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Celebrating 30 years of Breakfast on the Farm

Gloria Hafemeister
Correspondent
The Elbe family includes Chris and Tracey and their children Ryan, Matthew, Kimberly and Kyle. Expansion allowed the Elbes, hosts of the Washington County Dairy Breakfast June 10, to build modern efficient facilities and bring their grown children into the business.

WEST BEND - One of the goals for the Washington County Dairy Promotion Committee when they started to host Breakfast on the Farm 30 years ago was to help the non-farming community get to know their farm family neighbors.

With farms getting bigger and modernized, that goal becomes even more important.

Chris and Tracey Elbe will host this year’s event from 6:30 to 11:30 a.m. June 10  at their dairy farm Golden E Dairy Farm, 1140 Shalome Dr., West Bend. The couple hopes that visitors touring their facilities will see that, despite the size of their farm, they are truly a family business. 

“It’s right in our farm’s mission statement: ‘Our family; our passion, our life; our future,’” Tracey Elbe said.

The family milks 2200 cows and everything needed to care for those animals is located on the site that was developed in the last few years.

“We didn’t try to work around our old buildings and include our original barn when we expanded,” she says. “We moved a quarter mile down the road and everything has been built new in the last couple of years.”

The Elbe’s went into their expansion to accommodate bringing three of their four children into the business. The youngest son is still in high school and has not yet decided if he will join the family farm.

Starting from scratch

Chris and his wife Tracey met in high school. Neither had come from a family background in farming. Chris started working for a nearby farmer when he was 9 years old and got paid in heifers. So by the time he was ready to farm he had accumulated a herd.

Tracey was a city girl but knew it was a great way to raise a family.

“We bought our first farm May 15, 1991 and we got married May 18, three days later,” she said.

They moved to their first farm with 90 cows, an old Ford tractor and their golden retriever (hence the farm name).

They grew the herd to 240 cows and milked in a stanchion barn until 1997 when facility was converted to a double 8 parlor. Over the years it was increased to a double 10 and eventual a double 13 which milked 900 cows.

All of their children, Ryan, Kimberly, Matthew and Kyle, have been heavily involved with every aspect of the farm since they were able to walk.

With that interest in mind, in 2006 they purchased 2 farms that were connected in Sheboygan County. This increased the acreage while providing multiple buildings for raising young stock. The following year a farm was purchased in Ozaukee County. This farm was set up with a double 8 parlor and they began milking 300 cows there.

Together they own about 1000 acres located in three counties. They gradually added land as farmers who they rented from decided to sell. The couple says they face a lot of development pressure. Two of the farms they purchased had previously sold off their development rights. That made it easier for the Elbes to buy the land to continue farming,carrying out the family’s original intent to keep their farms in agriculture.

New facilities

Anyone who has milked in two barns understands the inefficiencies, the family made the decision to build new facilities.

On January 22, 2015 an old fashioned cattle drive was held with the help of family and friends to move the cows from the home farm down the road to the new facility. It took approximately 1 ½ hours to move the 1000 cows to the new dairy.

The new barn is an 8-row, cross-ventilated free-stall barn. Good management produced great results in the old facility, but results have been even better in the new facility. Milk production has increased and the pregnancy rate improved.

The 2-year-old facility includes a new D32 parallel parlor where three workers can milk all the cows three times a day with a one hour shut down for cleanup.

At the same time, they built a new calf barn with individual calf pens where Tracey and Kim care for their newborns. The calves are cared for in groups of 35 and move to group pens before eventually ending up in heifer facilities on other farms that the family purchased gradually through the years.

The new facilities also includes a concrete-lined 22 million gallon manure storage lagoon. They also employ the services of a custom hauler to apply the manure to the fields according to their nutrient management plan. Tankers are used to transport manure to distant field while hoses are used to convey manure to nearby fields.

The family milks 2200 cows and everything needed to care for those animals is located on the site that was developed in the last few years.

Sharing the load

The family divides responsibility according to individual interests. Chris feeds cows, getting up at 3 a.m. to finish before the milkers begin to move cows. Tracey and Kim care for the calves while Ryan feeds the heifers and dry cows. Matthew performs a variety of jobs including over-seeing the field work.

The entire family pitches in during harvest with all but Kyle, the youngest, driving semi-trucks to haul feed. One of Kyle's jobs is to pack the feed in a bunker.

Tracey worked off the farm for 25 years but since the expansion spends a good share of her time handling book work with help of an accountant.

They have 28 full-time employees including family and some additional seasonal help.

Telling their story

The family is eager to open their farm to tours because, living in a very populated part of the state, they know that many of the people living near their farm don’t really understand what is happening there.

Tracey mentions a particular conversation she had during a tour when demonstrating how to pasteurize waste milk for calves. One visitor to the farm asked what waste milk was.

When she explained that it is milk from treated cows the visitor was amazed to find out that farmers do not put milk from treated cows into the tank to sell. By hosting an event such as this, Tracey hopes to help consumers understand that antibiotics can never get into milk or meat and that the products they buy are safe and wholesome.

Besides working full time on the farm Kim also works with the Ag in the Classroom program helping children in the county understand the benefits of dairy products and how milk is produced.

The family has also produced several videos that will be shared with the public and with students.

“We want to be transparent on our farm and we’ll open up everything to visitors except the calf barn because we need to be careful about bio-security,” Tracey said.

Growing event

The breakfast will include activities provided by Roden Barnyard Adventures, Wagon Ride to Farm, guided Barn Tours, Petting Zoo, Pedal Tractor Pull, Live Music By Ralph Thull Trio, and a display of the Eilbe’s large modern equipment along with Antique Tractors.

Washington County’s dairy breakfast has grown to be one of the largest in the state and it would not be possible without the continued support of area business and individuals. One of the unique things about this visit is the number of volunteers who come forward to help at the event.

The breakfast generally draws at least 5000 people but organizers expect a slightly larger turn-out this year because neighboring Ozaukee County will not be having an on-farm breakfast this year.

Planning takes an entire year and the event includes numerous children’s educational and fun activities. It also includes guided tours hosted by the farm’s veterinarian, nutritionist who help to explain and educate visitors about farm practices.

Proceeds from Breakfast on the Farm benefit The Washington County Dairy Promotions Committee and are used to support the Ag Adventureland at the Washington County Fair, dairy programs at elementary schools throughout the county and scholarships to young adults pursuing an agricultural related career, and much more.

Mike Strupp, a committee member from the start, says, “We strive to promote consumption of healthy food options such as dairy products and produce. Our goal is to support positive public relations about farmers and farming practices, educate our non-farming neighbors, and positively influence the agriculture curriculum in our county’s elementary schools. “