Red Barn Rules


Listen to an interview with Dr. Terry Homan, and dairy farmers Amy Holewinski and Bob Nett on Cheese Underground Radio.

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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

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Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy: More Cows, More Milk, New Cheese

Wisconsin media reported last week that while the number of Wisconsin dairy cow farms dropped below 10,000 for the first time in generations, both cow’s milk production and specialty cheese numbers in America’s Dairyland are up. How can that be?

With the high cost of land and feed, farms today must get bigger to stay profitable and compete on a national level. It is no longer viable for the average farmer to milk 10 cows and still make enough money to take a vacation or send kids to college. That’s why we’re seeing more family farms combine herds, add cows and grow larger.

Here’s a breakdown of farm and cow numbers in Wisconsin, according to the last agricultural census: about 1,300 farms milk 19 cows or less; 3,200 milk 20-49 cows; about 4,200 operations milk 40-99 cows; 1,580 farms milk 100-199 cows; 815 farms milk 200-499 cows; 256 operations milk 500-999 cows; 106 farms milk 1,000 to 2,499 cows; and 25 dairies milk more than 2,500 cows.

Despite the overall lower number of farms, Wisconsin dairies are producing more milk. In fact, the state’s 1.27 million cows produced a record 27.7 billion pounds of milk last year, a record high.

Speaking of records, the Wisconsin Agricultural Statistics Service released the latest Specialty Cheese numbers this week. In 2014, Wisconsin maintained its ranking as the nation’s no. 1 cheese producing state, with specialty cheese accounting for 23 percent of all cheese production,  up from 15 percent in 2006.

Of the state’s 127 cheese plants, 91 craft at least one type of specialty cheese. Feta accounts for the largest share of specialty cheese production, with Blue, Havarti, Hispanic types, specialty Mozzarella, Parmesan and specialty Provolone all remaining popular. Italian Fontina production rose a record 27 percent over the previous year, while Romano wheel production was 20 percent higher.

And while the number of cheese plants in Wisconsin continues to increase, one Wisconsin dairy family announced this week it plans to expand that number even further. John Pagel, owner of Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy in Kewaunee, announced construction is underway for a 2,500-square-foot cheese plant on the family farm.

The Pagels milk 5,000 cows and have been experimenting with cheesemaking since last summer, having a nearby cheese plant craft cheese with their milk. During a Wisconsin Specialty Cheese Institute meeting in September on the Pagel farm, attendees were treated to a prototype Ponderosa Dairy cheese of garlic and herb cheddar. John says he’s been working with the Center for Dairy Research in Madison to develop a unique farmstead cheese that will carry the Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy Farm label, and on May 1, hired Master Cheesemaker Steve Hurd as farm cheese plant manager.

The Pagels already see between 10,000 to 12,000 visitors on their farm every year, John says, so building an on-farm cheese plant is the natural next step. “I’ve got four kids working on the farm now, and 10 grandkids eager to get into the business.”

Expanding his farm over time has been key to the Pagels’ success. John took over the family farm from his father in 1980, milking 150 cows. In 1995, the farm expanded to 450 cows, and in 2000, the farm built a double-20 parlor, expanding to 1,500 cows. In 2008, the Pagels built an on-farm methane digester that creates enough energy to power 1,200 homes, and in 2009, installed a 72-cow rotary milking parlor that milks 525 cows an hour. The herd is primarily Jersey-cross breed and Holsteins.

The 72-cow rotary milking parlor at Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy.

Last year, John purchased Ron’s Cheese in Luxemburg, Wisconsin, and signed a lease to launch the Cannery Public Market in downtown Green Bay, a proposed local foods center. He plans to use Ron’s Cheese as both a retail outlet and wholesale distributor, and to sell the farm’s cheese at the new Green Bay facility, next door to Titletown Brewery. Prototypes of Ponderosa Cheese made and aged at a nearby cheese plant is now for sale online.

“We’re hoping to create an atmosphere that consumers will enjoy and supply it with our own beef, cheese and dairy products,” John says. He’s working to create a one-stop destination at the farm where visitors can see cows milked, energy created and cheese manufactured. “People will be able to watch a number of technologies happen all in the same location.”

Congratulations to the Pagel family! We look forward to eating more of your cheese very soon.

Koepke Farms Launches LaBelle Cheese

It may have spent 10 years on the “back burner,” but the launch of a new cheese this fall by a Wisconsin dairy family has definitely made the wait worthwhile.

Creamy and mild, LaBelle is the fourth child of Oconomowoc dairy farmers John & Kim Koepke. (Their first three children are actually children ages 2, 7, and 10, but anyone launching a new cheese will  tell you it’s about as much work as having another kid).

LaBelle’s official description is a blend between a Gouda and Butterkase, but my official description is “yumtastic.” Creamy, flavorful with just the right body and a perfectly clean finish, LaBelle is the kind of cheese that you can sit down and eat an entire package before realizing it. (Don’t ask me how I know this).

“We wanted to make a cheese that was comfortable in the kitchen but okay to eat while watching the Packer game,” Oconomowoc dairy farmers John & Kim Koepke told me last week.

Well, folks, I think you can consider that mission accomplished. Made at Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain, Wis., LaBelle is enjoying a successful run in local markets and continually sells out special dinners at The Pub in downtown Oconomowoc. The Koepkes are now experimenting with a Foenegreek flavored LaBelle, with other flavors on the horizon.

When they’re not making cheese, the Koepkes are busy winning awards for their stellar dairy farm, located in Waukesha County. In October, they were chosen as the second-ever recipient of Wisconsin’s Leopold Conservation Award, bringing with it a $10,000 cash prize and Leopold crystal. Before that, they scooped up the “Dairy Farm of the Year” at the 2011 World Dairy Expo.

The farm is a partnership between brothers Alan, David, Jim and Jim’s son John. Kim is in charge of marketing and sales of the farm’s cheese venture, and she certainly has an eye for logo and brand development, evident by the cheese’s stunning packaging and logo, developed in partnership with consultants at the Dairy Business Innovation Center, a non-profit organization that helps folks just like the Koepkes launch their own value-added dairy products.

“The foundation of our business has always been on the principle of great animal care. Everything goes back to the cows,” Kim said. “We wanted to show how the love of animals and land can result in a product worthy of having their picture on the label.”

And while LaBelle is currently made at Cedar Grove, I get the feeling this farm couple will someday build a factory of their own, after the kids are grown and Kim can focus on perhaps getting her own cheesemaker’s license.

“It’s something that’s never far from my mind,” Kim says of making cheese. “But right now we’re running a decent-sized farm 24/7 with three little kids. We try and remember what a vendor told us from the very first Fancy Food Show we attended: ‘Don’t go faster than it’s fun.’ So that’s what we’re doing. And we’re having fun.”