Editor's Note: Tom Kestell is one of four Wisconsin Farmers recognized as 2015 Master Agriculturists at an awards program held March 25 in Oshkosh.
Tom Kestell grew up on a dairy farm near Waldo in Sheboygan County. His parents, Melroy and Helen, had 13 children. After graduating from Plymouth High School, Tom enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point where he majored in political science with plans to go to law school.
In 1970, just 15 credits shy of graduation, "I decided sitting behind a desk all day and working in an office was not for me," Tom says.
He returned to the home farm and in 1971, purchased 30 cows and the machinery from his mother and rented her farm. In 1973, Tom married Gin, who he met at Stevens Point, and they began their journey together. Two years later, an abandoned farm was offered at public auction near the home farm and they purchased it.
"The buildings needed a lot of work," Tom recalls. "The original part of the barn was built in 1850. We added onto the barn twice and we heavily remodeled the house. There was nothing here that worked."
Once the 85 cows on their new farm were up and running, they bought the home farm in 1979. Additional tracts of land were purchased when they became available. Upgrading their buildings and improving animal comfort became two of Tom's priorities over the years.
In addition to adding on to and remodeling the tie-stall barn, where the cows are housed and milked, additional housing for dry cows and youngstock was added. They also built a new milk house, office area, a machine shed, shop, feed storage, (including several silos), a Slurrystore and a lagoon.
"These improvements not only make the farm look nicer, but the cattle are more comfortable and so are we," Tom says.
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Today, Tom and Gin and their son, Chris and his wife, Jennifer, milk 130 registered Holstein cows and farm 600 owned and rented acres that make up Ever-Green-View Farms. Their rolling herd average is 3x 41,274 milk 1,682 butterfat and 1,297 protein, ranking them as the top producing herd for combined fat and protein in the state. Their Holstein's BAA is 110.9% making their herd No. 1 in the nation for type with herds of 115 cows or more.
In 2009, Ever-Green-View My 1326-ET, a four-year old cow, set a new world production record producing 72,190 pounds of milk. My 1326 is 10 years old today and still in the herd and her milk record still stands.
"She attracts a lot of interest to our breeding program and to our cow families. Many people come here to see her," Tom says.
During the past year, two more world milk records were set – one for junior two-year olds and the other for junior three-year olds.
"This was a dam/daughter pair and a feat that has never been done before," Tom says.
While their milk production is impressive, Tom says, "Milk is a by-product of our business. Embryos are our main focus, but milk production is very important. We have to have milk records on our cows to sell their genetics. Seventy-five percent of our farm income comes from the sale of genetics."
In addition to their 130 registered Holstein cows, they also have 300 heifers and 100 bulls. The Kestell's youngstock is housed in 11 greenhouses designed and built by the family team.
"We calve in a total of 250 cows and heifers each year," Tom explains. "We sell 300 head of cattle per year – 200 cows and heifers and about 100 bulls.
They currently have many bulls in AI studs. A bull they bred and sold to Europe named Snowman is the No. 1 milk and No. 1 protein bull in the world.
In 2014, the Kestells sold 2,600 embryos to foreign countries and another 200 embryos in the U.S.
Tom is quick to point out "We didn't do this overnight; it took a lot of years and hard work."
The Kestells began selling embryos from the herd in the 1980s. They started by selling a few embryos each year, but their business quickly grew as they began exporting to many countries. By the late 1980s, embryo transfer and exporting genetics became a huge part of their business.
"In order to promote our genetics, we have hosted thousands of foreign visitors to our farm," Tom explains. "We have also traveled extensively to visit the customers of our genetics program and to promote registered Holsteins around the world."
Last year, the Kestells sold 1,300 embryos to Vaganovo Farms in Russia.
"Vaganovo Farms has a herd of 1,300 cows in Siberia," Tom explains. "We have a joint venture embryo facility in Siberia with Vaganovo Farms."
Their goal is to develop their herd to be the epic center of genetics in their area. Tom currently has two ET vets working for him in Russia transferring embryos from his farm to recipient animals in Russia. They also have a herdsperson, Bob Zeamer, from DePere, who is acting as a liaison and herdsman with Vaganovo Farms. Tom spends a lot of time helping to manage this farm in Siberia. He visited there twice with his local vet and nutritionist.
Tom also spends time working on plans to improve the overall management and performance of this farm. During one of his visits, Tom met with the Russian secretary of agriculture and also the governor for that region.
For their export efforts, the Kestells have been awarded the Governor's Export award twice. They are the only farm to receive this award twice.
The Kestell's grow all the feed needed for their herd, including corn, wheat, soybeans and alfalfa. They also sell some surplus crops to neighbors. Last fall, Tom and Chris were honored to win the dairy hay division at the World Dairy Expo Forage Superbowl. Tom came in first and Chris came in second.
"We have won the contest two out of the past three years and placed second the other year."
Tom received the Wisconsin Holstein Distinguished Breeder Award. They have also had dozens of cows win Wisconsin Top Performer awards. The family has also been honored by Holstein USA with 23 Progressive Genetic Awards, 14 Progressive Breeder Awards and 3 Herd of Excellence Awards.
In 2000, the Kestells were named Farm Family of the Year by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
Tom and Gin are in the process of forming an LLC with Chris and Jennifer so they can transition the farm to the next generation. Chris and Jennifer's first child is due in March. Their oldest son, Joel, and his wife, Julie, dairy farm successfully near Mount Calvary and have one three-year-old son, Ethan. A third son, Clay, was lost in a cycle accident in 1998. The family has awarded more than 20 scholarships to area students to honor Clay's memory.
See biographies of all the 2015 Wisconsin Master Agriculturists:
Kestells develop top herd of registered Holsteins
Teamwork is key to Fitzgeralds' success
Hard work pays off for Vosbergs
Sommers capitalizes on opportunities