June, National Dairy Month, is celebrated by dairymen across the United States. National Dairy Month was established in 1937 by a group of chain stores to promote consuming milk and dairy products. The original theme was “Keep Youthful – Drink Milk.” The National Dairy Council took over this effort in 1939 and made it “June Dairy Month.”
Wisconsin, as you can imagine, took a leading role in the promotion of Dairy Month because of its position as America’s leading milk producer. Although California has surpassed Wisconsin in overall milk production, Wisconsin is still the leader in the production of cheese and a multitude of other dairy products. The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board created a great way for people to see, up close, the farms behind the dairy business here in the state with Breakfast on the Farm.
Located on various dairy farms throughout the state, Breakfast on the Farm allows people to enjoy a day of fun and good, wholesome food. This year there will be 70 of these events scattered throughout the state, including one in Door County on July 3. The Sevastopol FFA Alumni Dairy Breakfast will be held at Door Vue farm, 5418 Jarman Road in Sturgeon Bay, from 6 to 11:30 am.
On June 19, Father’s Day, my wife, Janice, and I volunteered to help with the Breakfast on the Farm event at Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy in Kewaunee County. This farm is located in the rolling hills 10 miles west of the town of Kewaunee. When we arrived, the fields surrounding the west side of the farm were already packed with cars and thousands of visitors. Although I do not know the exact number of people that attended the event, by 10 am they had already sold 6,500 tickets.
I worked at the front of one of six food lines, serving scrambled eggs till my right arm was ready to fall off. Janice served bread and pizza (yes, pizza for breakfast), in another line. Having once been in “big event” catering, I wondered how they could pull off feeding this many people in five hours, all with volunteer labor. Well, not only did they pull it off, they did it with smiles on their faces. There was good food, heavy on the dairy products, and lots of other activities going on. Wagon rides touring the farm and cow barns, petting areas for kids, bouncy castles, tours of the milking parlor, the new cheese plant, and a good ol’ Wisconsin polka band. The weather was perfect and the attendees all had a great day. The picture of Janice shows her with sweet Anna Belle, a 1,800-pound Brown Swiss.
The Pagel family farm, led by John Pagel, is the largest dairy farm in Wisconsin, milking 5,200 cows. I had visited the farm before so I knew what to expect but Janice was blown away when she saw just how large the farm is. All five of John’s children are involved in some aspect of the operation.
The cows at this farm are milked three times a day on one of the most innovative systems in the dairy business. Seventy-two cows at a time are milked on a moving “carousel” that runs 24 hours a day. The “ride” lasts eight minutes and never stops; as soon as one cow is done milking she gets off, and a new cow comes on board. It only requires four or five employees to operate this system and is spotlessly clean, with very happy cows. It is an amazing sight to see, something that the attendees of the farm breakfast got to see firsthand.
Here are a couple of other interesting tidbits: 25-30 calves are born every day on the farm, a job that requires a crew that does nothing but attend to the newborns. The Pagels also farm nearly 8,000 acres, supplying the majority of the dairy herd’s food. Imagine the amount of manure that is generated by this many cows. For those of you who do not want to paint this image in their minds, I understand. This innovative farm has a manure digester plant that takes the manure and turns it into energy, enough to supply the power needs for the city of Kewaunee.
In January, a state-of-the-art cheese plant was added to the farm and began production. Master cheesemaker Steve Hurd heads up this operation and is producing a variety of “farmstead” cheeses, including cheddar, fontina, and mozzarella/string cheese, just to name a few. The milk used comes from their milking parlor, 150 feet away; it doesn’t get any fresher than that.
The backbone of the dairy industry in Wisconsin are the hard working, dedicated people behind the scenes on some of the most picturesque farms in North America. We are proud to be involved in the Wisconsin dairy industry and thank the many people that help support that effort.
Michael Thomas co-owns Schoolhouse Artisan Cheese with his wife, Janice, in Egg Harbor.