DOC shows off new addition and opportunities at Waupun Farm facility

Gloria Hafemeister
In addition to working with animals, inmates like Anthony learn other skills like using equipment to prepare and feed TMR to the dairy heard at the farm.

WAUPUN, WI – Unknown to passing motorists, the Waupun State Farm located east of the city of Waupun, is home to a herd of Holsteins that produce milk for inmates housed in correctional institutions across the state.

Last week, Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) Secretary Kevin Carr welcomed Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) Secretary Randy Romanski for a tour of DOC’s Bureau of Correctional Enterprises (BCE) agriculture facilities in Waupun.

Just off the busy intersection of Highways 151 and 49, Carr and Romanski walked the grounds at BCE’s Waupun Farm for a look at the operation there, including the facility’s new transition barn, part of a $6 million facilities project. The barn, which has 260 stalls, was completed in 2021 and includes sand beds to improve cow comfort.

MORE: Waupun Dairy and prison farms turn out milk, ice cream and skilled employees

“These are impressive facilities,” said DATCP Sec. Romanski. “There are a lot of needs in the workforce right now. With the programs DOC has in place, they are offering training that builds job skills for people in correctional facilities. This can provide an opportunity to hone their skillsets and possibly find employment when they return to the community.”

Secretary of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Randy Romanski, left, toured the Waupun Prison Farm and dairy processing facilities last week in Waupun. Hosting the tour was Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections Kevin Carr, center.  They were welcomed by Wes Ray, director of the Bureau of Correctional Enterprises which oversees work projects at the state’s two dairy farms, the processing plant and other enterprises that provide jobs for prisoners.

In 2017, the Department of Corrections partnered with Moraine Park Technical College to develop a dairy worker training program for inmates at the Waupun State Farm. In July of 2017, the Department of Corrections graduated its first class of eight graduates, who were certified in milking and caring for cows and farm maintenance skills.

“This facility gets high marks from DATCP inspections.  They produce a high-quality milk and the farm operations get good marks on their routine inspections,” Romanski added.

Opportunities for inmates

Secretary Carr says the operation provides a tremendous opportunity for inmates.

"(It allows them) to work in an environment that provides them with jobs skills that I believe are not only going to allow them to pursue a career in agriculture when they leave our care, but these will be transferrable to many other industries,” he said. 

The farm is a part of the BCE’s program to provide job training for residents of the state’s 11 correctional facilities.

Waupun is part of Wisconsin’s long history of inmate labor, given that the first state prison was built here in the 1850s, says Wes Ray, director of the BCI, which oversees the farms.

“We make many things, we make furniture, road signs, license plates, clothing, mattresses, and pillows besides running the two dairy farms and the dairy processing plant," Ray said. "While each of these enterprises produces a product, our primary product is the opportunity it provides for those in our care.”

“Ninety-five percent of the persons in our care are going to return to our communities. So, we have every obligation to try and provide as many of those folks in our care as possible, with the skills, training and treatment to be successful when they leave us and not return to custody. That’s the most cost-effective form of public safety,” he added.

Craig, an inmate at the Burke Center in Waupun, spends time in the milking parlor at the Waupun Prison Farm where he's learned discipline and job skills while incarcerated.

In addition to cows, the Waupun farm also has some 1,700 acres producing alfalfa, corn, soybeans and wheat, all for the 470 Holsteins cows on the farm and another 390 replacement heifers. The team at this farm employs persons from the John Burke Correctional Center.

The Oregon Prison Farm, located south of Madison, runs This farm consists of approximately 530 acres of cropland to support their 180 cow dairy herd and 170 replacement heifers.  Workers on this farm are sourced from the Oakhill Correctional Institution.

Lt. Jason Hensel, who grew up on a farm in Eldorado, has been the manager of the Waupun Prison farm for the last 20 years. Hensel says the Waupun herd maintains an average of 90 pounds of milk a cow/day with two milking’s a day. 

Lt. Jason Hensel who grew up on a farm near Eldorado, has been the manager of the Waupun Prison farm for the last 20 years.

Ray says the fact that the Waupun herd exceeds the national herd production average of 68 lbs. per cow/day speaks volumes of the team's efforts.

“A more-productive herd means more money for our operations,” Ray said. “We’re almost entirely self-funded. So, the more money we make, the more we can re-invest in our facilities and the more people in DOC care we can offer jobs and training to.”

Previously, cows were milked 3 times a day until 2021 when the combined population of prisoners went from decreased from 24000 to 20,000.

“Before 2021 we produced even more milk,” Ray says, “but we managed (our production) by switching from 3x to 2x a day and changing nutrition accordingly. We are a little different because we do not market to the general public on the open market.”

In addition to the transition barn, the Secretaries toured the farm’s milking parlor and the hutches where calves were being fed. They also spoke with inmates working at the farm who are learning skills related to the agriculture industry, and soft skills applicable to many jobs.

More than just milking cows

Craig, one of the workers in the milking parlor says he had no previous experience on a farm and says he enjoys getting away from Burke. 

"I feel like a normal person when I’m here working on the farm. I love cows. Each has its own personality, and I've learned patience working with cows,” he said.

To secure a job at the farm, Craig first needed to spend some time doing jobs around the Burke Center. After about a month, he earned the right to apply for a job at the dairy farm. Available jobs are posted at the minimum-secure facility and anyone meeting the criteria can apply. 

Burke Center inmate Donald bottle feeds one of the calves at Waupun Prison Farm.

Upon starting at the farm, workers begin by scraping manure and moving cows, eventually moving into the milking parlor or operating equipment.

“Every worker goes through extensive training," Ray says. "The first thing they learn is safety. Then we begin to teach about the cows and procedures.”

Another inmate worker, Donald, started on the milking team and is now in charge of calf care. He is tasked with milking fresh cows right after delivery and feeding the colostrum to newborn calves. At times, he is called upon to assists with the delivery when needed.

His other duties include cleaning calf hutches and providing bedding. Each day he feeds calves using a milk taxi. At nine-weeks of age, the calves are moved out into the transition barn.

Donald says he doesn’t mind the long hours because he is never bored. 

“There is more to farming than I ever realized. I learned how to be part of a team and work with others,” he said.

Fellow inmate Anthony is busy each day mixing TMR feed for the animals. Hailing from Cincinnati, Anthony had little previous farm experience. He does, however, expect his experience working on the farm to help him get a job when he is released early next year. Skills he will take with him on his employment search includes newfound patience and the ability to work with others.

Changes on the farm

Since the newer facilities were built, officials say they started using sand for bedding and have found cows are more comfortable and productive. With those facility changes, however, came an increase in milking herd numbers and the need to upgrade the manure system from a million-gal. pit to a 4 million-gal. pit. 

“This allows us to comply with our nutrient management plan,” Ray says.

The freestall barn and milking parlor were built in 1996, replacing the previous stall barn that was used on the farm. Feed is stored in bunkers and shelled corn is stored in the three 18-by-65 concrete silos.

While the farm strives to be efficient and productive, Ray says, the real focus is the men and their successful future.

"We are always thinking about factors that will contribute to their success when they leave here and go home,” he said.