Media Day provides first look at Ebert host farm

Jan Shepel
Jordan, Whitney, Renee and Randy Ebert, who are hosting Farm Technology Days July 11-13 on their Algoma-area farm, welcomed members of the press to Media Day last week.

ALGOMA - For Randy Ebert, hosting as many as 45,000 people on his farm this summer wasn’t really a nerve-wracking prospect, but he was a little nervous about hosting members of the media for Farm Technology Days Media Day June 6 — traditionally reporters’ first look at the host farm for the annual three-day outdoor farm show.

The show, coordinated by Farm Technology Days, Inc. moves to a different county each year and this year it’s Kewaunee County’s turn with Ebert Enterprises as host farm, near Algoma July 11-13.

In the 64-year history of the show — which started as a plowing contest and then became Farm Progress Days and then Farm Technology Days — this will be the first time for the event in Kewaunee County.

Organizers want the event to focus visitors’ attention on the many kinds of enterprises in the county like fishing, Christmas trees, apples and of course, dairy. Dairy farming is the major agricultural enterprise in the county with over $170 million generated by milk production and $125 million generated by dairy processing.

Henry and Carol Ebert, Randy’s parents, were on hand, joined by Randy’s wife Renee and their children Jordan and Whitney. The family grew emotional as they remembered Whitney’s twin sister Britney, who died during the planning of the show. A video presentation showed the importance the 19-year-old has had in their family, teaching them to slow down and realize the value of each minute of every day.

Media day events were held on a back corner of the home farm where the Eberts built a cabin-like retreat where they can go to have a bonfire or unwind. It’s clear that the loss of their special needs daughter and sister hit the Eberts hard as they planned for the show.

Jordan said that Britney’s needs helped make the entire family slow down and appreciate the little things.

Building projects

During the planning of the show, they did a variety of special building projects. Randy says he likes to do a capital improvement project each year for the farm but he didn’t want to be doing any of them this year while getting ready for the show, so he compressed those projects into 2015 and got them all done.

“I would have done them anyway, but we got them done to be ready,” he adds.

A new rotary parlor at Ebert Enterprises, home of this year’s Farm Technology Days in Kewaunee County, was built inside a round barn – a nod to the host family’s ancestors who were barn builders.

Reporters had a chance to tour the farm and see those improvements, including an 80-cow rotary parlor used to milk the Ebert’s 3,000 cows three times a day. But the icing on the cake is the fact that they built the parlor inside a round, red barn, designed to mimic the round barns that were popular on farms in another era.

The round barn was a nod to generations of barn builders on both sides of his family, Randy said, and in designing this barn they included some features that would have been on those long-ago barns — like a certain kind of window and star decoration. “I’m very sentimental when it comes to that kind of stuff,” he said. “We felt like it was a way to combine our heritage with new technology.”

The chimney-effect takes warm air up and out through the center of the round barn’s cupola as cows walk onto the rotating platform and back off when they’re done. It takes 35 minutes to milk a 300-cow group.

Old boots and shoes around the outside of the Ebert’s new round barn are filled with flowers.

The outside of the round barn, thanks to Renee, is decorated with a wide range of old shoes and boots filled with flowers. There’s also a nod to the past in a vintage windmill and piece of farm equipment landscaped with flowers.

Inside, five employees keep cows moving through the facility and reporters were treated to a visit inside the carousel, for a chance to look up at the cows as the got milked. One stall gets milked every six seconds and the unit is on a cow for an average of four minutes.

The Eberts started milking cows with a little double-six parlor, he said, and grew their herd to 1,000 cows from 1997 to 2002, with some fairly modest improvements to their facilities. From that time to 2012 they doubled their herd through internal growth.

The herd reached its current size after the family bought a neighboring farm and expanded again. They then decided on the rotary parlor. Randy praised the foresight of his parents in acquiring additional land so the operation could continue to grow.

The maternity area is staffed 24/7 and employees are trained to think “cows first,” he added.

New era

“I grew up where you shut the door, the cows were fed and the work was done,” Randy said. “I realize those days are over.”

Because the farm is located only two miles from Lake Michigan, ventilation is generally not a problem — lake breezes keep the cows, heifers and calves comfortable and buildings are sited and designed to take advantage of the cooling breezes.

The Ebert cows — almost all Holsteins — are a fed high-forage diet and the goal is for each cow to produce about 80 pounds each. They use a load of distillers grains from an ethanol plant each day in the rations. Three full-time employees mix 28 batches of feed each day to keep all the animals happy.

Five workers at a time can put a 300-cow group through the Ebert’s new parlor in 35 minutes. The parlor was added to Ebert Enterprises as they expanded their herd to 3,000 cows.

Randy credits a crew of valued employees — 50 full time workers and 20 seasonal staff — who help keep the dairy and the cropping enterprise humming. “We do all of our cropping ourselves and we couldn’t do it without a ton of good people. The employees make this place run.”

The Eberts run 7,500 acres of cropland — rented and owned — and double-crop about 20 percent of that land with cover crops and alternative forages. All of the heifers are raised on alternative forages.

New calf housing

Visitors had a chance to see the barns that the Eberts built to house their calves that are still on milk, which are fed with automatic feeders in each of six barns. Those were built when the family decided to bring their calves home from a custom raiser.

Some Jersey and Angus-crossbred calves are intermingled with the Holsteins in the calf housing. That’s because Randy has adopted the practice of breeding his lower-producing Holsteins to Angus, creating an additional enterprise of feeding out all of those black calves for the meat market.

Some Jersey and Angus-crossbred calves are intermingled with the Holsteins in the calf housing.

While Randy admitted to being nervous about talking to the media, he also said that he feels it’s important for agriculture to tell its story. “People should hear our story. Telling that story is very important to us.”

Adds his son Jordan: “This event is for the whole community, the whole county.”

What has happened during the planning of this show, says FTD Inc., General Manager Matt Glewen, is that Main Street businesses have recognized the importance of agriculture. “That has shown up in the number of volunteers, the quality of the leadership and the support for agriculture,” he added.

Aerica Bjurstrom, Executive Secretary for the Kewaunee show, noted that nutrient management and manure handling have been a hot-button issue in the county and she and her organizers have worked really hard to address that. “By no means are we ignoring that issue. We want people to see how resources can be used properly.

“Sometimes people focus on the negative and we have a positive story to tell here. We understand that people have an opinion to share, but we also have a positive story to share. We want to focus on the positive.”