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I vaguely remember the farm auction at the Mayr brothers dairy farm on Egre Road between Sun Prairie and DeForest in November of 1999.  I’m sure I didn’t see it as anything special (I try to attend farm auctions on occasion, mainly  to talk with farmers and keep in touch with the always shifting agriculture scene).

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A big decision

The twin brothers, Jerry and Gary Mayr, and their wives, Cheryl and Diane's families had milked cows together all their adult lives but the time had come to make a major decision. Should the young farmers invest big money to update and expand their dairy operation knowing full well that chances were slim that any of their children would be carrying on the dairy business in years to come?  Or, should the families get out of the milking business and get involved in other agricultural enterprises?

Eggs? Maybe.

Gary and Diane Mayr had been pondering another business for some time, that of raising chickens and collecting the eggs for Phil’s Fresh Eggs of Forreston, Illinois. This was an opportunity they had heard about from a feed dealer who related that a previous poultry/egg producer was leaving the business. This was an endeavor that would allow Diane to work on the farm and be with their family.

Gary and Diane and  their sons, Chad and Jason, proceeded with the chicken and egg enterprise and the barn was built and in February of year 2000, 20,000 chickens were delivered and the eggs began rolling down the receiving belts from the nests.

Cage free

Interestingly, the chickens were uncaged and moved freely around the building, the roosts and nests. Note: Year 2000 was a bit before the sentiment and movement away from caged layers had really started, so their timing was right.

In December of 2000, I visited the now egg farm and talked with the Mayrs and asked how things were going.

“It was one of the best moves we ever made,” Diane said. “Even though many of our friends said we were crazy to leave dairying—something we had been involved in for so long—it’s been great.”

19 years later

It’s now 2018, almost 20 years since the Mayr auction, and Gary, Diane and son, Chad, are still raising chickens and collecting eggs, now twice as many.

“We built a second similar building (40 x 600 feet) in 2004 and have a 40,000 bird capacity.  Right now we have 38,000 layers,: Gary says.

He explained that the chickens are removed after a year and a half, the building is power-washed and sanitized prior to a new group of 16 week old pullets are brought from a farm in Illinois were they are raised.

And, as I expected, I could not go into the facility for bio-security reasons. Only Gary, Chad and Diane actually go into the building. 

Another change is that Pearl Valley Eggs of Pearl City, Illinois, has replaced Phil’s Fresh Eggs as the owner of the chickens and egg marketer.

“They are a long time, family-owned company that wanted to supply cage free eggs to their customers nationwide, and that’s what we produce,” Gary says. "The feed is all vegetarian and comes by semi from Illinois on a weekly (sometimes sooner) basis,” he added.

Still a lot of work

Although it’s maybe not as labor intensive as milking cows, Gary says it’s still a lot of work that includes packing the eggs into flats, putting them in the big cooler, walking the buildings to make sure all is well and hauling manure from under the roosts daily. 

“We studied the original move to producing eggs for two years and it’s worked out well for us,” Gary summarizes.

A corn maze, too!

The Mayr family has a number of other farming ventures.

“Yes, this is the fifteenth year of our corn maze," Diane Mayr pointed out in response to my question about the sign at end of their driveway. “Our daughter-in-law (Chad's wife Anna) suggested the idea and it’s been a popular attraction every year. We open on Sept. 15 but the big crowds come in October. The design changes every year, so it's never the same maze twice! It’s a true family event.

“This year we are proud to be one of six Culver’s “Thank You Farmers Project” corn mazes in the country. They provide the maze design, wristbands and some publicity.," she added.

Note: other Culver's mazes are located in Indiana, Idaho. Michigan, and Missouri.

Corn maze hours are 12 to 5 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 4 to 7 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Beginning in October, on Fridays the Maze is open until 9 p.m.(unhaunted). the family will be "Haunting" the Maze on Saturdays, Oct. 20 and 27. 

A visit to the corn maze serves as the centerpiece of the many activities offered at the farm. Also included is a horse-drawn wagon drawn that provides visitors rides down to the pumpkin patch where they can pick their own pumpkins. There is a “Barrel Train” for kids rides and new picnic area and shelter. Still under construction is a new kids “digging” area that will offer two construction type diggers that youngster can use to dig in the sand.

Up in the haymow is the straw bale maze for youngest visitors. Tots can leave the barn via the stairs or slide down the chute into a big box of kernel corn. 

Pumpkin patch

The four-acre “pumpkin patch” opens on Saturday, Sept. 22. The patch is filled with lots and lots of pumpkins of all sizes to be picked. Gary gave me a ride to the patch on his 4-wheeler and I was amazed at the view and how many pumpkins can be raised on a few acres if you do it right.. I remember trying to raise even a few plants in our garden years ago that were never much of a success.

I noted the bee hives near the pumpkins. ‘”We put in bees a few years ago.” Gary said, "and, our production really increased."

For more information including hours and prices for all the farm activities, visit http://www.mayrfamilyfarm.com/.

The best 

Then there is the sweet corn. “We started raising sweet corn decades ago," Diane says. “We began the crop as a way to get a little extra money for Christmas presents and we’ve been raising it ever since. Customers come back year after year and tell us it is the best.” 

Gary and Diane farm 300 acres of corn, beans and alfalfa in addition to the corn maze and other projects described. Brother Jerry has long worked for a Waunakee dental company and Cheryl has operated her “Country Bloomer” floral business (just north of Token Creek) for many years.

Yes, there is life after milking cows, the Mayr families have discovered. Yes, there is a gamble involved but research and innovation can help. Ask Gary and Diane. 

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

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