The LaCrosse Tribune
By John Hartzell, The Associated Press

MILWAUKEE — Bob and Karen Breneman found it difficult to accomplish all that had to be done around their southern Wisconsin dairy farm, but they didn’t want to hire more help.

So they joined the growing number of farmers in America’s Dairyland who broke with tradition by turning to grazing — saving them money and freeing up time.

“We’d been so busy, we didn’t have time to go to church, and now we are active in our church and also have time to do a lot of other things,” said Bob Breneman of Rio, about 80 miles northwest of Milwaukee.

Most milking operations in the state during the latter half of the 20th century used the so-called confinement approach: Animals that were milked twice a day mostly were kept inside, feed was brought to them and manure was carted away.

“Farmers had been taught that was the way to go for a long time,” Breneman said.

But after careful consideration, the couple switched to an updated version of the grazing approach that had previously predominated, and they haven’t looked back.

That’s allowed them to reduce labor involved in growing crops to feed their animals, and they can let the manure remain in the field.

He now shares what he’s learned with other farmers through the Columbia County Grazing Network. The couple has even been able to add a few cows to the 80 they’d been milking.

Only 7 percent of Wisconsin dairy farmers used the grazing approach in 1993 when the Brenemans switched, said Jeremy Foltz, a University of Wisconsin assistant professor of agricultural and applied economics. That increased to 23 percent by 2003 and indications are that percentage is growing.

“The availability of good grassland in Wisconsin makes the state more conducive to grazing than many other states,” Foltz said.

Jennifer Taylor, who workers for the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy Farmers and the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems through the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said she anticipated the trend would continue as farmers from the Baby Boomer generation retire and more younger people take over dairy operations.

“The approach slightly reduces production, but farmers’ costs go down more significantly,” with less barn space and equipment needed, Foltz said.

“It appeals more to those who like to work with animals rather than managing people” as is more of the case for those using the confinement approach, he said.

Confinement became popular when more machinery was becoming available to farmers, and equipment, fuel and labor were cheaper, said Tom Cadwallader, a University of Wisconsin Extension agent in Lincoln and Marathon counties.

“But the cost of fuel and equipment are much higher now, and many farmers sent their kids to college and many of them subsequently didn’t stick around on the farms,” he said.

Bert Paris, who raised about 80 cows on a Belleville dairy farm, said he was spending a lot of time on a tractor and repairing equipment when he switched during the early 1990s.

“I do a lot less machinery work now,” he said, adding that he had four children and felt it was safer for them with less equipment around.

Paris is among five farmers who created Edelweiss Grazier Cooperative about 1 1/2 years ago near Monticello, where milk from the grazing cows is turned into cheese.

McKenzie Payne, artisan cheese specialist at the Metcalfe’s Sentry food store in Madison, said sales of Paris’ cheese have been steady and skyrocket whenever he comes in for a demonstration.

“It has a creamier look and flavor and people are really looking for that,” she said.

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