Tour one of state’s biggest dairy farms

This family began farming with 17 cows in 1969 and today works about 4,000 acres to feed their herd of 3,000. Until recently, this was Wisconsin’s largest dairy farm operation.

You’d think there would be enough going on at Van Der Geest Dairy, northwest of Wausau, without having a bunch of visitors underfoot, but outsiders are welcome to stop and learn about the business.

The farm’s milking parlor and freestall shelter, constructed in 2000, were specifically designed to accommodate a crowd of people as well as Holsteins. A short set of stairs connects to a catwalk, for watching the near-constant convoy of cows, which are milked 100 at a time, three times a day.

It’s a smooth and hi-tech process that, amazingly, requires the hands of only five people to milk 500 cows per hour. Output is measured and recorded automatically by computer. Each cow is identified by an easily visible number and wears a small box that the computer system recognizes.

So as the herd exits the milking parlor, if it’s time for hoof trimming or other individual attention, the cow is automatically and mechanically routed away from its peers.

“My husband’s dream was to build a facility where people could see where milk comes from – and see that it’s not just a jug from a store,” says Mary Kay Van Der Geest, president of the operation. Husband Gary died without warning in November 2000, five months after project’s completion.

Son Lee assists his mother with executive business decisions, and this four-generation family enterprise demonstrates progressive environmental practices.

Cattle bedding is an example. What looks like dried sawdust actually is dried, recycled and odorless manure. The manure liquid is extracted and ejected into soil, to fertilize yet alleviate run-off concerns.

Dried manure also is used as furnace fuel in winter.

These techniques demonstrate the sophistication that this size of farm, in this era of history, demands of the people whose work results in food for us to eat.

Van Der Geest Dairy averages 50 employees, and they include people who specialize in farm mechanics, animal nutrition and business agriculture. A veterinarian visits daily.

From March to December, about one dozen temporary workers join the crew, and they include harvesters who come from South Africa.

“It’s getting harder to find labor,” Mary Kay says. “We used to find the help in other farm families.” To support interest in agriculture as a career, the dairy annually awards two graduating seniors with $1,000 college scholarships.

“Farm life teaches you about responsibility and chores at a young age,” Mary Kay notes. “These are concepts that I think we’re losing” as lifestyle conveniences multiply.

For more: www.vandergeestdairy.com, 715-675-6043. The farm, 5555 County A, is open to visitors from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Tours are self-guided, but groups larger than 12 may call to arrange for a tour guide. Donations of $2 per person ($4, with tour guide) are collected.

Not all parts of the dairy operation are accessible to the public, but a video explains the areas where visitors can’t go.

It is especially easy to get a taste of farm life and products this month because many counties host at least one June Dairy Month meal or celebration. So it’s an excellent time to take a country drive, regardless of the price of gas: The payoff is educational, and a fresh, healthful meal of good value.

In addition, 14 inns in the Wisconsin Bed and Breakfast Association are offering their overnight guests a free Wisconsin wine and cheese tasting on June 9. The event is the first in a quarterly effort that will showcase artisan products.

For more: www.yestobliss.com (select “offers and services”), 715-539-9222.

On-farm events include tours and ag displays. The meal typically includes ice cream sundaes as well as pancakes or scrambled eggs and sausage. The cost averages $6 per adult, less for children.

The 40-plus choices statewide include:

Great Wisconsin Cheese Festival, until midnight June 2 and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 3 at Doyle Park in Little Chute (Outagamie County). Activities include cheese tastings, contests in cheese curd and cheesecake eating, chainsaw and cheese carving demos, rides and games for children, a circus and live music.

Breakfast from 8 a.m. to noon June 3 at Brown County’s Jim and Josy Wavrunek Family Farm, 5714 S. County P, Denmark. Attractions include a petting zoo, kiddie tractor pull and the rare opportunity “to have your picture taken with a calf and a Green Bay Packer.”

Breakfast from 8 a.m. to noon June 3 at Marathon County’s Johnson Creek Dairy, County X and Locker Road, east of Knowlton. There will be a petting zoo and tractor pull for children.

Breakfast from 7-11 a.m. June 9 at Dane County’s Sutter Zander Dairy, 2190 Hwy. 78 South, Mt. Horeb. Expect horse-drawn wagon rides and live country/bluegrass music.

Brunch from 8 a.m. to noon June 16 at Portage County’s Otto Dairy Farm, 4480 Hwy. 10, Milladore. Visitors can play “Dairy Jeopardy” and enter the milk drinking and “little farmer dress-up” contests.

Breakfast from 6-10 a.m. June 16 at Kenosha County’s Eppers Dairy Farm, 24213 18th St., Kansasville. The meal is supplemented by a chance to “sample new dairy treats.”

Stoughton Farm Breakfast, 9-11 a.m. June 16 at Eugster’s Farm Market, 3865 Hwy. 138, Dane County. The host is Boy Scout Troop 164. Expect square dancing, fiddlers, a petting zoo and hay rides.

Future Farmers of America Alumni Breakfast, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. June 17 at 1289 County M, Pickett, Fond du Lac County. Proceeds benefit school programs and scholarships in agriculture.

Marshfield FFA Alumni Breakfast, 7 a.m. to noon June 17 at the Dave and Cindy Peterson Farm, 10205 Eagle Road, Wood County. Attractions include music, door prizes, a petting zoo and exotic animals to view.

June Dairy and Berry Breakfast, 5:30-10:30 a.m. June 22 at Lincoln High School, 1801 16th St. S., Wisconsin Rapids, Wood County. The menu includes cranberries, for juice and as pancake syrup.

The event coincides with the area’s first Cranberry Blossom Fest, June 21-24. For more: www.blossomfest.com, 800-554-4484.

Breakfast from 8 a.m. to noon June 24 at Fond du Lac County’s Lake Breeze Dairy, W2651 Kiel Road, Malone. An unusual draw is a $10,000 cash raffle.

Auburndale FFA Alumni Breakfast, 7-11 a.m. June 23 at the Village Park, 10654 Park Ave., Wood County. The event coincides with the annual Music Fest; polka music begins at 9 a.m.

For more about June Dairy Month breakfasts and other events, contact the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board: www.wisdairy.com, 608-836-8820.