Listen to an interview with Dr. Terry Homan, and dairy farmers Amy Holewinski and Bob Nett on Cheese Underground Radio.
Subscribe to future episodes by searching for Cheese Underground in your podcast app!
A bit of the backstory:
This week I visited two Wisconsin dairy farms, both milking herds of just 40 cows and each with dreams of passing them onto the next generation. I learned why they’ve joined forces with a company called Red Barn Family Farms, an organization started by a veterinarian nine years ago that’s rewarding small, family-owned farms for treating their cows right.
To understand why Dr. Terry Homan, a man in his 21st year of veterinary practice, decided to start Red Barn Family Farms, it pays to read the words written in 1885 by William D. Hoard, considered to be the father of modern dairying in Wisconsin. It was Hoard who first set the tone for today’s model dairy farmer. And it is these words that Dr. Homan had in mind nine years ago when he started a company that today produces cheese and bottled milk from the cows of nine family-owned dairy farms:
“The rule to be observed in this stable at all times, toward the cattle, young and old, is that of patience and kindness. A man’s usefulness in a herd ceases at once when he loses his temper and bestows rough usage. Men must be patient. Cattle are not reasoning beings. Remember that this is the Home of Mothers. Treat each cow as a Mother should be treated…”
As we climbed into Dr. Homan’s Ford with his wife, Paula, I asked Terry, who’s still working full-time as a partner in a veterinary dairy practice, what made him want to start a company that not only purchases milk from small dairies, but then partners with local cheese and dairy plants to turn that milk into Red Barn Family Farms branded cheese and bottled milk.
Terry told me he had grown up on a quintessesential Wisconsin dairy farm – mom, dad, two siblings, milking cows morning and night, baling hay in the summer, and it was this model of dairying that made him enter vet school in 1992. But what he found when he got there was a different model of dairying: bigger farms that treated the dairy cow first as a business, and secondly as an animal.
“I think if you look at the dairy industry, maybe even production agriculture in general, since the World War II era, the primary focus – it’s a commodity industry – it’s to produce as much as you can as cheaply as you can,” Terry says. “The Red Barn vision is rather different – our Red Barn Rules select farms because they excel at animal husbandry. We measure the milk quality and health of these animals, and we incentivize these farms to excel at animal health and milk quality. That’s the foundation of our company.”
Rather than base their milk pay price off of federal rates that tend to fluctuate wildly, Red Barn Family Farms pays their dairy farmers not only on how much quality milk they produce, but on the health of their animals. That means cows are audited regularly for lameness and for something called “hock health” — that’s how healthy the tarsal joint of the hind leg, or the hock, is, of each cow.
By this time in the drive, we were almost to our first dairy farm visit. Red Barn Family Farms consists of 9 farm families. As we drove into the Holewinski farm, a small red dairy barn full of red and white Holsteins greeted us. Amy, Neal and their son, Steven, age 21, milk 40 cows near Pulaski. They farm 110 acres and grow everything they need to feed the cows.
Because the Holewinskis are part of Red Barn Family Farms, that means they follow the Red Barn Rules, a set of standards. Dr. Homan put in place when he founded the company. Those rules include that cows must have access to the outdoors on a daily basis, there must be comfortable resting areas for the animals, and at all times, they should be allowed to thrive in an environment that lets a cow be a cow – such as letting her eat grass in a pasture and swat flies away with a tail.
In an industry where the average dairy cow is pushed to give as much milk as possible and may only live to be five or six years old before she’s sold at market, the cows at Red Barn farms live a little differently. At the Holewinski farm, a cow named Shiskabob just turned 10 years old and has already had seven calves. They just sold their oldest cow, Cora, aged 13, and she was milking to the end.
Our next stop was at the dairy farm of Bob Nett, who milks 38 cows near Pulaski. We caught Bob just as he was finishing up mowing his front yard. The cows were on the other side of an electric fence. That’s because Bob practices rotational grazing, and moves the fence every day so cows always eat fresh grass. As soon as Bob unhooked the electric fence, we stepped through and walked across the pasture toward the cows.
I asked Bob if he can make a living milking 38 cows. He said that because Red Barn Family Farms buys his milk and pays him a premium, he can. He thinks the Red Barn Model will allow more young people to keep farming. Bob has two young grandchildren who are showing a great interest in the cows. They know every cow’s name. He hopes perhaps they’ll have an interest in agriculture as a career.
The milk produced by Red Barn’s nine family farms is crafted into several different award-winning cheeses, including:
• Heritage Weis Aged Cheddars & Eden – crafted at Springside Cheese in Oconto Falls (my favorite is the 3-Year Cheddar, wrapped in linen and bandaged in red wax – it’s a multiple gold medal winner)
• Cupola – an alpine-style cheese crafted at LaClare Farms in Chilton
• Le Rouge – a new washed rind French-style cheese crafted at Willow Creek Creamery in Fremont.
Red Barn Family Farms milk is also bottled and sold to universities and institutions in five-gallon dispenser bags, gallons, half gallons, pints and half-pint cartons.
Click here to find where Red Barn Family Farms products are sold near you!
Thank you to Dairy Connection Inc. for sponsoring this episode of Cheese Underground Radio. Dairy Connection Inc. is a supplier of cultures, enzymes, cheese-making supplies and trusted expertise since 1999. A family-owned business based in Madison, Wisconsin, the dedicated Dairy Connection team takes pride in its commitment to be the premier supplier to artisan, specialty and farmstead cheese-makers nationwide. To learn more, please visit www.dairyconnection.com.