Breakfast with the cows

John Oncken

“I was born and raised on a dairy farm and try to keep up with dairying, so I try to attend a dairy breakfast each June,” the eater from Madison says as he worked on his eggs and pancakes. “I’ve been to Green and Lafayette counties also in recent years.”

“We’ve been to Dane county dairy breakfasts before and love the food and touring the barns,” a Waunakee couple says. “Our son loves to eat in the tent.”

After the crowd thinned, the cows went away from people watching and back to eating.

“I can’t believe how clean the barns are,”  a member of a multifamily group, several who nodded their heads in agreement,” said. “And the cows with their big eyes looked at us while they were eating.”

5000 guests

Whatever the reason, well over 5,000 visitors made their way to Hensen Bros. Dairy Farm, at Middleton, on Saturday, June 9 for the 40th annual Dane County June Dairy Breakfast on the Farm. 

This breakfast, along with the 60 or so others held across the state was truly a family affair as retired farmers toured the modern dairy facilities and wondered how they ever milked cows by hand or with two or three milker units as compared to today’s modern milking parlor. Meanwhile the youngsters oohed and aahed over the cute calves and big cows they were seeing eye to eye for the first time.

The food line and people walking to the exhibitor displays make for a busy scene.

It’s about family

At the same time, various members of the Hensen family, all attired in red golf shirts were answering questions from curious visitors. Questions like: What do the cows eat? (grain, corn silage, alfalfa, vitamins, minerals and nutritional supplements) and how many cows are milked on the farm? (500 Holsteins, three times a day.)

Like many (most) of Wisconsin farms, this is a true family farm (fifth generation), and has been in the family for 151 years. Somehow, many folks have the idea that larger dairy farms are owned by outsiders or corporations that are taking farming opportunities away from small farmers. That’s not really true: Although the Hensen Bros, dairy is bigger with 500 cows and over 1,000 acres of cropland than the farms many people remember from their youth, it involves four different families. 

Will and Kim Hensen, partners in Hensen Bros. Dairy take time to eat breakfast.

Brothers Will (and Kim) and their son Kyle (and family) and Jim (Sue) and son Jason (and family) own the farm — currently that consists of eight adults and four younger children. 

Will explained that he and Jim (they were the youngest of nine children) bought the farm in 1987 after the death of their dad a year earlier. They farm some 1100 acres, 600 in Dane county and another 500 in Iowa county where they raise corn and soybeans.  

Getting ready

It wasn’t until March that the Hensens committed to hosting the dairy breakfast, Will said.  “We had to move the machinery out of the machine shed where the tables were set up and will move it all back in," Will Hensen says. “But we always keep an orderly and neat farmstead so it was pretty much ready for the visitors."  

Jim Hensen, partner in Hensen Bros. Dairy was pleased with the breakfast crowd.

Visitors had a lot to see and do: Like walking through the freestall barns and parlor, seeing the cows and asking questions of the volunteers placed at location stations (parlor, calves, feed and freestall barn).   


A common question from city folks is “how do farmers manage such a complicated (and expensive) business as a dairy farm? I’ve always answered this way: Firstly, they must know how to farm, something gained from experience, education and continual looking, listening and learning. Will Hensen adds “and working 100 hours a week.”

As with most larger family farms the Hensens have individual areas in which they work: Will is the farm manager and gets involved in most all aspects; Jim is crop manager, animal feeding and equipment repair; Will’s son Kyle is the herdsman and Jim’s son Jason works with the heifers and repairs. Of course, they all work together during cropping seasons and when needed. 

Manure goes to the digester

The Hensen Bros. Dairy along with BlueStar Dairy-Middelton and Zeigler Dairy, is a part of the Gunderson Health Systems Springfield manure digester. Will Hensen explains how the system works.  “They pick up our manure (from a holding lagoon) six days a week with four to five semi loads a day and return with the liquid with much of the phosphorus removed, pump it into a storage lagoon where it stays until we inject into the soil as a fertilizer.”

Leo Acker was one of the many drivers of golf carts used to haul people who have difficulty walking around the farm. A great service to folks like me with a bad knee.

Not only food

“The Breakfast on the Farm is not only filled with food (scrambled eggs, pancakes, sausage and Culver’s custard sundaes and fun (the Soggy Prairie Boys band), but there were all sorts of educational exhibits," said Kristin Olson, co-event coordinator. "Guests at the breakfast sampled the new Yodelay yogurt, met cows close-up and learned about modern farm technology, from computerized equipment to land conservation and animal care.”  

Then there was the lineup of older tractors for the old timers who used them in their farm work and the young timers with big imaginations.  

Always amazing

Although I've attended dozens of such dairy breakfasts, I continue to be amazed at how thousands of people can descend on a farm; have a leisurely sit-down meal while being surrounded by volunteers refilling your coffee cup, handing out more pancakes and keeping the tables clean and trash put away.

The breakfast on the farm is often a family event, as it should be.

But, it's done at over 60 such dairy breakfasts held across the state each year. Of course, the key to the success of these big events are the committees and the many volunteers from throughout the ag community who donate goods, services, time and funds to pull it off.

Some will say “the food line is too long” and it always is at farm dairy breakfasts — but that's half the fun. You get to meet new people and make new  friends while standing in line. It also means the youngsters stand calmly in line, no running around or they may lose their place. Besides, it's probably the first time they have stood in line to eat, and many probably had never eaten with such a big crowd before.

I did not attend Wisconsin’s first official June Farm Dairy Breakfast on the Farm that was held in 1970 when the Clever Clovers 4-H Club invited members of the Jefferson business community to a breakfast on the Craig and Laura Bean farm and did it again the next year. The idea then went statewide.

40 years ago

But, I did attend the first Dane county dairy breakfast held in 1979 at Maurice and Gerry Cooper’s Moss Oak Farm near DeForest. I remember Gerry Cooper and her group of volunteers cracking eggs by hand vowing “never again” — thereafter and now,  the eggs are bought in pails. Also, I remember shaking hands with US Senator Bob Dole who was contemplating running for president at the time (he didn’t).  

Hopefully non farmers who attend a breakfast will remember a bit of what they learned — especially that their food comes from contented cows and caring farmers who are truly miracle workers.

There are still many dairy breakfast to be held this June — go to for a list of times, dates and locations. Take your pick. You’ll enjoy!

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