A big picnic: lots of meeting, greeting and eating

John Oncken
The Gilbertson family was introduced (from left) Brenda, Erik with mic, children , Mark.

What does a Wisconsin farm family, seriously raising Holstein cattle, do on a Sunday that falls after county fairs end, District Holstein shows are but a memory, State Fair has come and gone and World Dairy Expo is still a couple of weeks away?

Go to the annual Wisconsin Holstein Picnic, of course. And, well over 300 adults and kids did just that last Sunday by making their way to Gildale Holsteins at Hollandale — a village of 288 people and 46 milking cows in Iowa county. (Note: Hollandale is one of few Wisconsin cities or villages that has a dairy farm—Gildale Holsteins—located within its  borders.)

Picnic-goers included dairy farmers and people who work with dairy farmers, all having one thing in common: a connection with the Holstein cow that has forever been the most popular breed of dairy cows milked on Wisconsin farms and all probably members of picnic sponsor the Wisconsin Holstein Association (WHA).  

Lots of tradition

Gildale Holsteins is owned by Erik and Brenda Gilbertson, a young couple with three children, who recently assumed ownership from Erik’s dad Mark. It’s the kind of dairy  farm that many people remember from their growing up days and love to look at: small traditional red barn, cows side by side in tie stalls, standing on straw (on top of mattresses), all overlooking acres of green grass where the cows are pastured when they are not on display at a picnic.   

Red barn, silos, farm house green grass - what we grew up with.

The day began with the Blue Ribbon MILK 5K/ 1-mile walk on roads around the Gildale Farm at 9 a.m. Coordinated by Blue Ribbon 4-H Club, with proceeds split between several charities. Brenda Gilbertson said 44 people entered this first-ever event and “hoped it would continue as a fundraiser.” 

Open barn

At 10 a.m. the barn was open for guests to look at the dairy herd and individual cows.  The often heard comment was “gee, these are tall cows.” Rightly so as the registered Holstein Gildale herd was bred for type and the show ring for decades. Some of the cows were included in two classes of a judging contest that anyone could participate in, and most folks did.

Looking at cows.

Great steak

Then it was picnic time featuring steak sandwiches served by the Iowa County Cattleman’s Association. I’ll admit that this steak — purchased locally at the  Hollandale Grocery — was better than about any I’ve ever eaten: served in a hot dog bun, I expected to need a knife to carve my way through the steak — something not easy to do on a paper plate with plastic implements. But no, I ate it all without even once touching the knife. Great!

And, you can’t have a dairy picnic without ice cream and a choice of cupcakes to go with it. Add in the milk and plates of cheese being served by dairy queens and it was obvious that most eaters were aware of the recent research that proved butter, cheese and ice cream were good — not bad — for eaters.  

Meeting friends old and new

Of course, a gathering of a large group of farm folks really means getting reacquainted with old friends and meeting new ones. Eating while seated on 2 x 10 planks atop hay bales means you are bound to meet new people during the course of the meal as people come and go. 

A picnic is about eating, even in a machine shed.

Yes, there was a formal program: representatives of the Wisconsin Holstein Association, introduction of the Gilbertson family and Alice in Dairyland Crystal Siemers-Peterman, a long time member of the WHA and veteran of the show ring, and UW RIver Falls graduate and motivational speaker Scott Florence. 

There were lots of youngsters among the crowd and they were kept busy on pedal tractors (rented from Green County Ag Chest) and bouncing inside and sliding down the slope of a huge inflatable shaped like an end loader (rented from McFarlanes in Sauk City) — something new to me. 

The future?

A picnic is not the place to talk much about serious subjects but several folks expressed their thoughts to me about the future of smaller family farms as they noted the continued drop in Wisconsin dairy farm numbers (now below 9,000). And, how technology is taking over dairy farming 

“Will we still have Holstein picnics like this 20 years from now?” a dairyman asked.  “Probably yes,” another young farmer answered, “but maybe it will be just a few mega farm owners and computer whizzes eating in a supper club... everything will be computerized, with robotics and automation and not many actual farmers.” Who knows?

Love of dairying

But for this day, Erik and Brenda Gilbertson and their three children were the center of attention along with their cows, the new 72 x 60-foot heifer facility a half mile up the road holding about 30 animals, the old farmhouse being remodeled in a big way thus bringing Erik and Brenda closer to the farmstead and the cows. 

I and many other visitors were impressed by Erik’s love for his cows and desire to have them in the old dairy barn where he could see and touch and talk with them close up.  Something that is not as easy to do in today’s modern freestall barns that have taken over cattle housing in recent years. 

Farm kids

Both were born and raised on dairy farms: Erik on this dairy that was bought by his grandfather Otis in 1946 and Brenda at Cava-Lanes Holsteins in Manitowoc county.  They met at World Dairy Expo in 2006, were married in 2009 and are now the parents of Makenna (6), Elise (4) and Naydeen (1). They currently live in a house about a block away which they will sell when the farm house undergoes major remodeling. 

What about the future? 

Although the dairy barn is old, small and a bit antiquated, they have considered building a new barn near the heifer facility a half mile away. Brenda says, “Yes, we’ve looked at freestalls, robots and a new barn but for now, we’ve decided to stay where we are.”   

She also realizes that their small herd size may not be enough long term: “We have been investigating the possibility of making on-farm ice cream and have visited several such operations in the state.”

The 46 cow herd, recently classified by Holstein USA, currently includes 16 Excellent, 26 Very Good and 6 Good Plus animals and a 110.3% BAA. (Note: The Breed Age Average Percentages (BAA%) is the result of evaluation by The Holstein Association's professional classifiers that evaluates 17 individual traits in five major dairy scorecard breakdowns. 

Registered breeders, a minority

The WHA has some 2100 adult members and includes farmers, dairy suppliers, others interested in the dairy industry and a host of member programs. Wisconsin’s 9,000 dairy producers are about 90 percent commercial with milk as their main income source and interest. The remaining farmers raise registered cattle of seven breeds with Holsteins far the most popular. They sell milk and value the breed type appearance of their cattle.  They also sell the offspring of their pedigreed cattle that are the cattle you see at World Dairy Expo and other big shows.

Congratulations to the WHA and Gilbertson family for hosting a great for fun event.   Nothing like a big sort of reunion to end summer and greet autumn. Thanks. 

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or e-mail him at