Carefully crafted business plan leads to success for Wisconsin's OYF winner

Gloria Hafemeister
Kyle and Rachel Zwieg are back working on their farm after spending a few days in Neenah with other young farm couples and competing for Outstanding Young Farmer.  As first place winners the couple will compete next year in the national competition hosted by the Wisconsin OYF group.

ASHIPPUN – “All the people there were great to meet. Rachel and I had a wonderful weekend,” said Kyle Zwieg, the sixth generation Oconomowoc area dairy and crop farmer who was named Wisconsin’s Outstanding Young Farmer recently at Neenah.

The couple was selected from a field of six candidates from around the state, all outstanding candidates in their own right, according to the Zwiegs.

Zwieg’s family established their farm in 1856 and Kyle says he always had an interest in continuing the family farming business but he knew it would take careful planning and education.

He began his effort by taking a job at a successful nearby dairy farm where he not only earned money that he would eventually use to invest in his family’s farm but gained a wealth of knowledge from his employers during the process.

The size of his family’s farm was a challenge. In 2009 when Kyle was interested in joining the business, the size of the farm was barely big enough to support his parents and grandparents.  Making the situation worse was the fact that 2008 was also a disastrous crop year for the Zwiegs.  Most of their home farm’s tillable acres sit in a valley directly adjacent to the Rock River which experienced record flooding that year.  The family lost 65% of their crop.

Despite that setback, Kyle continued to follow the business plan he had been busy formulating. He invested all of the savings he had from working on the Koepke farm in order to double the size of the dairy herd and aggressively pursue more acreage to lease, as well as constructing a grain storage facility for feed and cash grain sales.

MORE: Wisconsin couples named National Outstanding Young Farmers

For five years he carefully followed his business plan to transition ownership of the business.

Zwieg says his parents had always encouraged continued education.  As his employers, the Koepke family further encouraged him by pushing him to attend the UW-Madison’s Farm and Industry Short Course program and by paying half of his tuition.

Through that program and his employers, Zwieg learned about the positive effects of developing a no-till system on their farm. He also met numerous other mentors through the short course program who helped him save on the input costs of his cropping without sacrificing yield.

Since 2010 the family has adopted a 100% no-till cropping system and they have experimented with a wide range of machinery attachments and self-fabricated implements.

Beyond equipment modifications, they have been aggressive in trying new techniques such as aerial seeding of cover crops into standing corn and soybeans which began in 2018. This project was accompanied with an EQUIP grant through the NRCS.

Zwieg also was part of one of the first classes to be trained on the nutrient management software SnapPlus during his 2007 classes at UW-Madison.

One of the challenges in growing the farm was to be able to obtain enough land in the area to rent. He learned about the importance of developing relationships in the area when attempting to increase the land base. Each year he was able to secure more land and in the 2022 cropping year will have accumulated over 1300 acres. The increased land base has helped in accomplishing his financial goals.

The dairy enterprise on the Zwieg farm also saw many changes during the last decade.

At the beginning of his involvement with his family’s farm in 2010, the family was milking 40 cows in a traditional stanchion barn and cows were component fed. The following year the Zwieg's switched to a TMR system and by 2012 all cows were in sand-bedded freestalls. Small improvements continued until the family made the leap of installing a new single unit Delaval robotic barn at the end of 2020.

Zwieg called the robotic barn his biggest challenge and largest “new practice”. 

Moving the cows into the freestalls helped him accomplish his initial goal of boosting production to over 80 pounds of milk per cow. The farm's herd average continued to rise in the years that followed. He said the recent move into the robotic barn in 2020 made the Zwieg farm Delaval’s highest producing farm. According to DHIA and Delpro Data, the herd is currently on pace to achieve 115 pounds per animal.

Kyle Zwieg’s family farm was started in 1856 and he is proud to continue the family tradition.

Zwieg's wife Rachel has always been supportive of his farming efforts and her off-farm income helped contribute to the couple’s goal. In 2015, with the birth of their first son, Theodore, she left her job with the plan to care for their son and help with farming responsibilities. Then 18 months later the couple welcomed twin boys, Landon and Logan. From that time on, caring for their three young children became her full-time responsibility.

As their boys continue to grow and mature Rachel has slowly been able to take back her active role in farming operations. She is most active with the cattle, performing tasks with the herd and taking on management of the robotic barn during busy cropping seasons. Rachel has also developed and maintains multiple social media pages for the farm which serve for community outreach and networking.

The operation's Facebook page has become especially useful for cultivating new landlords for tillable acres and furthering relationships with existing ones.

Conservation has been a big part of the Zwieg cropping plan.  They have gained a great deal of knowledge in this area as a part of the local farmer-led watershed group since 2017.  Zwieg also credits his association with the UW Discovery Farm program while attending school at UW-Madison where he served an internship with the program, as another valuable learning experience.

In 2010, the family placed a permanent conservation easement on their original homestead property. The easement ensures that the land will remain in production agriculture and can never be subdivided for development.

Both Kyle and Rachel are very active in their community. Kyle serves on the Tall Pines Conservancy Board of Directors and is also a part of the Farmers for Lake Country organization.

He also served as the Oconomowoc FFA president and earned his American FFA degree.  In the Waukesha County Farm Bureau he served as the Young Farmer chair. The Zwiegs were both active members of the Ashippun Fire and EMS for eight years.  They are members of the Whitestone Community Church where Rachel acts as the church Mom’s Group leader.

With their farm being on the fringe of urban development by the city of Oconomowoc, the Zwiegs understand the importance of promoting the agricultural industry and the challenges it faces.

Zwieg says he has taken classes and become involved with organizations that help him develop his speaking and communication skills in order to do a better job telling the story of agriculture. The family offers farm tours and takes advantage of numerous television and newspaper interviews to help tell their story.