Families thrive on both big and small dairy farms

John Oncken
Bryanna and Dylan Handel began milking in 2116 with 30 cows, now milk 90 and have built several   buildings and added four children.  They are small but very good dairy producers.

For decades the question of “little farms” or “big farms” has been an issue of conversation (and heated debate) among farm organizations, politicians, city folks and farmers.

One point of view is that Wisconsin dairy farms were historically owned and operated by a family ‒ dad, mom and the kids ‒ without the use of full time employees.

This is seen by some as the “way dairying was and should be” and there are many that defend this (so-called) family farm tradition with all their might.

The contrasting view is that the expansion of the dairy farming enterprise with more cows, modern, automated high-tech equipment and hired employees is a natural progression and allows the family owners to achieve a certain lifestyle change.

The subject has been the subject of continuous argument for decades ‒ at least as far back as the 1930’s when Wisconsin farm numbers were at their peak.

Family owned? Yes.

Interestingly, all across dairyland, from California (the land of big farms) to New England (the cradle of small farms), most every dairy farm is, in fact, owned by farm families ‒ dad, mom and the kids.

More important, both types of dairy farms can be very successful economically and provide a good life for the families who chose dairying as their profession and lifestyle.

No farm family, at least to my knowledge, proves that premise better than the Browns of Belleville, Wisconsin.

Jerry and Janette Brown began dairying in the township of Montrose, between Paoli, Basco and Frenchtown in Dane County in 1962. They milked 45 Holstein cows before remodeling the barn and adding 15 cows in 1973.

Over the years, Jerry and Jan were actively involved in the agri-dairy community, achieved a reputation as good farmers and raised four children.

Two of their sons, Brian and Doug choose to follow the Brown family business career tradition as dairy farmers. (Note: Not all dairy farm parents encourage their children to select farming as a career choice...too often, I’ve heard farm parents rage against farming as an option for their children.)

Not Jerry and Janette Brown.

“Doug and Brian always wanted to farm,” Janette Brown remembers. “Both attended the UW-Madison Farm & Industry Short Course, it was their decision to dairy and we helped them.”

Today, Doug farms 320 acres and milks 115 cows on the home farm, located on County A, which they purchased in 1997 from Jerry and Janette.

“We wanted to remain relatively small in terms of cow numbers,” Doug explains. “In 1998, we remodeled the barn, added a milking parlor and in 1999 built a heifer shed.”

“We wanted our children to be involved in farming, to learn responsibility and to work as a family.”

Just across the fields on County PB, Brian and Yvonne (“call me Yogi”) Brown are a part of Sun Burst Dairy, a 600-cow dairy operation.

Sun Burst Dairy is an LLC owned by the young couple and parents Jerry and Janette. “The LLC actually owns 40 acres and rents the remainder of 320 acres from my wife and I,” Jerry said.

“My parents bought this farm in 1984, it joins the home farm”, Brian explained.

“Yogi and I rented a farm previously and then moved our 69 cows here. We wanted a lifestyle change, nor did we want to be tied to our cattle. We wanted to see our children more,” Yogi continues.

The result? A new set of dairy facilities were built ‒ Double 8 parlor, 6-row freestall barn, 1.2 million gallon lagoon ‒and milking began in March of 1999. Two markedly different approaches to dairy farming. And it works.

“It’s all about family”, mother Janette summarized. “It’s so sad that some farm parents don’t want their children to farm.”

They all agree that while dairy agriculture was historically thought of as the ”man's” business, the farm wives were/are equally involved.

Jerry Meissner

Many reasons to get bigger

I remember as far back as the early 1960's - when I was a young county agent in Clark county – receiving a phone call from Norm Meissner who milked cows near Chili. “Our barn burned down yesterday and we have to rebuild, can you help us?” he asked. I suggested a planning meeting with Ted Brevick, UW Extension Ag Engineer to get some ideas.

“Good idea,” Meissner responded.

A few days later we gathered around the kitchen table at the Meissner farm and Norm began the conversation by stating “it's got to be big enough for our current 60 cow herd and laid out to be expandlble in coming years.”

The barn of course was built (80 cow capacity) and served as the keystone to many herd expansions. Son Jerry graduated from Marshfield High School in 1972 and after a brief stint at the dairy science program in Madison, returned home to partner on the family Norm-E Norm Lane farm. In 1974 they began the first of many expansions on the farm and never looked back. Together with his dad and brothers and eventually his son and grandsons The herd had reached 2500 milking cows at the time of Jerry's passing in 2021and his son Josh taking over.

Smaller dairies? For sure

On the other end of the herd size spectrum there is the B. Kurt Dairy in Barneveld. In June 2014, Bryanna Kurt and Dylan Handel were married in a barn on the 15-acre farm they had bought near Mt. Horeb.

"Bryanna really wanted to get married in the barn," Dylan Handel said.

The young couple raised heifers on the small farmette while Bryanna continued working at AgSource and Dylan built fences for DRH Fencing in Verona.

In September 2014, Bryanna and Dylan began milking 16 cows in a rented barn near their home. "

You’ll probably remember that two months later the milk price crashed," Bryanna said. "We only got two good milk checks, but we kept milking and we had a really good landlord."

After a year and a half, the dairy herd was up to 30 cows and the Handels left the rented barn, sold the 15-acre farm and moved to a 55-acre dairy farm near Barneveld.

"It had a 68-cow tie-stall barn with a pipeline milking system which I liked,” Bryanna said. 

Over the past five years they have added cows, enough to fill the 68-stanchion barn, bought an adjoining 50 acres and built a machine shed in 2019 and a calf barn in 2020. Dylan has been full-time on the farm for the past year and, maybe most importantly, they have added three children.

Just two examples of the large and small dairies in Wisconsin and there are many. True, family dairies are getting bigger and fewer for many reasons, an important one being sons and daughters joining the operation thus creating a need for more income.

At the same time small specialty dairies will continue as genetic foundation or specialty herds. Will artificial dairy products take an ever bigger market share?

Only time will tell.

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