant.

Instead, the business catered to birds and other small animals, providing a variety of feeds along with bird feeders and bird houses. That business continued until a fire destroyed the barn on the evening of Sunday, Sept. 7, 2008.

Even after the dispersal of the milking herd, some cattle owned by several people were raised, fed, and housed at the property. That practice ended due to the fire.

Subsequently, the Pennelopy Pizza restaurant and a new vehicle service station were built on the property once covered by the farmyard. That restaurant is now Papa Don's Pizzeria & Buffet.

Name dropping

Through his Calumet Realty business, Steege also oversaw the development of four subdivisions on a significant portion of the farm's land. The first one had 15 lots while the fourth one is laid out for 92 lots, of which 59 are were still for sale in late 2015.

One easy way to identify those subdivisions is the names of the streets running through them. The street names are those of Steege's children — Debra, Donna, Doug, and the late Diane.

In retirement, Steege acquired a property in Florida as a winter residence. Since that property was sold in 2015, he is living full time in a house on the eastern bank of the Wolf River near Fremont, accompanied by longtime friend Virginia Schneider.

Keeping contact

Steege still maintains a contact with agriculture and the dairy sector by subscribing to and reading several industry publications. In February of this year, he came to Brillion to receive an award during Calumet County's annual Mardi Gras program.

In early March, Steege was a presenter at a forum on the history of the Holstein Breeders Association in Calumet County that was held at the Chilton Eagles Club. That event drew a crowd of more than 40 people.

That forum was designed to draw attention to the 100th anniversary of the county's association, which was formed in 1917 and which will be hosting the Wisconsin Holstein Association's 2017 convention at the Paper Valley Hotel in Appleton next February 24 to 26. If Steege's health permits, he will be attending at least a portion of that convention.