Brooks family carries on legacy of sustainable agriculture

Dan Hansen
Ron Brooks and Zoey (Brooks) Nelson represent the fifth and sixth generations to operate the family farm.

TOWN OF LIND – Luther West, a relative by marriage, homesteaded the original 160 acres in southern Waupaca County that were to become Brooks Farms shortly after President James K. Polk issued a proclamation opening Wisconsin’s land for settlement in 1855.

During the ensuing 164 years, the farm’s focus has been on sustainability, conservation, efficiency and profitability. Today, Ron Brooks and his daughter, Zoey (Brooks) Nelson represent the fifth and six generations to operate the farm that now encompasses 1,600 acres of owned and rented land.

The cropping and dairy segments of the farm grew steadily over the generations. Current crops include corn silage, grain corn, alfalfa and winter wheat in a 10-year rotation.

“All planting, harvesting and other field work is done by our employees, all forages are stored in bunker silos, and our crops, except for alfalfa, are no-till,” said Brooks.

Meanwhile, the milking herd of Holsteins had increased to 230 cows prior to 2015.

“We were heavy on the cropping side and our milking facilities were seriously overcrowded,” related Zoey, who returned to help manage the farm following graduation from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and serving as Wisconsin’s 67th Alice in Dairyland.

New barns

Dairy expansion began with the construction of a new calf barn in 2015, followed shortly by a new parlor and freestall barn that was built for 700 cows.

The milking herd of 500, including 50 dry cows, is housed in a 5-row freestall barn. “ We have a high-production group, a group of 2-year-olds, a hospital group, pre-fresh, dry and maternity groups,” noted Brooks.

He said the calf barn houses approximately 140 calves that are raised to three months of age.

“The barn has Holm and Laue automatic calf feeders, with four feeding stations. We feed them natural milk because we feel it helps immunize them against pathogens when they get older.”

Nearly 300 heifers are raised in the 2003 freestall barn until they are within 100 days pre-fresh.

Milking system

Cows are milked twice each day in a Germania double-16 herringbone parlor that’s expandable to a double-32 parallel parlor.

“We don’t milk three times a day because it won’t make us money,” Brooks said. “If I could figure out a way to milk once a day, I would,” he added.

The parlor is designed to be operated efficiently by one person.

“I’ll never design a parlor that needs two people,” he stressed.

The Germania double-16 herringbone parlor enables one person to handle the milking.

Sand bedding is featured in the freestall barn, and is key to keeping the cows clean and comfortable, according to Brooks.

“Sand is also one reason we don’t have robots,” he explained. “We looked at robots really close, but we were going to be spending $15,000 per year on robot maintenance, and replacing the robots about every five years just because of the sand.”

Currently, the dairy herd is averaging 27,200 pounds of milk with 4.2 percent butter fat and 3.2 percent protein. The somatic cell count is 70,000. Milk is sent to the Grande Cheese plant in Brownsville, Wis.

Technology at work

The naturally ventilated freestall barn features 16-foot sidewalls, two dozen 20-foot HVLS fans spaced 60 feet apart, automatic alley scrapers, heated manure flumes, and a Lely Juno feed pusher. There also are cameras in the parlor and maternity pens.

Many of the systems, including fans, manure channels, curtains and more, are operated by a J & D Manufacturing Pulse system environmental control.

“The system has artificial intelligence, and it learns,” Brooks explained. “After two years it pretty much has everything under control.”

With this system, Brooks says the cows never have a bad day.

“This winter the cows lived in a climate from 27 to 35 degrees, and it doesn’t get any better than that,” he said.

The farm also features a 20 KV solar array that produces 30,000 kilowatt hours of electricity annually.

“The solar panels are on our old freestall barn, and they provide energy for heat, lighting and fans,” Brooks said.

Farm planning

To encourage future generations to remain involved, the farm’s current ownership structure consists of three separate LLC’s. All the land is owned by Ron’s four daughters, Alyssa, Kelsey, Zoey and Sydney. Ron and Zoey own the new facilities and cows, and Ron owns the equipment and older buildings.

“We’re always looking to increase efficiency, especially in these times of low milk prices,” said Brooks. “We look at pulling ingredients out of the ration, and if there’s no difference they stay out.”

Labor is another area where efficiency is practiced.

“We operate our farm with only eight employees, so we’re running about as lean as we can run. On the other side, we’re doing a better job of marketing,” said Brooks. “We will continue to use production methods and procedures that maximize our economic return while protecting the environment that is our very lifeblood.” he assured.