BurWall Holsteins: two years after the fire

John Oncken

It was just a bit over two years ago, on Sept. 18, 2017, that a barn fire of undetermined cause (but from possible electrical failure) broke out just before midnight, at the Bur-Wall Registered Holstein farm near Brooklyn in Green County.  The farm owned by Wallace and Donna Behnke and son, Bob, housed a milking herd of about 70 registered Holstein cows. 

Over 30 head were saved, but nearly half the herd, including Bur-Wall Buckeye Gigi EX-94-3E-GMD, a former world milk production record holder at 74,650 milk were lost. The surviving animals were moved to a nearby farm where they were housed and cared for.

Thinking and planning

Since that fateful night of the barn fire, the Behnke family, while continuing to milk the remaining 30 cows in the rented barn, did a lot of serious thinking. Reports were rampant in the news media of dairy farms closing across Wisconsin and all of dairy land. Logically for Bob Behnke and his parents it would be the time to “get out’ of  dairying but they didn’t. 

“We knew that over the years our income was split between milk sales and the sale of  registered breeding stock (bulls and heifers) and embryos,” Wally says. “And  we still had some embryos in storage, some young animals growing and many of our foundation cows still with us, so we decided we could stay in business in spite of the milk price." 

A freestall

They began making plans to rebuild their milking facility but with changes. It would be a freestall layout as contrasted to the old tie stall barn. There would be a milking parlor and plans were for an 80-cow capacity. 

It was 2 p.m. and all but two cows were at rest...that’s comfort.

The biggest change was to relocate the new barn, not on the original farmstead, but up the road about a mile on a 50 acre piece of land the family had owned for many years and where Wally’s dad had raised pigs for a period of time some years ago. And, the new barn would  face busy State Highway 92 rather than on sort of lonely Mortenson Road. 

While the planning and pondering continued, the dairy herd, now about 40 cows big continued to be milked. 

“It was not easy,” Wally says. “Even though many of the cows had died in the fire, their feed bills still had to be paid.”

Moving back

After a few setbacks and delays, the BurWall herd moved back home — rather to their new home — last July. 

“I had a lot of help from friends, neighbors and family to make the move,” Bob says. 

The freestall barn is cleaned daily with a skid loader with manure going into a pit that has a two week capacity.  An eight unit swing parlor does the milking with the milk  marketed through Rolling Hills Cooperative.

Donna and Wally Behnke developed a top Holstein herd and have been recognized with Holstein USA's Herd of Excellence award multiple times, including in 2017.

Some history

Burgess and Lucille Behnke bought this farm in 1944. Wallace was one of four children, and after graduating from Brooklyn High (now long gone), had aspirations to attend the UW-Madison Farm Short Course. 

"My parents didn't agree with the idea," Wallace said. "So I stayed on the farm. My passion, even then, was registered Holsteins."

In 1960, Wallace married Donna Bjerke, a farm girl who had lived near Stoughton for some years, and they took over the Behnke home farm with 30 milking cows on a 50/50 arrangement with his parents.

.Bob and Wally Behnke are proud of the new dairy facility.

"I bought my first registered Holsteins, two cows, from Oscar Holte, east of Stoughton," Wallace said. "They worked out well, and our herd grew. The Bur-Wall Holsteins name came about at that time as a combination of Burgess (my dad) and Wallace (me)."

In 1968, Wallace and Donna bought the 160-acre farm (an additional 100 acres was added later), the herd grew to 42 cows and they got serious about breeding Holsteins. 

"Both Donna and I showed cattle, often at Black and White shows, until the kids got old enough," said Wallace. "Our calves were shown at the Dane County Fair even though our farm was just over the line in Green County."

Well known

The Behnke offspring, Roger, Keri, Bryan, Bob and Brenda, were well known in Holstein show rings, and the family was active in local and state activities.  

"We had good cattle," Wallace said. "We won at the Wisconsin Black and White Show and had a number of All-Wisconsin cows and continued to consign at sales.”

Bur-Wall Buckeye Gigi, with owner Wally Behnke,  produced  a record 74,650 pounds of milk in 2016.

Bob Behnke will also make a move this weekend:  He will move from a house located on the original farmstead to a house on the farm where the new dairy buildings are located. Actually, he will be switching houses with his nephew Sterling Evert who has an off farm job. 

Of course the hope is that the BurWall Holstein herd will rise again as the herd stabilizes in the new facility and dairying gets back to normal. Prior to the fire the herd average was well over 30,000 milk, Bob explains. 

Farm Short Course grad

Bob Behnke is a two-year graduate of the UW Farm Short Course and served six years as an officer of  Wisconsin Agricultural and Life Sciences Alumni Association (WALSAA), the organization representing Alumni of the UW-Madison College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) andthe UW Farm and Industry Short Course (FISC).  

Many times I've written that indeed there is a future for small, family-owned dairy farms, especially those with an additional enterprise such as a cheese or dairy store, agritourist business, or dairy genetic sales in addition to milk sales.

With parents Wally and Donna Behnke supposedly retired — though they continue to provide advice and labor when needed — the future of BurWall Holsteins is still in family hands. 

Time, effort, thinking and luck will determine the continuing story.

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-572-0747, or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.