June Dairy Breakfasts are still rural, family-friendly and fun

John Oncken
Eating together and making friends.

There are some 45 or 50 June Dairy Month Farm Breakfasts scheduled this year in Wisconsin.  A couple will be held held prior to June 1st and one or two will spill over into July. 

People attend these farm breakfasts for a number of reasons: The food ‒ usually featuring scrambled eggs, sausage, sometimes pancakes and most always ice cream sundaes; visiting a dairy farm and seeing animals up close; learning about modern dairying; doing something different on an otherwise not-so-exciting Saturday or Sunday; and meeting and talking with people ‒ friends and strangers.

A recent Dane county Farm Dairy Breakfast was held on a dairy just south of Mt. Horeb. The clear skies, bright sun and balmy temperature helped draw some 5,000 people to the 400-cow dairy.

Have I got a question for you

As with most farm dairy breakfasts, touring the barns and looking at the cows is a highlight for visitors. At this event, they could walk the route or ride in a wagon pulled by a team of horses.  Each wagon driver gave a running commentary, pointing out interesting aspects of the dairy.  Walkers could ask Tim Griswold of Black Earth, the barn guide, questions. And, he got a lot of them. 

How many cows were in the barn and on the farm?

There are 400 milking cows on the dairy with a total of about 900 animals. I suspect most city dwellers never think about where the milking cows come from. Most dairy farmers raise their own ‒ starting with newborn calves, who grow as heifers and about 2 years later have their own calves and join the milking lineup. This means a dairy farmer must not only know how to milk but how to raise calves from birth.

How often are cows milked?

Most cows are milked twice a day. Some high-producing herds are milked three times a day at 4 a.m., noon and 8 p.m. The extra milking is a relief for those cows making near 100 pounds a day.

The cows keep on eating and looking at the people.

What are the cows laying on when resting?

At this dairy fine sand is used as bedding. This is a surprise to some folks, but sand allows the cow to sink in and find a comfortable resting position. Some farms use cow mattresses similar to an air-filled camping mattress, other mattresses are are made of rubber.  The old method of using straw on the concrete is pretty much gone ‒ cow comfort is paramount to today’s dairy farmers. 

A member of a city family asked me what happens if a cow gets sick.  

The farm owner says they have a veterinarian from the Mt. Horeb Animal Hospital as a member of their “farm team.” They visit the farm every two weeks, or sooner, if needed. Actually farmers use preventative care to keep their animals well and the animals are better cared for than many farmers and consumers.  

What do cows eat is a common question?  

A short answer is they eat the best and most nutritious feed the farmer can provide. That means top quality alfalfa, corn silage, grain, minerals and vitamins all fed according to a prepared ration. A nutritionist at the local co-op works with the owners to develop a ration that will keep cows healthy and producing milk. I’ve often said that cows are better fed and cared for than are most people. How many of us follow a prepared nutritious diet and visit a doctor every two weeks?

Frying eggs in a three foot frying pan.

While standing in line to eat, a couple nearby asked about the big three-foot frying pan used to cook the scrambled eggs. The Wisconsin Department of  Ag and Consume Protection (DATCP) came up with the idea in the early 1980’s and had three of them made at Regalware.  

Bob Williams, then with DATCP and now retired remembers hauling the huge pan from county to county.  

“That was hard work, “ he says.

Later on the still-new Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board made some money available to county dairy groups to buy their own big pan. There are about 16 now in use and are always are a curiosity to the eaters.

First in 1970

The first June Dairy Breakfast on the Farm dates to 1970 when the Clever Clovers 4-H club in Jefferson county were looking to do an interesting project: invite some city folks to a breakfast on a farm. The nearby city of Fort Atkinson liked the idea and got behind the project and dairy farmers Craig and Laura Bean with their children Tom and Marcia offered their Holwis farm as the site. Fifty-five people showed up and it was considered a booming success.

Lining up for breakfast on the farm.

Idea takes off

The next year a few other counties picked up the idea and in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s the idea spread statewide. Ironically, Jefferson county is one of the few counties today that sometimes holds a June dairy breakfast off the farm ‒ at the county fairgrounds.

Dane county held its first June dairy breakfast in 1979 at the Maurice and Gerry Cooper farm near Token Creek. I remember going to the farm the day prior to watch a huge crew of women cracking eggs.  

“That was a lot of work,” Gerry Cooper remembers. “We stored them in a refrigerated truck.”

Today egg cracking is long gone. The local dairy promotion committees buy eggs by the pail full from a supplier.

I remember then-Senator Bob Dole attended that initial Dane county dairy breakfast and spent a lot of time talking with farmers and guests. My memory of that day 43 years ago is that Dole shook hands left-handed (his left hand was severely injured during World War II) and that my son and I were impressed by this national figure who mixed so well with farmers. (I believe he knew a lot about farming being raised in Kansas.)

June Dairy Breakfasts are great fun. The $5 or $8 spent buys good food and a great experience. You can be on an actual farm and see and learn a bit about modern farming.  Visitors also see that milking cows, like everything else, have changed over he years. 

In spite of the many changes, dairying is all about dedicated farmers and their cows as it has always been.

Volunteer run

What you might not notice at a farm dairy breakfast are the many dozens of unpaid volunteers who put the event together and the many sponsors who contribute products, services and dollars to make it go.

You can and should attend a farm dairy breakfast this year, call Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin at 800-373-9662 or look at a listing at  For sure, mark June on your calendar to visit a farm and enjoy a great breakfast, meet friends and make new ones and again see where food comes from.  Where else can you see where milk comes from and meet the people and cows who produce it for you?

In this day of canned entertainment and high ticket prices for public events, June Dairy Breakfasts are still rural, family-friendly and fun. Go!

Reach John Oncken at