California may boast of its ‘happy cows’ in TV dairy commercials, but don’t count Wisconsin out yet. Back in Dairy Land thousands of cheesehead bovines at Pagel’s Ponderosa in Kewaunee, Wis., are quite content in their ultra-modern freestyle barn. Attendees at the Wisconsin Frame Builders Conference were recently given a tour.
The all-steel facility includes two 880-foot long Kirby Steel Structures for feeding and housing attached to two smaller buildings: a staging area for the cows and a rotary milking parlor. The four areas combined create a goalpost-shaped configuration, possibly not an accident considering owner John Pagel’s devotion to the Green Bay Packers. It’s a 24-hour milking operation with cows milked three times daily.
Each wing of the facility houses 1,750 cows each and is served by a Schaefer Fans tunnel ventilation system. Numerous large fans on the back of the barns are used to produce a consistent 6-7 miles per hour breeze throughout. “The buildings are at a 1-1/2 percent pitch to keep the airflow down by the cows,” explains owner John Pagel. The large fans are dormant in winter when 17 cupola fans draw moisture out of each barn.
The two barns are set to allow ventilation north and south. “The stalls run north and south and the feed alleys run north and south,” Pagel points out, adding, “with the air moving north to south, we don’t have the chance of the biosolids being blown into the feed if there’s cross ventilation.”
The biosolids he refers to is a bedding material made from manure after going through an anaerobic digester. It is transformed onsite into energy as well as bedding. Office assistant Kim Selner, who often guides visitor tours, explains the process.
“When the cows go out to be milked, the barns are cleaned and we push the manure into a grate in the middle. There’s actually a flowing system where the manure goes. It will be pumped over to pits on the other side of the farm so that the manure from the new facility and the older can mix to the same consistency before it goes into the digester,” she says.
The blended manure then goes into a digester pit that is 16 feet deep and houses 3.2 million gallons of manure. “It needs to be in there for 21 days and we heat it up to 101 degrees to produce a methane gas,” Selner explains. The methane is fed through a 20-cylinder generator to produce electricity. “Right now we’re producing 1,100 kilowatts, enough to supply Kewaunee and Casco [communities] but we sell it to Wisconsin Public Service on the grid and then we buy back what we use.”
The dried byproducts are used for bedding.
When he has a moment to stop and think about it, Pagel can’t help but feel a little in awe at the transformation of his farm. His parents purchased the original part of the property in 1946 after borrowing money from a neighbor. They started with eight cows and some pigs and chickens. John, the youngest of seven siblings, purchased the farm in 1978. It then had 65 cows and 320 acres of cropland. In March 1985 a major fire destroyed the dairy barn and nearby outbuildings. The fire set the operation back, but when Pagel rebuilt it seemed to trigger new determination. “In 1989 we put this first addition on and that one went well. With the next addition, in 1994, we went from 190 to 450 cows. That was a big step,” he describes. By 2000, there were 1,500 cows.
But it didn’t stop there. Another farm was acquired 12 miles down the road and that operation grew to 2,800 cows and additional crop acreage.
Today, Pagel’s Ponderosa has nearly 4,800 cows and 8,000 acres under cultivation (about three-quarters owned and the remainder rented). The farm employs 80 to 100 workers depending on season.
Pagel never thought it would get this big so fast.
“That was not part of the plan in the beginning,” he says. “Our business plan has always been to grow in steps, reinvest, pay back down and grow equity. But we wanted to milk in a rotary parlor. Because of the huge investment, you need to run it 24 hours a day to make it cash flow, so we had to move to a larger step to make it feasible and affordable.”
It took him a year-and-a-half to decide what he wanted, researching and touring farms to look at options.
“I designed it first and then went with a general contractor,” Pagel goes on to describe. He chose Bill Lorrigan Construction from Reedsburg, Wis. From start to first milking, construction took about six months, with completion in the latter part of 2008. Additional work was completed in 2009.
Lorrigan says that while the Pagel operation is larger than most in Wisconsin they are becoming more common as farmers look at adding rotary milking systems. That big investment means milking more cows and building bigger barns.
Using biosolid systems to generate electricity is also of great interest to today’s farmers.
Still being sorted out are the preferred forms of ventilation. “Some [farmers] are going cross ventilation, some are still going natural,” Lorrigan says. “There’s a little bit of everything out there right now.”
Having used a pre-engineered building meant no surprises in the build, but it did call for some customization of the milking parlor. “The parlor has to be lined out underneath the main frames,” he noted. “And there’s the ceiling underneath there and a big cavity attic above that.”
On the exterior of the office building, located in front of the milking parlor and holding areas, masonry sets a professional tone to the entire building package.
The rotary milking parlor is everything Pagel hoped for. As the cows enter, a tag reader identifies the cow and adds information to its history log. The contented cows then take a slow motion merry-go-round ride on a BouMatic while giving milk. “The cows love that wheel, they love that ride,” Pagel says while viewing the operation from a visitor’s observation tower. “I just love watching that thing. It’s a truly amazing way to milk cows. We fill one semi tanker of milk every four hours.”
Using an automatic pumping system, the milk goes straight to a chiller and taken from 98 degrees down to 36 degrees before loading and shipment.
With a sense of purpose, Pagel enjoys showing the operation off to visitors. “We believe if we’re this size, it’s our personal responsibility to educate the people in how this farm operates. There’s so many people that think big is bad and we want everyone to know how well [Pagel’s Ponderosa] is run and how well we take care of our animals and our people.”
Located in Kewaunee County, which boasts the largest number of registered dairy farmers in the state, Pagel is hopeful that the dairy tradition continues in his family. Currently, three of his four grown children work there. The fourth, and youngest is 19 and likely headed there some day. “Everyone is required to go out and work for other people and get an education,” he explains. The 19 year old is going through that process now.
Although the Pagel farm is large by Wisconsin standards, more building is in the long-range plan. “We’re studying, investigating, a processing plant to make dairy products,” Pagel says. “We’re not sure we’re going to do that yet but we’re looking into it.” – By Sharon Thatcher, Rural Builder