September 29, 2023

🔒 Household farms adapt to outlive

It’s a muggy Friday morning in mid-Could as Karen and Darren Hughes and their two oldest youngsters, Haley, 13, and Hayden, 11, collect within the gravel lot exterior considered one of Sundown Farms’ barns.

Wearing blue denims and muck boots or – in Hayden’s case – a dusty pair of black high-top sneakers, they’re about to offer one more tour of the household’s greater than 3,500-acre dairy farm in northwestern Washington County.

Big followers whir within the background as a row of unfettered Holsteins poke their heads out from the open curtains of their freestall pen. Just a few of the cows look like having a late morning snack, however they’re simply chewing their cud – awaiting their flip within the milking parlor a couple of steps away.

“These are largely three- and four-year-olds,” explains Karen, who manages the farm’s herd of 1,150 heifer cows and is a partial proprietor of this six-generation household enterprise. “They grew up collectively, and typically there may be competitors, so that you don’t wish to put a youthful cow in with an even bigger, older cow.”

“In every pen, there’s a pecking order,” provides Darren, the farm’s feed supervisor. 

Household operations

Southeastern Wisconsin, a significant metro space, isn’t what most individuals would think about to be an agricultural hub. It doesn’t have the bovine-dotted hillsides of the Driftless Space, the vermilion cranberry harvests of the Northwoods, or the heaping potato and snap bean crops of the Central Sands. However the area does have loads of farms. Based on the U.S. Division of Agriculture’s most up-to-date farm census, there have been a complete of 4,479 farms within the counties of Milwaukee, Waukesha, Ozaukee, Walworth, Washington, Kenosha, Racine and Sheboygan mixed in 2017. 

That determine contains a whole bunch of small operations, together with farms of fewer than 10 acres. Nevertheless it additionally contains 433 farms of 500 acres or extra, together with dozens of farms of 1,000 acres or extra.

Soybeans, feed corn and corn for silage are the highest crops produced in southeastern Wisconsin, masking a whole bunch of hundreds of acres, as they do in lots of different components of the state, however the area additionally distinguishes itself by producing different noteworthy merchandise. 

Walworth County, as an example, ranks thirteenth among the many state’s 72 counties for grain gross sales and sixth for hog and pig gross sales. Sheboygan County ranks 14th in milk gross sales. Racine County ranks sixth in vegetable, melons, potato and candy potato gross sales, and Ozaukee County ranks thirteenth within the state for the sale of fruit, berries and tree nuts. Waukesha County ranks tenth for the variety of ponies, mules, burros and donkeys residing on farms there. Milwaukee County ranks sixteenth for nursery, greenhouse, floriculture and sod gross sales, whereas Washington County ranks first within the state for floriculture and nursery gross sales.

Linking the varied farms in southeastern Wisconsin is the truth that greater than 80% of them are household owned and operated.

For years, farms in Wisconsin have struggled to outlive, and plenty of haven’t. The state misplaced 11,500 farms between 2002 and 2022, in line with the U.S. Division of Agriculture.

However regardless of the well-documented challenges of farming, together with lengthy hours, elevated manufacturing prices and unpredictable climate, house owners of three family-run dairy farms in southeastern Wisconsin – Sundown Farms, Mighty Grand Dairy in Kenosha County and Cozy Nook Farm in Waukesha County – say they’ve managed to maintain their household companies by embracing change, welcoming new concepts and pursuing excellence together with development.

Karen Hughes with her two oldest children, Haley and Hayden, working on the farm.
Karen Hughes together with her two oldest youngsters, Haley and Hayden, engaged on the farm.
Credit score: Lila Aryan

Rising a enterprise

Established by German immigrants and homesteaders Joseph and Maria Langenecker in 1847, Sundown Farms initially started as a small dairy operation typical of the period.

Along with the Langeneckers’ small herd, the farmers additionally raised pigs and chickens, in line with Karen Hughes, however through the years, and with subsequent generations, the household started to focus extra on its dairy operation.

Though wheat farming was initially the chief agricultural product in Wisconsin, issues with the crop – equivalent to pests and soil nutrient depletion – prompted many farmers to maneuver into dairying, in line with state historians, and the variety of dairy cows elevated quickly within the second half of the 1800s. By 1899, greater than 90% of Wisconsin farms raised dairy cows.

Since then, the variety of particular person farms has declined, whereas many remaining farms have grown, typically by buying farms that went out of enterprise.

For Sundown Farms, the most important development occurred within the late Sixties when Hughes’ grandparents, Albert and Mildred (Langenecker) Wolf – the fourth technology to personal and function the farm – purchased two neighboring farms, bringing the farm’s whole variety of milking cows to 200.

After a number of years of milking cows in three separate barns, Albert and Mildred’s 4 sons – Ray, Dan, Bernie and the late Paul Wolf – invested within the development of the farm’s first freestall barn and stand-alone milking parlor in 1972. The transfer allowed the brothers to merge the three separate herds and have a centralized location for milking, fairly than working from farm to farm. It additionally made the household enterprise one of many first within the state to modify to a freestall barn operation.

Designed to extend each the consolation of cows and effectivity of the milking course of, freestall barns have alleyways for cows to maneuver round freely, accessing meals and water at their leisure, and stalls for relaxation and sleep. Freestall barns are additionally simpler to scrub, serving to farms adhere to the principles governing manure administration extra effectively. This fashion of barn differs from the extra conventional tiestall barn, the place cows are sometimes tied to their very own stall, taken out to graze within the pasture, after which typically milked of their stall.

Because the Seventies, Sundown Farms has solely continued to develop and embrace innovation. At this time, the roughly 40 acres of farmland dedicated to the housing, breeding and milking of cows contains three freestall barns in addition to separate areas for so-called dry cows approaching calving and a maternity ward the place cows on the point of birthing spend their days. There are additionally areas for the farm’s younger inventory, the place the four-to-six calves born per day on the farm reside till they’re sufficiently old to affix a pen with older animals. There’s additionally an area for the farm’s 400 beef cattle – a mixture of Holstein and Angus breeds.

To assist feed all these hungry cows, Sundown Farms grows soybeans, feed corn, corn silage, wheat, alfalfa and oats – on 3,500 acres surrounding the unique Langenecker farmstead.

And because the farm has grown so has the quantity of people that share in its possession. At this time, ten individuals co-own the farm: fifth-generation farmers Dan, Ray and Bernie Wolf; sixth-generation farmers Karen and her husband Darren Hughes, Karen’s first cousins Carl, Ed and David Wolf; and long-time workers and household associates Greg Ritger and Marcus Asmus.

Practically each proprietor works full time on the farm. To assist maintain enterprise buzzing alongside – and the cows glad sufficient to provide 12,250 gallons of milk per day – the farm additionally employs about 20 different individuals, together with second- and third-shift workers.

“The farm is working 24 hours a day,” Karen mentioned. “The animals live issues. They don’t simply get sick through the day, so we have to be on name for that. And the cows don’t simply have infants through the day.”

Karen Hughes with Haley, engaged on the farm. Credit score: Lila Aryan

Mergers and acquisitions in household farming

The big dimension and scope of Sundown Farms’ operation may make it look like an outlier, nevertheless it’s emblematic of a state-wide pattern in Wisconsin’s dairy trade.

Whereas the variety of dairy farms within the state has steadily fallen since 1940 – with about 420 dairy operations shuttering between April 2022 and April 2023 alone – the precise variety of dairy cows has remained roughly the identical, hovering at round 1.27 million.

What’s extra, the quantity of milk these cows produce continues to develop by leaps and bounds. Based on Dairy Farmers of America, common milk manufacturing within the state has grown from about 16 million kilos of milk per yr within the mid-Fifties to roughly 32 million kilos in 2022.

Whereas the closure of particular person farms has impacted particular person households and communities, it has additionally created alternatives for different household farms to extend the scale of their cropland and herds.

In actual fact, 95% of dairy farms in Wisconsin stay family-owned and operated, and plenty of of those, together with Sundown Farms, are actually additionally included.

“We see 1,500-to-1,600-cow dairy (farms) which are all household run. They appear to be what you may name a company farm, however they’re not. It is simply the best way these farms are structured,” mentioned farmer Dave Daniels, who serves as a director for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, representing District 1, which incorporates Kenosha, Racine, Walworth, Jefferson, Waukesha, Milwaukee, Ozaukee and Washington counties.

For Daniels, who owns the 1,000-acre Mighty Grand Dairy in Kenosha County, increasing his dad or mum’s farming operation was the one method to preserve the enterprise whereas elevating a household. 

In 1997, Daniels, who had taken over his mother and father’ smaller farm in Kenosha County, merged with two neighboring farmers round his personal age to kind Mighty Grand.

“We have been all on our household dairy farms with our dads, milking cows, however our dads all needed to retire. We needed to proceed the enterprise, however we checked out dairy farming, and we knew it was a problem since you needed to milk the cows on daily basis, so we pooled our belongings and developed an LLC,” Daniels mentioned. “We’re nonetheless a household farm; we’re simply three households that co-mingled our belongings. And we’ve been profitable in protecting a viable dairy enterprise.”

With youthful generations having fewer youngsters and the common age of farmers persevering with to climb – in Wisconsin, the median age of farmers is now 56 – many farmers are sometimes compelled to rent nonfamily laborers or think about merging with different farms in the event that they don’t have sufficient youngsters or different family members who’re enthusiastic about carrying on the household enterprise, mentioned Daniels.

On the identical time, he provides, there are massive household farming operations which have a number of relations enthusiastic about taking up the enterprise sooner or later however not sufficient land or livestock to supply jobs or possession stakes for all of them. And in circumstances like this, farmers will look to develop their farms – as Karen Hughes’ grandparents did – to verify there may be sufficient land to help a bigger household operation.

In Waukesha County, Tom and Joan Oberhaus made the choice to kind a restricted legal responsibility company with a younger couple to assist make sure the survival of their roughly 75-cow dairy farm within the City of Delafield. After taking up the 189-year-old operation in 1985, Tom and Joan, now each of their 60s, ultimately realized that they wanted to seek out youthful companions to assist make sure the farm’s long-term survival.

Initially situated at Goerke’s Corners within the city of Brookfield, the farm moved in 1957 to its present location after Joan’s grandparents offered their property to the State of Wisconsin to make method for the I-94 interchange. At this time, the present Cozy Nook Farm features a 20-acre pumpkin patch and sells Christmas bushes within the winter to assist generate further revenue.

Whereas Tom and Joan’s son Charlie Oberhaus enjoys planting and harvesting, he has by no means been enthusiastic about managing cows, in line with Tom, so the couple partnered with Dan Gerrits and his spouse, Brittany Renn Gerrits, to assist with the dairy facet of their enterprise. Dan takes care of the cows, and Brittany, who grew up on a dairy farm about 10 miles away, helps with breeding and elevating calves.

“Our son likes farming. He is out planting immediately. However he runs a trucking enterprise most days,” Tom mentioned. “He is aware of it is simpler to make a buck driving truck than it’s milking cows. Danny and Brittany just about took over milking final fall. That is the primary that I would been out of the barn in years. Now, I’m sort of the CEO.”

Karen Hughes with Hayden, engaged on the farm. Credit score: Lila Aryan

Embracing change

However such development requires older generations of farmers to remain open to alter and new concepts.

Not less than that’s how Karen’s father, Dan Wolf, and her uncle, Bernie Wolf, see it.

In a small, wood-paneled workplace close to Sundown Farms’ milking parlor, the farmers are busy caring for some last-minute administrative duties earlier than heading out for lunch. The partitions of the tiny workplace are lined with pictures of the youth softball league the farm sponsors and aerial photographs of the farm shot in several a long time. There are additionally a number of computer systems, together with one exhibiting photographs from the farm’s surveillance cameras. 

Dan has simply gotten again from Jackson, the place he went to select up a component for a tractor. Bernie, who handles the bookkeeping and taxes for the operation, is reviewing the farm insurance coverage.

“We renewed our coverage a few months in the past, and now I’ve a while to verify all our vehicles and tractors are insured and ensure we’re not insuring any automobiles that we offered,” Bernie mentioned.

Requested to summarize his recommendation for working a profitable household enterprise, Dan mentioned, “You gotta be open minded and share your concepts and ideas, and let different individuals get entangled.”

“We have now some crucial people who find themselves half house owners and determination makers that aren’t technically a part of the household, however we think about them to be prolonged household,” he added.

Bernie agrees.

“It’s superb to see (the expansion), and simply sit again and watch all the workers doing their work. They know what to do, and so they simply do it,” he mentioned.

It’s additionally vital to be community-minded, they mentioned.

A number of of Sundown Farms’ house owners work for the Allenton Volunteer Fireplace Division, together with Karen’s cousin Carl Wolf. Dan serves on the Addison City Board. Dan’s spouse, Ellen Wolf, labored because the city clerk for greater than 20 years and now mows the garden at Allenton Resurrection Parish on the town, the place the household worships and serves in numerous roles. When he’s not fetching components, Dan goes to church thrice every week to hope for his household, the farm and the individuals who work there. Darren served for a few years within the Military Nationwide Guard. Karen serves on advisory boards for the Slinger College District.

“I heard somebody on the farm as soon as say that there are three Fs in farming,” she mentioned. “First, it’s your religion. Then, it’s your loved ones. After which, it’s farming. It’s a must to put it in the precise order, and when you don’t, you’re going to burn out. It’s vital to maintain your priorities in line.”

Declining farm totals, skyrocketing manufacturing: Over the previous century, Wisconsin has seen a pointy decline within the variety of dairy farms, from round 171,000 in 1920 to only 6,350 in 2022. On the identical time, manufacturing has elevated dramatically, from round 7.4 billion kilos of milk from almost 1.8 million cows in 1920 to 31.9 billion gallons from barely lower than 1.3 million cows in 2022. This chart exhibits the variety of farms, cows and kilos of milk produced in Wisconsin. Every line represents the full for a given yr as relative share in comparison with 1965 when yearly knowledge turn out to be accessible. By that time, the variety of farms within the state had already fallen to 86,000 and manufacturing was as much as 18.8 billion kilos of milk from greater than 2 million cows.

Making the most of new agricultural applied sciences

A part of being open to alter is embracing new know-how, together with gadgets that may monitor the actions of a cow’s abdomen and software program that may assist the farm fine-tune its breeding program so it doesn’t find yourself with too many or too few heifers. 

At Sundown Farms, Karen Hughes makes use of a dairy-herd administration program referred to as DairyComp to trace every cow.

“I enter every little thing about that animal into this system so we all know how previous she is, when she is having her child and the way a lot milk she is producing,” Karen Hughes mentioned.

Within the fields, employees working to plant and harvest crops use GPS and auto-steer options on their tractors to create extra precision. Darren Hughes has a conveyable grain tester that he can use to watch the moisture content material of the feed, each on the sector earlier than it’s harvested and whereas it’s within the barn.

Karen remembers her dad and uncles occurring farm excursions and taking persevering with schooling programs by means of the Skilled Dairy Producers of Wisconsin whereas she was rising up.

And with know-how persevering with to advance, she mentioned, her father and uncles regularly encourage her to “‘take that class, go on that tour, go learn the way different farms are doing issues’ to assist her discover ways to work smarter, not tougher, attempt to adapt,” Hughes mentioned, including, “The previous farmers, their knees have been dangerous and their hips have been dangerous due to the best way they farmed. That’s simply the way it was again within the Fifties. Now, we are able to make issues simpler on our our bodies.”

Southeastern Wisconsin milk manufacturing: Whereas not one of the 9 Wisconsin counties (Manitowoc, Fond du Lac, Clark, Dane, Kewaunee, Marathon, Brown, Shawano and Dodge) that produced greater than a billion kilos of milk in 2021 are a part of southeastern Wisconsin, the area does see extra manufacturing per cow than the state as a complete. Information on Milwaukee County will not be accessible.



Annual Manufacturing (kilos)

Milk per cow (kilos)









































Communication and high quality management

As an solely daughter with three brothers – none of whom joined the household enterprise – Hughes found her love for elevating cows at an early age. After graduating from the College of Wisconsin-River Falls with a level in dairy science, she labored briefly on one other farm earlier than returning to Sundown Farms when she was about 22.

Sixteen years later, Hughes’ major job on the farm is to are likely to the animals and workers she supervises. For her, the important thing to protecting the whole farm operation working effectively is communication. 

“Through the years, I’ve realized that managing individuals might be the most important a part of my job, as a result of in case your workforce isn’t working collectively properly, it simply makes your day tougher,” she mentioned.

Staying in tune with the animals can also be key and requires her to watch their conduct, their actions and their well being.

Like a store supervisor inspecting widgets coming off an meeting line, Hughes frequently walks the pens, observing every of the 1,500-pound animals that produce the farm’s milk and their offspring that will sometime produce that milk as properly.

The method may appear monotonous, nevertheless it’s essential.

No matter a enterprise does, they should do it properly, she mentioned, as a result of there may be at all times going to be different companies on the market making an attempt to do it higher.

“We wish to produce a high-quality milk product,” Hughes mentioned. “We’re feeding individuals. The 12,250 gallons of milk that we produce every day need to be good.”