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LENA – Although it may not be as well known for dairy farming as some other counties in northeastern Wisconsin, Oconto County is home to several modern and progressive dairies.

Peterson’s Dairy LLC, near Lena, is among the county’s largest and most modern farms, and local residents and visitors to the area will have the opportunity to view its cutting-edge technology and energy-efficient facilities during a special event on Sunday, June 9. 

The farm began in 1973 when Arne and Judy Peterson purchased the Ernie Frye Farm. They bought 55 cows and started milking in an old Chore-Boy swing-six parlor. The Petersons pride themselves in staying up-to-date in the industry. 

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s they converted to freestall housing with new barns including a maternity area, treatment pens and holding areas while incorporating sand bedding. 

The next generation

In 2002, Peterson’s Dairy, LLC was formed when son, John, joined the operation as part owner. John’s parents, although semi retired, continue to be involved in the decision-making process. “They’re still an integral part of what we do on a daily basis. Dad provides valuable advice and my mother works in the office,” John said.

Although John and Jessica’s three children, Sam, Isaac and Matthew are still young, they also help with farm chores. “They’re only 11, 9 and 5, but they help wherever they can. They help keep things tidied up around the farm and do some calf work,” John said.

The farm continued to expand over the next decade. In 2016, the Petersons updated again with a 482-cow four-row freestall barn that included space for specific lactation group pens for fresh cows, heifers, dry cows, close-up cows, a transition-cow area, vet room, newborn calf area, and a double 16 GEA 90i parlor.

They currently milk over 1,000 registered or identification verified Holsteins three times a day. “We have two people in the parlor at every milking and another person moving cows to and from the parlor. We employ 15 people full time and five part time, including high school students,” John said.

Heifer calves are initially raised at a facility near John’s house. They are then sent to a custom grower in Kansas until they are 185 days with calf. The family currently manages 2,000 acres of corn, alfalfa and soybeans. Additional corn silage acres are grown by contract with neighboring growers. “Custom operators harvest the alfalfa, corn silage and grain, and handle the manure hauling,” John related.

Employee training

An important factor in the farm’s long-term success, according to Peterson, is hiring and retaining quality employees. “We can’t do anything without good quality help,” he stressed.

All new employees receive training in animal handling and safety protocols. “There are checklists we go through for new hires, and videos they watch,” Peterson said. “That helps them understand how we manage our dairy, and how we handle our cattle. The cattle come first and we need to have everybody on the same page.” 

Peterson also looks for ways to increase the efficiency of his operation. “We look at things we can do with our parlor to be more efficient, along with grouping strategies for animals, and just looking at what can be done to make the job easier, more productive and less stressful for our employees,” he emphasized. 

Looking to the future

While many in the dairy industry are pessimistic about the future, Peterson says there are good reasons for optimism. “Everyone needs to put food on the table, and I think those of us in dairying have to do a better job of educating people in order to retain our markets,” he said.

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While the Petersons have made significant upgrades to their farm over the past few years, now the focus is on improving the efficiency of their operation. “We have to get better at what we’re doing before we can consider any future expansion,” John said. 

“We’re alway looking at different ideas to make our operation more sustainable, both environmentally and economically, but we’re not going to do things that might give us a short-term gain yet result in a potential long-term loss.”

Peterson wants to keep all options open for his children to enter the dairy industry if they so desire. “What we’ve done here makes it viable for the next generation to become involved in the business.”

Breakfast on the Farm

Local residents and area visitors will be able to view much of the dairy’s operation Sunday, June 9, as the Oconto County Breakfast on the Farm Committee celebrates June Dairy Month with Breakfast on the Peterson Farm. 

A sunrise worship service will be held at 7 a.m. and breakfast will be served from 8 a.m. until 1 p.m.  Entertainment will be available for all ages, including live music, a petting zoo, children’s games and activities, and much more. 

Breakfast is $8 for adults, $4 for kids 4-10, and age 3 and under free. Presale event tickets are available at the Peshtigo National Bank: Coleman, Gillett and Oconto Falls branches; N.E.W. Credit Union: Oconto, Oconto Falls and Suring branches; and the Lena Fast Stop. 

More information about the event is available at www.ocbotf.com or on Facebook. 

Peterson’s Dairy LLC is located approximately 2.5 miles north of Lena and 2.5 miles west of U.S Highway 141 at 6370 Goatsville Road. 

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