Working on a Dairy Farm in Wisconsin
Heifers in Back of My Sister's Farm
During May and June of 2016, I worked on my sister and brother-in-law's dairy farm in northeastern Wisconsin. It felt like going back to my roots as I helped feed, milk, and clean up after a herd of 70 dairy cattle. In this article, I recall my motivation for working on the farm, the daily routine of caring for cows, and the trials and tribulations my sister, brother-in-law, and I experienced over my five-week stay on the farm.
In July of 2018, I returned to my sister's farm for a two-week visit. Although Patty wasn't milking cows at that time, my experiences with her geese, heifers, and working with hay kept me busy.
My Sister's Dairy Farm in Wisconsin
My Motivation for Working on a Dairy Farm
I decided to undertake the long trip from my wife in Thailand and journey to Wisconsin for more than a month for three reasons.
1. My Brother-in-Law's Back Operation
According to my sister, Pat, Donnie had been suffering from back problems and pain for at least 8-10 years. In 2014, Donnie had had laser surgery on a few vertebrae in his spine, but he was walking worse and in more pain than when I last saw him in July of 2014. Before I arrived on May 18, 2016, Donnie had already been scheduled for back surgery in Green Bay. Since Donnie would be in the hospital for three to four days and unable to do any farm chores for the first month after the operation, Pat was in desperate need of help. Her only other work hand, Donnie's older brother Jerry, was in a physical rehabilitation center when I arrived at her farm.
2. A Desire to Get Back to My Roots
In my youth, I lived on a dairy farm from when I was nine until going away to college at the age of 18. I helped dad feed, milk, and clean up after our dairy cattle. Because I saw and sensed a lot of my father and mother reflected in my sister, I subconsciously wanted to re-experience my earlier life on the farm.
3. Boredom with Retired Life
In April of 2014, I was forced to retire from teaching English in Thailand. With all the free time in the world and general boredom with retired life, I didn't hesitate to say yes when Pat asked for my assistance.
Donnie and Pat in the Barn Loading Feed
The Farm Where I Grew Up
Arrival in Wisconsin and Donnie's Operation
Late in the afternoon of Wednesday, May 18, I arrived at Green Bay's Austin Straubel Airport after a 22-hour flight with two connections from Bangkok, Thailand. My sister and her friend, Kathy, met me at the airport, and by 5:30 we were at the farm three miles west of Manitowoc. Pat and Donnie had mercy on me that first night and I didn't have to help with barn chores since they knew I would be suffering from jet lag.
After getting up at around 6:30 the next morning, I helped Pat and Donnie in the barn until it was time for Donnie to leave for the hospital at 10:00. Kathy and I accompanied Donnie to the hospital in Green Bay, and we stayed during the surgery which began at around 1:30 p.m. Pat could not accompany us due to all of the barn chores which she had to complete by herself.
Following a four hour procedure, Donnie's surgery was announced by the surgeon as a success. By the time we returned to the farm, it was 6:30 and Pat had already begun the evening chores of feeding and milking.
Map of Northeastern Wisconsin
Daily Routine of Caring for Dairy Cattle
Caring for dairy cattle is a 24-7 operation. Cows must be fed, milked, and cared for in the barn. Unless one can hire competent and reliable replacement workers, it is impossible to take a day's vacation during the year.
While helping Pat, my daily duties were limited to cleaning manure away from the cows' stalls, feeding heifers and calves, and giving some feed to the dairy cattle. Pat's duties entailed feeding silage, grain, protein, and other supplements to the cows as well as running the milking operation. If any of the cattle became sick, my sister as a veterinarian would treat them.
In a typical day, my barn chores could be divided into morning and mid-day work usually completed by 2:00 or 2:30, and evening tasks which ran from about 4:30 until 10:30 p.m. on most days.
Morning Barn Chores
Morning chores would begin after getting up between 6:00 and 6:15, quickly dressing, eating a very light breakfast, and leaving the house for the barn. My daily morning routine would consist of:
1. Scraping Manure Away from Stalls, Grates, and Aisles Behind Cows
I was surprised to see that cows create as much manure as the feed they ingest. While standing and lying in their stalls overnight, cows not only hit the gutter covered by grates but would deposit their manure in their stall and outside on the aisle depending on the size of the cow. All of this manure had to be scraped into the gutter before Pat could begin milking.
2. Feeding Silage and Grain by Hand to Heifers
While my sister was feeding the cows and starting to prepare for milking, I would feed silage and grain to heifers after scraping manure. Six heifers (six to eight-month-old cows) were kept in a shed adjacent to the barn.
3. Feeding Wrapped Haylage Bales to Cows
After Pat finished feeding grain and silage to the cows, Jerry who was out of rehabilitation by June 2, and I would remove baled haylage from a large round bale, load it on a wheelbarrow, and give it to all of the cows in the barn. Haylage is alfalfa which has been baled when not completely dried.
4. Feeding Calves Milk
During the five weeks, I was there, my sister had six calves ranging in age from just born to six weeks old. Three of the calves drank from nipple five-quart bottles while the other ones had milk from pails. We fed the calves after all the cows were milked.
5. Cleaning the Barn
Cleaning the barn is a necessary job to remove all of the manure generated by the cattle. It is done by an automated system consisting of a moving chain with attached plates in the gutter which would move the manure outside of the barn and deposit it in a big manure spreader parked in the cow yard. The manure would then be spread on the land. In addition to cleaning the manure away from the cows, manure from calf pens would also be thrown into the gutters.
6. Sweeping the Aisles and Putting Down Lime
After the barn was cleaned, it was necessary to sweep the aisles in the back of the cows and then put down lime. the lime was put down so that the cows would not slip when being let out of the barn.
7. Letting the Cows Out
After all necessary gates were locked in the cow yard and water turned on for a drinking tank outside, we were ready to let all of the cows outside and go into the pasture for exercise. Usually, two persons were needed for this operation, but it was best to have three. This is because some cows did not want to go outside, and others would try to come back into the barn after being let out.
8. Cleaning Up Stalls and Aisles
As soon as the cows were out of the barn, it was time to clean up all stalls and aisles. This was done by scraping all manure off the aisles and out of the stalls. Wet straw from leaking drinking cups had to also be removed. After this was done, the lower half of the stalls were swept and then lime was put down.
9. Bedding the Stalls
After all of the stalls were clean and dry, we were ready to put bedding in the stalls with a mixture of wood chips and chopped straw. The wood chips were purchased by the bag, and the chopped straw was kept in a mow directly overhead. Periodically I would climb up a ladder into the mow and make sure there was enough straw over the holes in the floor which released straw into a cart when the doors over the holes were opened from below.
10. Getting the Cows In and Locking Them Up
Following two hours out in the pasture, it was time to get the cows back into the barn. This was one of my least desired tasks because many of the cows would not go into their correct stall. At times, my sister and I would have to chase cattle all over the barn until they went into correct stalls. If we had a third person locking up cows, the job was a lot easier. On a few occasions, I had to take a long walk to the end of the pasture and herd all of the cows into the cow yard and then lock it.
11. Feeding Dried Hay to Calves and Young Heifers
While Pat fed silage and grain to the cows, I would feed dried baled hay to the calves and young heifers in the pens.
After we had finished all of the above chores, it was already about 2:00 p.m. We now had two or three hours to eat, rest, or do other necessary outside work. During the free time away from the cows, my sister and I would sometimes go to stores three miles away in Manitowoc to purchase needed supplies for the house and barn.
Our evening chores would begin between 4:30 and 5:00 when I would do the following:
1. Clean the Barn
The barn was cleaned for the second time during the day. Jerry would then drive the manure spreader away with a tractor and spread it on a field. Pat had to do this work until June 2 when Jerry left the rehabilitation center.
2. Get Straw Bedding and Bed all Heifers
Pat had two groups of heifers. In addition to the six young heifers aged six to eight months, she had about 20 older ones ranging in age from nine up to 23 months. A few of the older heifers were already with calf and due to freshen (give birth) in July. The older heifers were kept in a separate building and bedded with five bales of straw. One bale of straw was used to bed the other six heifers.
3. Feed All Heifers Silage and Grain
Pat would feed the older 20 heifers silage with an automatic cart unloader while I fed the six younger heifers by hand as I did in the morning.
4. Feeding Baled Haylage to Cows
After my sister finished feeding silage, grain, protein, and mineral to the cattle, Jerry and I would feed them baled haylage the same way we did in the morning.
5. Assist in Milking Ornery Cows
It was painful milking some of my sister's cows. Some would try to kick off the milking units, and one cow was so bad that her head had to be tied up when milking. I would help with these ornery cows, and sometimes I had to hold up their tails while they were being milked.
6. Feed Calves
After all of the milking was done, it was time again to feed milk to calves.
Pat would usually stay in the barn until she was finished with all of her work in the milkhouse. This included making sure that the pipeline was cleaned and sanitized.
The earliest we made it into the house after chores was 10:00 p.m. If cows had to be treated for mastitis (inflammation of the mammary gland) or other ailments, we would sometimes finish our chores by 11:00. I wanted to sleep then, but I would first eat my dinner then.
Feeding Cows Chopped Haylage
Milking Cows in My Sister's Barn
Tour Through My Sister's Barn
Grain for Cows, Heifers, and Calves
Removing Haylage to Feed Cows
Feeding Milk to a Newborn Calf
Trials and Tribulations During My Work on the Farm,
As if there weren't enough barn chores during a 24 hour day, my sister, brother-in-law, and I had our share of trials and tribulations during my five-week stay. Some of the events which tested our patience and endurance were:
1. A Damaging Storm with High Winds
I knew something was up when I heard the sirens go off from nearby Manitowoc at about 7:30 on the evening of Friday, June 4. Approximately 15-20 minutes later, strong winds started to blow followed by lightning, thunder, and a downpour. Although we temporarily lost power twice, we were able to finish milking. Parts of the barn started to leak in water, and when I got into the house later after chores, there was water leaking from the bathroom I used and in an adjoining office and supply room. The next morning, we saw the driveway between the house and barn littered with many roof shingles and observed large areas of damage to both the roofs of the house and barn.
2. Making Chopped Haylage
Making chopped haylage turned out to be one of our biggest tasks. The process of making haylage consists of first cutting and crimping alfalfa. When it is not completely dry in the field, the alfalfa is chopped into small pieces and then blown into an enclosed wagon which is pulled by a tractor behind a chopping machine. The haylage is then unloaded to a silo blower which shoots it up into a 40-foot high silo.
Making haylage was a challenge due to the weather and physical conditions of Donnie and Jerry. It rained for two or three straight days after our alfalfa was cut in the field. Of importance was the concern that Jerry would not be able to cut and crimp all of the alfalfa on time. A bigger concern was whether Donnie who was only four weeks removed from his back operation would be able to assist in running the silo blower.
As it turned out, Pat and Donnie were able to hire a man who helped fill a 40-foot silo with haylage in two days.
3. Dealing with a Run-Away Heifer
On two occasions, one of Pat's prized heifers, Paulie, named after me, broke out of the heifer yard and was running loose in an adjoining field. With a lot of patience and working together, Pat, Donnie, Jerry, and I were able to get Paulie into the barnyard and then back into the adjoining heifer yard where she belonged.
Damage to the Barn Roof
Damage to the House Roof
Blowing Chopped Haylage into a Silo
Experiences on a Farm - July 2018
In July of 2018, I returned to Pat and Donnie's farm for a two-week visit. Unlike the previous visit in 2016, there was very little for me to do this time. That is because my sister and brother-in-law sold their dairy cattle and stopped shipping milk in March of 2018.
Just the same, there was enough to keep me busy every day. Patty and Donnie now had nine heifers that they were raising to breed and use the offspring as beef cattle. They also had four African geese that gave me a big headache during almost my whole stay. The geese started frequently chasing me which forced me to carry a stick wherever I walked on the farm.
There was very little physical work to do this time other than helping to unload a big wagon of hay and bed the heifer pen one day. I spent the remainder of time like a country squire roaming around the farm to admire the corn and soybeans.
Working on Pat and Donnie's farm for five weeks in 2016 was very interesting and I learned a lot about dairy farming. Dairy farming is certainly not easy, and I learned from my sister and her experiences that all farmers have to endure a lot of pain and suffering just to make ends meet. The great thing, however, is that you are your boss and very close to the beauty of nature.
During my recent stay in 2018, I finally observed robotic milking and saw how a milking parlor is set up. I also learned very much while accompanying my sister on some of her vet calls to neighboring farms.
When I visit Pat's and Donnie's farm again probably next year, there will be more work for me to do. Just recently, my sister has purchased eight calves and a milk cow.
Articles Related to My Sister's Farm
- Dairy Farming in Wisconsin: Part 2 - Milking Cows
Dairy farming is rapidly changing. From my personal experiences of growing up on a dairy farm and recent visit to my sister's farm, I reflect on the problems faced by the small dairy farmer today.
- Dairy Farming in Wisconsin: Part 1 - Feeding a Herd of Milk Cows
From personal experience on my sister's farm, I examine the feed needed for dairy cattle and describe how it is fed every day. The small farmer's life is very hard due to the high cost of feed.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2016 Paul Richard Kuehn