The Farm up on the Hill

Published on Thu, 03/26/2009 - 4:51pm

“You can only manage a business so long and stay on top. You need to change from time to time to keep that edge,” says Gary Boyke, a third generation dairy producer, who with his wife, Rose own a 1350 cow dairy farm in eastern Wisconsin, just three miles southeast of Fond du Lac. “Fond du Lac is a community of nearly 45,000 people, and we’re known as the farm up on the hill overlooking the lake.” That lake is Lake DeNeveu, a 90 foot deep, 80-acre spring-fed lake, one that area residents treasure for its recreational and aesthetic values.

In a way, for the past 75 years, the Boykes and residents around the lake have grown together as Gary describes it: “good neighbors! As things have changed on our farm, we have always been proactive and let people know what practices we were implementing and why.”
Over those 75 years, the farm has changed and grown, but the family’s belief in being good stewards of the land and good neighbors has not changed.
The Beginning
Gary’s grandparents began the farm in the 1930’s, purchasing the original 59-acre home place. “It was the Dirty 30s, and grandpa started with 13 Guernsey cows and a rented bull,” says Gary with a laugh. “They stayed small, and when my dad, who was the youngest of the family, joined my grandpa, the size of the farm stayed the same.”
However, the changes that Gary mentioned earlier began in 1950, when his dad decided to move toward registered Holstein cattle and began to slowly build the herd. According to Gary, his dad felt the most success would come from a herd of milk cows with good genetics with high production. With the registered Holsteins came the farm’s name, a combination of Gary’s mom, Virginia and dad, Clarence’s first names: Vir-Clar Farm.
Growing up, Gary remembers himself as being the “cow guy” because “I loved working with the cows, and I always knew that I wanted to farm. After graduation, I went away to school but still worked on the farm part-time. At that point, Dad had expanded the herd to 28. I came back full time in 1974, when Dad had the first of his four heart attacks.”
In 1974, Vir-Clar Farm had grown to 50 head of registered Holsteins.
So, how do two families live on a farm with 50 head of cows? That was the dilemma that Gary and his wife, Rose, along with his parents faced. The answer was simple: change!
The 1970s and 1980s became the merchandising era for Vir-Clar Farm. “We actually began to market and merchandise our cattle first here in the United States and then exported to 22 countries in Europe. We put over a hundred bulls into the Artificial Insemination (AI) program in both Europe and in the United States.”
The quality of breeding was so great that in 1988, Vir-Clar Farm was asked to be in the first Top 10 sale in San Francisco.  “That meant that 10 farms were invited to bring 10 head of cattle to the sale. We averaged over $17,000 per animal with our top two-year old bringing $73,000. That was truly the highlight of my early farming career.”
Then things began to dry up. “The markets began to be saturated, exporting became tougher and it became more of a gamble,” says Gary. So by the early 1990s, Gary and Rose had to answer the question: Stay in, move on or…change.
“My parents were retiring, and we had to make this decision.” Actually, their two older daughters made the decision pretty easy. “If you get out, we’ll never forgive you!” That pretty much sealed the deal, and they made the commitment to stay in the business.
Rose, who does all of the bookkeeping general upkeep of the acreage and organizes group tours, says all four of their children have been an integral part of the growth of Vir-Clar Farm. “They all learned how to develop a very good work ethic,” she says with a laugh. Eldest daughter Katie is now a partner in the business and manages the calf operation. J. R., their 22-year-old son has come back from college and is gaining more experience by working for a large dairy in the area. “He plans to come back in the future. Angela and Tiffany, although they are not on the farm with us, are both working in the area.”         
Change this time came in the form of expansion. Over the past 15 years, Gary and Rose have totally rebuilt by first constructing a 300 cow free-stall building with a double eight milking parlor and then in 2003 building a new special needs barn. At the same time, they have expanded the herd to its present size of 1350 and added another 850 acres of land. That’s quite a change from the original 13 cows back in the 1930s!
The Plan
The expansion has not been a haphazard venture. Instead, it has been planned with several key elements involved: keeping the business family run, being faithful stewards of the land and water resources and being good neighbors. Of course, the bottom line is to maintain a quality, healthy herd that provides the best product possible.
According to Gary, the plan has always been to be on the front end of change and to be proactive rather than reactive. When it came time to build their new barn, Gary and Rose found that in a re-zoning move, their original site had become part of a residential zoning area. “As we made our decision to build, we moved it about a thousand yards away from the lake to meet the zoning regulations.”
As Gary expanded Vir-Clar Farm with more land and more cattle, he and Rose believed in the importance of continuing to protect the natural resources and to be conscious of his neighbors. “We wanted to continue to build on the good relations that we have always had.”
One huge issue to address: odor. As the herd grew, so did the manure issue. Gary and Rose researched the situation and came to the conclusion that a bio-energy digester could be an answer to the waste product and odor issue. Cost, however, was beyond their means, so in 2003, they applied for a USDA grant to purchase and install a digester. As a grant recipient, they continued to research the most efficient type of digester to purchase. “We found that the Europeans were way ahead of us in this country when it came to this type of system. In Germany, we found several farms that were happy with the Bio-Gas Nord system, so that is the one we chose to go with, too.”
Now, over four years into the operation, the Boykes are happy with the results. The manure goes into the digester, and during the 30-day “digestion” period, the manure separates into solids that become part of the bedding for the cattle, while the liquid goes into the sealed manure pit below the special needs barn. Gary notes, “We were looking for a good source for bedding. Sand is so abrasive to clean up and move around, but the byproduct that comes from the digester makes a very comfortable bedding for the cattle. At the same time, I would say we have eliminated 70 percent of the odor, and when we spread the liquid as fertilizer on the farm ground, the odor is much less offensive and dissipates much faster.”
An added benefit is the “green” energy that comes from the digester in the form of methane gas that is burned as fuel to generate electricity. It provides more than twice the energy needed for Vir-Clar Farm. “We are able to generate enough electricity to support 320 homes. We work with Alliant Energy and buy back from them to provide our own electricity.”
Certainly, when there are this many animals, there is bound to be surface runoff. To address this concern, Gary and Rose have worked with the Department of Natural Resources to make Vir-Clar Farm as environmentally friendly as possible. “We must control all water and discharge. To do this we have built three retention ponds that control and filter the water.” This process is quite similar to the water gardens currently being designed in urban areas that are adjacent to lakes and rivers.
Last but not least is the stewardship of the land. The liquid fertilizer ties into the conservation plan designed for the farm ground. First, it is easier to regulate the amount of phosphorus that goes on the land. All of the fields are mapped out with a specific plan based on the soil types. The goal is to increase productivity, while at the same time protecting the soil so that it remains high quality, thus also benefiting the many waterways.
The environmental work is ongoing, and this spring Vir-Clar Farm is part of a pilot project that will implement a water purification system. “The goal is to purify the manure even more and take 55 percent of the water out of the waste. When the manure is spread, there will be even less chance of run-off.” This will also help to more efficiently apply our phosphorus and nitrogen when we apply the manure as fertilizer. “As a pilot, we’re looking to make sure the purification system works and meets the Department of Natural Resources’ specification for dischargable water.”
Gary and Rose are also partners with their neighbors and the local lake association as it addresses the needs of Lake DeNeveu. They also continue to be proactive by opening their farm to the public. “We do host tours and have school kids come out to the farm. Many of them have never been on a farm. We give them the chance to see a cow being milked, a calf being fed, crops being harvested and renewable energy being made,” says Gary.
The future of Vir-Clar Farm looks solid with both Katie and J. R. a part of the operation. As the fourth generation of dairy farmers in the Boyke family, their goal remains what it has been since the 1903s: commitment to the cows, the land and the community.
For Gary and Rose, they hope that Vir-Clar Farm will always be looked upon by their neighbors as the farm that’s been here “forever,” you know, the farm up on the hill overlooking the lake.