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The Next Generation: Portrait of a Door County Dairy Farm

June is National Dairy Month

Jacob Brey gestured toward a field off the west side of his freestall dairy barn in the Town of Nasewaupee.

“This is what a modern-day cornfield looks like to us,” said the dairy farmer. “Completely different.”

“Completely different” looked nothing like the green cornfields that carpet rural Wisconsin, as sure a sign of summer as sweet corn, the Fourth of July and vine-ripe tomatoes. 

“A traditional cornfield will have been worked this spring,” he said. “There was no cover crop. It was planted, and you can see the corn rows, and everything looks pretty.”

But that kind of pretty is not the future as far as Brey is concerned.

“This is kind of like the future right here,” he said.

Corn shoots emerge among the residual cover crop of triticale. The conservation practices this field represents are the future of farming for Brey Cycle Farms, but there have been challenges. When they first began using this particular cover crop, “the cows didn’t like it,” Jacob Brey said, “so we had to feed it to our heifers (female cows that haven’t birthed a calf yet). They could have given up on the practice at that point, but instead, they dug into more research and found a professor at Cornell who was studying this cover crop. “He was making a high-quality feed and getting good yield, and still able to plant corn and refertilize the field with manure.” They adopted those methods, learning all the time, and “it all kind of came together through time,” Brey said.

“Right here,” frankly, didn’t look like much of a future: corn shoots pushing up through what looked like quack grass. But conservation agricultural practices are hard to see on the ground, and looks can be deceiving. This not-traditionally-pretty field was planted last fall with the (quack grass–looking) triticale – a cover crop that’s a hybrid of wheat and rye – after Brey and his team harvested the same field of corn for silage.

Following the spring triticale harvest, which is added to the cow feed, they immediately injected 15,000 gallons of nutrient-rich manure several inches into the soil using a low-disturbance manure-injection process to feed the upcoming corn-silage crop. The method places the nutrients where the crop’s root zone can use it, and not where it can wash off the soil into water sources.

Within two days of the manure application, Brey direct-drilled the corn seed into the triticale-harvested field. This no-till method of planting does not disturb the soil like traditional tilling does. The benefits include decreased soil erosion and runoff, among others. 

“It hasn’t rained in a month [as of June 9 when this interview was conducted], but the corn still came up,” he said. “Because we didn’t disturb the soil, the soil moisture stayed where we wanted it.”

Holstein dairy cows feed in a freestall barn. The herd is made up of black-and-white and red-and-white Holsteins. Photo by Rachel Lukas.

Brey got on one knee and dug down into the soil about two inches. 

“There’s moisture, and it’s cool,” he said. “That’s what’s allowed this corn to germinate with no rain.”

In this field, the corn will grow; he and his team will chop it off for silage around mid- to late August; and a day later, they’ll seed the field again for triticale. 

This use of cover crops – winter wheat, winter rye, triticale and various mixes – between plantings of traditional crops – corn for silage and alfalfa – is done on 90% of the 1,200 acres that Brey Cycle Farms owns and rents. 

The cover crops’ fibrous root systems retain water and hold the soil in place during the winter and spring when traditional fields are bare. The plants hoard nitrogen and phosphorus, minimizing the leaching of those primary nutrients into ground and surface waters. After harvest, the plant residue nourishes the soil to feed the next crop, and the cycle of conservation farming begins again.

“This system is almost like an insurance policy against the environment, too,” Brey said. “The climate is changing. It’s going to be hotter or warmer or wetter – we don’t know what it’s going to be; it’s going to be different. So if we can adjust our farming practices in order to make us a little more resilient against these times, which – these times are bad; the grass is brown, and it’s the ninth of June – it makes me feel good about what I’m doing. It’s not only good for the environment; it’s also good for our cows.”

The owners of Brey Cycle Farms in the Town of Forestville represent the fourth generation of Breys to own the family farm. Shown (from left) are Jacob and Lauren Brey with their children, Willem, 7 months, and Rosella, 2; and Moriah and Tony Brey with their children, Evan, 10, and Alexa, 6. Submitted.

Fourth-Generation Farmers

Jacob Brey and his older brother, Tony, became the fourth generation of Breys to farm the land when they bought the farm on County O from their parents, Bill and Clarice (Wautier) Brey, in 2016. The brothers’ great-grandfather, George Brey Sr., established the first farm in 1904.

“We were fortunate from our perspective that they [his parents] sold the farm to us because then we could make the decisions,” Jacob said. “A lot of young people who want to farm have parents who say, ‘This is the way I do it, and you’re not doing anything else.’”

The Breys’ decisions from the beginning included incorporating conservation practices that have also helped them grow more affordable forages using the cover crops.

“We knew we needed to have clean water for our cows, our families, our neighbors, everybody,” Jacob said. “We kind of saw we needed to do things differently. That’s when we started getting into cover crops and no-till and low-disturbance manure injection, which is kind of the big three on the majority of our land now, every year, every crop.”

Today, Jacob, 32, and Tony, 38, are partners in an operation that includes their wives, Lauren and Moriah, respectively. They met their future wives at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where all four earned agricultural-related degrees. They all stand out in today’s agricultural landscape due to their ages – far younger than today’s average farmer, who is almost 60 years old, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“I like the challenge of it,” Jacob said. “I like the variety of it. It’s being your own boss, but kind of everything we do is built around the comfort of the cows. Every decision we make: Are the cows going to like it?”

“It’s a passion for everyone here,” Lauren said.

The Breys raise their own heifers (young female cows that have not calved yet) at a different location, and their own calves in a yard on the main farm (shown here). They also raise pasture-grazed Angus/Holstein crossbred beef animals at a different location. Customers can order the meat online at breyfamilybeef.com or visit their location at 2190 Cty O by appointment, or on Fridays, 2-5 pm, and Saturdays, 9-11 am, through Sept. 2.

How Big Is Brey?

Wisconsin is home to 6,033 dairy farms – more than any other state, with an average of 210 cows per dairy farm, according to April 2023 statistics from the Wisconsin Agricultural Statistics Service. When the Brey brothers bought their parents’ dairy farm, they had about 100 cows. Today they milk 650 Holstein cows that produce 10,000 gallons of milk per day for Agropur in Luxemburg to make mozzarella and provolone cheese. 

They’re also getting into the local foods market – their first customer is Door Artisan Cheese in Egg Harbor – raising their own calves and heifers (a young female cow that has yet to give birth), and selling meat from their Angus/Holstein crossbred beef animals. 

They anticipate continued growth in their dairy herd and have applied for a permit with the Department of Natural Resources as a concentrated animal feedlot operation – by Wisconsin’s definition, an animal operation that is the equivalent of 1,000 or more animal units. Only one dairy farm in Door County currently has more than 1,000 animal units.

The Breys have 13 full-time employees and some part-time employees to keep their 24/7 operation running.

“Growing allows us more efficiencies,” Lauren said.

The milking parlor is located in the retrofitted original barn behind the front office space. The herd is milked three times daily, producing 10,000 gallons of milk per day on average. Photo by Rachel Lukas.

An Invitation

On a large Wisconsin dairy farm such as this one, conservation practices have an opportunity to make a bigger impact, and the Breys actively share their experiences and are involved in the community. Jacob serves on the County of Door’s Land Conservation Committee, providing a producer’s voice to a board that primarily comprises nonfarming county board supervisors. 

The Brey Cycle Farm was also one of the founding members of Peninsula Pride farms – an organization made up of farmers and supportive businesses that decided to come together in 2016 to address agriculture’s role in improving water quality in Door and Kewaunee counties. Jacob serves as the organization’s vice president.

“Groups like Peninsula Pride and Door-Kewaunee Demonstration Farms Network are providing us networking opportunities with farmers in the neighborhoods to talk about what we’re doing with conservation,” Lauren said. “We’re learning from one another, and learning faster, and adapting conservation faster, and also documenting.”

That means, as part of a sustainability project, putting their conservation practices to the test for scores on carbon, greenhouse gas, water quality and seed to learn, Lauren said, “Are we actually making an impact? Are we seeing results?”

They invite questions, calls and visits from anyone who is interested in how they care for their animals and the land in a place where they’re raising the fifth generation of Breys who will, they hope, one day carry on the family business.

“We’re invested in the community,” Jacob said. “We don’t want anything bad to happen in the community. We don’t want our business to negatively affect anybody else. When people have concerns about a farm growing in size, come talk to us. We have nothing to hide.”