Wagner Family Farms
It may be a bit hard to believe; but this story of Jerry and Shirley Wagner began over 50 years ago, when they met in High School in Waseca, Minnesota. And, it wasn’t the local public High School. It was the Southern School of Agriculture (SSA); a four-year High School created by the University of Minnesota to further the education of students in all disciplines of crop and animal Agriculture. Their education may have started there, but it has never stopped.
Actually, their education first began on local family farms. From there, the shared experiences and common interests grew easily into a mutual attraction at SSA. With graduation in 1969 and marriage a year later in 1970, they went to work back on those family farms. Jerry also joined the Army Reserve, beginning in the Spring of 1970. He trained in the Infantry in Tacoma, WA; then a few years later in Cryptologic Services in Virginia. He served 6 years.
Having an interest in electronics; the young married-couple moved to Phoenix, Arizona, in 1972, for Jerry to attend DeVry Technical Institute. With a growing family, 2 children and one on the way, and missing his farming roots; Jerry took a job at a John Deere dealership in Chandler, Arizona.
Before they knew it, it was now the year 1982. Ten years had passed with the family highlights of four children. They missed family, friends, and home in Minnesota; making the move back to a small dairy farm (needing much work) in Hartland, Minnesota, near Albert Lea. Their shared education and many skills were poured into revitalizing that farm and raising happy and healthy kids. They were successful at both.
Having proven their combined talents and capabilities in rebuilding a small family dairy farm, and learning even more in the process, they were ready for a new challenge. This started with looking at farms mainly in Minnesota, that needed some TLC. A visit to Shirley’s sister in La Crosse, WI; found that right new farm in a small valley in Black River Falls, Wisconsin. The setting was beautiful, but the farm needed a lot of work. They knew they could handle it; and they have, by every measure of success.
In 1989 Jerry and Shirley started looking into Organic Dairying. At that time this was in the very beginning stages, no guarantee it would fly; but by 1991 there was an opportunity to start shipping organic milk, they jumped on the band wagon. In 1993 they were able to attend an OCIA conference, (one of the 1st organic certification agencies) in Colorado and Jerry was able to help first hand in having a say in the organic certification rules.
In 2004, another switch was made from a Holstein herd to a Milking Shorthorn herd. With a grazing-focus, the Milking Shorthorn’s seem to thrive on that; also, the calving ease is a great asset. They do love their Shorties, and they are so pretty to look at out in the pastures. With the look at A2A2 milk by the Milking Shorthorn Society, they are excited about the possibilities.
About 14 years ago the Wagner’s installed a used Herringbone Parlor in their barn, converting a 52 tie stall to a Double Six Herringbone Parlor. That has been totally appreciated with the ease of milking. Hoop barns were also added for winter housing of various ages of dairy animals.
Recently; son Brandon planted over 1,000 trees of various types, along with apple and nut trees along the pasture fences. This in the future will provide shade for the animals and a habitat for the wildlife.
Every farmer, especially a dairy farmer, is a part-time agronomist, plant scientist, and animal nutritionist; and every farm is a laboratory for applied knowledge and continuing research.
About 10 years ago, Jerry started looking into on-farm composting. He purchased the 1st compost turner and started making their own fertilizer. Three years ago, Jerry attended a seminar on composting in Illinois. He purchased a larger compost turner that was able to handle all the manure and organic matter to turn. The end fertilizer product is then spread on all the hay and pasture ground after every cutting.
The results have been a higher sugar content for the forages harvested and therefore a higher energy feed for the dairy, cutting back significantly on the need of large amounts of grain in the milking cow’s diet. The Wagner’s feed only 3#s of grain a day per milking cow; just enough as a carrier for the cow’s minerals and vitamins.
Today, the Wagner Family Farms total 263 acres; with another 180 rented acres. Son Brandon and his wife Mindy, along with their four children are now part of the operation. Herd count totals 200 head; with 65 to 85 cows in milk, another 35 dry cows, and the others as replacement heifers.
The Wagner family is active in the State and National American Milking Shorthorn Society and recently hosted the Wisconsin State Picnic on their farm. They also attended the 2018 Annual Convention held in Willmar, Minnesota; along with six of their grandkids, one neighbor girl, and eight heifers.
The Wagner Family Farms became members of Westby Cooperative Creamery in 2012, and now shipped just over one-million pounds of certified-organic milk to the cooperative annually.
As one more example of sustainability and applied knowledge, the two farm houses and all farm buildings are heated by wood-burning boilers. As a demonstration of combined engineering skills, the boilers were designed and built by Jerry and Brandon. All wood for burning comes from the 80 acres of trees on their property.
Jerry and Shirley have applied a lifetime of continuous education, skills development, teamwork and training; to create a sustainable and certified-organic family dairy farm for today and the future. The present and future also belong to Brandon and Mindy and their kids. Two daughters live nearby with their families, and a third daughter lives in Tennessee with her family. In total, there are 18 grandkids; so, there’s no telling how many may want to join the Wagner Family Farms in the future. If they do, they’ll have a lot to learn from their grandparents; and they couldn’t find better teachers.
Please remember; when you take home country goodness from the local family dairy farms of Westby Cooperative Creamery, you take home country goodness from the Wagner Family in Black River Falls, Wisconsin — and for that, we all say thank you!