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Organic Dairy Farm Cultivating Next Generation's Farmers

Dairy farming has been a part of Wisconsin’s landscape for generations. A small fraction of those operations is organic. WUWM’s environmental reporter Susan Bence visited a couple committed to organic farming and to passing on their methods to the next generation.

This is the sound of 140 happy cows grazing a few miles outside Elkhorn, Wisconsin.

“This will be Holstein Friesian there and then we cross them with Jerseys, and you get an animal that looks like this one, a little shorter animal, almost all dark. If you breed it to Jersey again, you get, the brown one behind that.”

Altfrid and Sue Krusenbaum have been farming for 25 years. Sue grew up on a dairy farm not far from here. Altfrid calls himself a former city slicker from Germany.

“I think I was 22 when I first set foot on a farm,” Krusenbaum says.

He may have urban roots, but Altrfrid went on to study animal and dairy sciences in Germany. That led to internships in Germany, Canada and finally here in the U.S.

“And well, I think I caught the bug,” Krusenbaum says.

Altfrid hit on organic dairy farming and met Sue in the process. The Krusenbaums use a farming method called Intensive Grazing Management. That means they’ve parceled off their farm’s 220 acres into 47 smaller sections, called paddocks. For more than six months out of the year, the cows move and munch from field to field. They leave their manure behind, the perfect fertilizer, according to Altfrid. He says this approach is used in countries like New Zealand, Argentina and Ireland.

“They are able to produce milk at a much, much lower cost than we do,” Krusenbaum says.

Those countries spend less, Altfrid explains, because the farmers let their animals trim the fields and the manure enrich the soil. So the farmers don't have to buy fertilizer or bring in tractors and other machinery as often.

We hop in an electric-powered golf cart and bump our way from one end of the farm to the other. Altfrid stops next to a paddock where calves born last spring are contently munching.

“In two years, they have a calf themselves, isn’t that pretty amazing? Just on grass and they grow from 100 pounds to 1,100 or 1,200 pounds in two years,” Krusenbaum says.

These calves are pampered. A “shademobile” protects them from hot summer days. Its wide, black tarp stretches up and out from umbrella-like spokes to cover the portable trough, loaded with minerals and hay. It's under those umbrella spokes that two interns are tending the calves. In their 30s, Todd and Lily Lanis have been working on the farm six months.

They seem unlikely candidates for the rigors of farming. Lily, a slender, long-limbed Italian grew up near Venice. She’s done lots of waitressing, but says farming is in her blood.

“I should say, my grandma and some of my uncles, used to have farms and I always loved animals. I never worked in a farm, but since started here, I just love it,” she says.

Todd Lanis says he’s always been interested in farming, but it was a big move to come here. He gave up a house and a job as a Web programmer in Minneapolis.

“When I married Lily, we talked about it and she mainly convinced me to take the plunge,” Lanis says.

The couple began milking the herd on their own a few weeks ago. That’s no small feat – milking 140 cows two times a day, every day.

“Yeah, it’s a long learning curve and we have a lot left to learn,” Lanis says.

They also have to learn to live side-by-side with the Krusenbaums. Sue Krusenbaum says the arrangement doesn’t work, unless everyone gets along socially.

“Definitely, they eat their main meal with us. They're part of the family,” she says.

“So they live in your home,” I ask.

“Yeah, we have a little apartment, that's kind of separate, but it’s a farmhouse. You hear everything,” Krusenbaum says.

They might be living together five years before the Lanis’ are ready to start their own dairy farm. Altfrid says that’s how the sharemilking program works.

“They provide labor on the dairy farm and in exchange they get a share of all the female calves being born,” he says.

Sue and Altfrid want couples to leave with 60 head of cattle and an intimate knowledge of the workings of a dairy farm. So far, the Krusenbaum’s have graduated one sharemilking team.

“Yeah, and our first couple just left in January,” he says.

“And where are they,” I ask.

“Well, the unfortunate part of the story is that in the last year the husband decided that dairy farming is not for him,” Krusenbaum says.

But that didn’t stop Altfrid and Sue from taking on a second couple. And it appears, their commitment to the next generation just might be taking hold.

As I leave the farm, I spot Lily Lanis hugging, yes hugging, a year-old calf.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.