In Wisconsin dairy circles, the name Koepke has been synonymous with "innovative" and "cutting-edge" for decades.
Koepke Farms Inc. includes brothers Alan, Jim and David Koepke; Jim's son, John; and their families. The Koepkes have been named the 2011 World Dairy Expo Dairymen of the Year.
The Koepkes milk 320 registered Holstein cows and farm 1,000 owned and rented acres a few miles north of Oconomowoc. They boast an official Dairy Herd Improvement rolling herd average of 31,563 pounds of milk, 1,168 pounds of fat and 942 pounds of protein. They have more than 100 cows with 200,000 pounds of lifetime milk production, including the famous Granny, who lived to age 20 and produced 458,609 pounds of milk, making her the world-record holder for lifetime milk production.
Most of the Koepkes' cows are milked three times a day. One group is milked four times a day to optimize production and cow comfort. Their original double-three side-opening milking parlor built in the early 1970s was updated in 2002 with a double-10 herringbone parlor with rapid exit. A direct load to semi tankers also was installed.
Alan, Jim and David's parents, Ruth and Harvey, established the original dairy farm in 1936. Alan, the oldest, graduated in 1963 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in agricultural engineering.
"There was no room for me [on the farm] when I got home, but my parents let me farm with them," Al says. "My college adviser said coming back to the farm was the dumbest thing I could do. I spent the next 48 years proving him wrong."
Jim graduated from UW-Madison in 1967 with a degree in dairy science. By 1970, the Koepkes were farming 1,000 acres and milking 120 cows. "By this time, we were renting 500 acres of land, and we had an option to buy," Jim says.
"We did some 'what if' scenarios, and after doing a lot of calculating, the numbers stated that this extra land was not profitable. We decided to cut way back on the number of acres we were farming and boost our cow numbers," Al explains. The brothers began building the milking parlor and increased their herd size to 190 cows.
"We've done a lot of 'what if' scenarios over the years to figure out whether we're going to do something or not," Al emphasizes. "We want our numbers to give us guidance as to the best way to expand rather than having the banker tell us that what we are doing isn't working."
In 1974, the Koepkes became one of the first farms to feed a total mixed ration. A TMR allows them to minimize phosphorus in the rations, which in turn reduces phosphorus in the manure and avoids runoff.
After serving in the U.S. Air Force for four years, Dave returned home in 1975 and joined his older brothers.
In 1985, the brothers crunched the numbers again to see if it would be more profitable to add more cows or milk three times a day. "We figured out it was more profitable to milk three times a day and add 40 more cows than to add 120 cows milked two times a day" Al says.
The Koepkes were pioneers in the no-till revolution that began in the 1980s. While serving on the Wisconsin Fertilizer Research Council, Jim saw research that documented there was no yield advantage to tillage unless it was corn after corn. They modified their corn planter and never looked back. Today, all of their land is no-tilled. They report improved soil quality, soil moisture and nutrient absorption by crops. Other conservation practices include contour strips, grass waterways, cover crops and a nutrient management plan with a seven-year crop rotation.
In 1995, after graduating from Cornell University with a degree in animal science, Jim's son, John, joined his dad and uncles.
While the Koepkes work together to manage the farm, each has an area of expertise. John takes care of herd nutrition, feed purchasing, milk marketing and hiring, while Dave oversees herd health, cattle marketing, breeding and pedigrees. Al manages engineering and machinery maintenance. Jim handles crops, nutrient management and irrigation, while John's wife, Kim, takes care of the bookkeeping and business art design. They also have seven full-time and seven part-time employees; several have worked with the family for 20 years or more.
In 2003, the Koepkes began a research partnership with the UW Discovery Farms to collect long-term data on how no-till farming practices affect water quality and soil organic matter. "Over the years, we have partnered with both private industries and university programs to have research conducted on our farm," John explains. "The goal has always been to find knowledge that will help all farmers do a better job of caring for cows and land."
The Koepkes' latest venture is the development of La Belle cheese, an aged artisan cheese created with milk from their herd exclusively. It is handcrafted in small batches at Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain and sold at local farmers markets.
The Koepkes have won numerous awards over the years. In 1987, Al and Jim were both named Master Agriculturists by Wisconsin Agriculturist magazine. They are also involved in several organizations. John serves on the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection board of directors. Al, a founding leader of Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin, is still actively involved in the group. Dave is a director with AgSource cooperative, and Jim is a director/member-at-large with the Rock River Coalition.
The Koepkes attribute much of their success to their ability to work together and the support of their families.