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Kewaunee County family diversifies dairy

Slideshow: The Ebert family adds beef, a meat market, a restaurant and a beef harvest facility to their Wisconsin dairy operation.

Ten years ago, when their kids were teenagers, Randy and Renee Ebert were looking for a way to diversify their Kewaunee County dairy farm near Algoma, Wis. They were milking 3,650 Holstein and Jersey cows on their sixth-generation farm, but they wanted to do more than milk cows.

“We don’t know our futures,” Randy says. “I’m a big believer that every generation has to do the best they can and not farm like their dad. Each generation has to put their touch on things.”

After researching several ideas, the Eberts decided to start breeding the bottom 20% of their dairy herd to AI beef bulls.

Adding dairy-beef

Randy says raising dairy-beef steers and heifers was a good fit for their dairy operation because he wanted to slow down the growth of their dairy herd, and this was a good way to do it.

“I’ll admit, I was a heifer hoarder for 25 years,” the 57-year-old says. “We raised all of our heifers, and our dairy herd just kept expanding.”

After a couple of years of breeding the bottom 20% of their herd to AI Angus and Simmental-Angus beef bulls, Randy and his son, Jordan, realized they weren’t getting very many dairy-beef crossbred calves.

“Some of the cows in the bottom 20% of our herd weren’t conceiving, and others were culled due to low milk production, high somatic cell counts or some other health issue,” Jordan explains. “So, we started breeding the bottom 30% of the herd to beef bulls. Over the past several years, the percentage of cows bred to beef bulls continued to rise.”

Today, the Eberts milk 4,150 dairy cows and have 4,800 dairy cows in their herd. They farm 9,000 owned and rented acres, mostly growing crops to feed their cattle. They breed the top 20% of their dairy herd to AI dairy bulls using sexed semen to get heifer calves, and the rest of their herd is bred to AI beef bulls. They currently raise 2,200 crossbred dairy-beef steers and heifers.

“Our No. 1 goal is getting our cows and heifers pregnant,” Randy says. “Our heifers are bred to AI dairy bulls up to two times, and if they don’t settle, then they are bred to AI beef bulls.”

Jordan, 27, graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in dairy science and a certificate in ag business management. He worked in dairy and beef genetics at ABS before returning to the home farm in 2020.

Purchasing a meat market

A couple of months before Randy and Renee’s daughter, Whitney, graduated from UW-La Crosse in May 2020, the Eberts purchased Salmon’s Meat Products, a third-generation smoked sausage processor with retail in nearby Luxemburg, Wis.

“We bought it just as COVID was starting on March 30, 2020,” Jordan says. “We thought we were taking over at a slow time, which would let us get our feet under us.”

But it turned out to be anything but slow.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, nobody was eating at restaurants,” he says, “Everyone was eating at home. The easiest foods to make are hot dogs and brats, and demand at the meat market exploded.”

As consumer demand grew dramatically, Jordan says the price of their raw goods doubled and tripled, and they had a hard time sourcing all the meat they needed.

“We were busy filling orders and keeping our product at local grocery stores,” Jordan explains. “We wanted to keep repeat business at all costs. We knew everything was more expensive.”

More diversification

So last May, the Eberts finished repurposing a building on their farm about a mile from their main set of buildings and turned it into a state-of-the-art harvest facility for their dairy-beef and cull dairy cows.

“We spent a lot of time making it right for the animals,” Randy says.

Since May, they have been butchering 15 to 20 of their dairy-beef cattle and cull cows per week. The rest of their dairy-beef and cull cows are marketed through Equity Livestock.

In June, a month after opening the harvest facility, they opened Homestead Kitchen and Tap about 1½ miles from their main farm, at the intersection of Highway 54 and County D. The new farm-to-table restaurant is currently open Thursday to Saturday from 3:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. and Sunday from 3:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.

“As we get our feet underneath us, we plan to be open more days and more hours,” notes Whitney, who is in charge of marketing at both Salmon’s Meat Products and Homestead Kitchen and Tap.

Their menu currently features burgers, home fries, pizza, cheese curds, a nachos platter, chicken wings, onion rings, fried ravioli, chili, soups and salads.

“Our whole family was involved in the menu development,” Jordan says.

One special item on their menu is the Brity Burger, named after the Eberts’ daughter Britney (Whitney’s twin), who died unexpectantly in 2016 at the age of 19. Britney had special needs.

“The Brity Burger is an open-faced burger served with a pickle spear, which was her favorite,” Renee explains.

The exterior of Homestead Kitchen is modeled after the Eberts’ rotary milking parlor, which was built in 2017 and is just a mile down the road. The restaurant has 35 part-time employees.

“Renee likes helping at the restaurant, talking to customers and handling details,” Randy says.

Jordan is in charge of business development and spends most of his time working at the harvest facility and at Salmon’s. He says business is more normal at the meat market today compared to 2020.

“We’re seeing more seasonal peaks and valleys, which is good,” he says. “Holidays are some of our busier times.” They have 20 full-time employees at Salmon’s.

Randy says they employ 80 full-time workers on the farm and two full-time workers at the harvest facility.

Randy and Renee credit much of the success of their farm to their hard-working and dedicated employees. Three key employees include Michelle Shambeau, Megan Plamann and Chris Granius.

Shambeau has been in charge of human resources for the past three years.

“For 25 years, Renee and I had our foot on the gas as we went from no employees to a lot of employees,” Randy explains. “Michelle has an ag background, she is extremely approachable; and she has our values — she is fantastic. She gives us some structure, and she took some things off our plate.”

Their herd manager is Plamann, and Granius is operations manager. He has worked at the farm since 1997.

“Megan is responsible for everything cattle, and Chris handles everything else,” Randy says. “Chris started working here as a work-study student in high school. We are big believers in promoting from within. Megan, Chris and Michelle have allowed us to take on other things. Some of our favorite things we don’t get to do anymore. We are spending more of our time these days chasing local youth, agriculture and special youth.”

Randy says while he and Renee are still involved with their farm and their other businesses, their involvement is evolving.

“We are also working to get out of the way,” Randy says. “We’re here on this Earth to do our best, and as long as we are able, we will do our best.”

TAGS: Dairy Business
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