Gary and Jean Bekkedals’ Jersey herd left for a new home on July 7. The Bekkedals milked for more than 40 years near Viroqua, Wis.PHOTO BY RON JOHNSON
Gary and Jean Bekkedals’ Jersey herd left for a new home on July 7. The Bekkedals milked for more than 40 years near Viroqua, Wis.
VIROQUA, Wis. - July 7 was a red-letter date for Gary and Jean Bekkedal. After 42 years of dairying, their milking careers ended.
"I told Jeanie that when I turned 70, I was going to sell the cows," Gary said.
Although he won't reach the 70-year-old mark until Aug. 7, the couple decided it was time to bid farewell to their 25 registered Jersey cows and accompanying youngstock on their dairy near Viroqua, Wis. In all, about 50 head left July 7 for their new home 15 miles away. The Bekkedals kept three calves that their three grandchildren will show at the Vernon County Fair.
Besides their registered Jerseys, the Bekkedals are known for their Farmers Inn, a log cabin they rent out. The two-story cabin sits just up the driveway and has hosted visitors from many states, several countries and every continent - even Antarctica. One guest conducted research there.
But it was the friendly, doe-eyed Jerseys that were mainly on Gary and Jean's minds the morning before the cows were to leave. The couple talked about how they came to be on their 105-acre farm.
Gary is a Vernon County native, but his parents farmed for a time on the other side of Wisconsin, near Waukesha. He majored in education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and, after returning to Vernon County, taught fifth grade math and science in the Viroqua School District, retiring in 2005.
Jean was a self-described city girl from Milwaukee.
"I don't think I'd ever been on a farm," she said.
The Bekkedals returned to Vernon County in 1974, when Gary accepted a teaching job. They rented a house and enjoyed country living.
"Every morning that first summer, I felt like I was on vacation. I heard birds and I didn't hear traffic. I thought, 'Hmmm. This is really nice,'" Jean said.
It was in November the next year that the Bekkedals bought their farm. They remember the two-story, eight-bedroom house for its only heat source - a gas stove in the living room.
"It was cold," Jean said.
Jean and Gary bought a Monarch cook stove, complete with nickel-plated trim, to help heat the place. The stove dates to 1917 and is still used for cooking occasionally.
Gary had been trying to convince his wife the farm needed cattle. Finally, he suggested a compromise.
"You know, Jeanie, if we milked some cows, we could build a new house," he said.
Holsteins were in the small barn at first, but were deemed too big and that they ate too much, Gary said. The Bekkedals tried a few Guernseys, too, and liked them, but they ended up switching to Jerseys, partly because his family has a history with the breed.
Gary said they did not push their cows for high production and stopped purchasing supplemental protein a year ago. The day before the cows were to leave, the herd average stood at approximately 12,500 pounds of milk per cow, with a 5.1 percent fat test and a 4.2 protein test.
The Bekkedals have sold breeding stock to farmers in several states, besides Wisconsin. Bekk-View cattle have gone as far west as California and Oregon, and east to South Carolina.
Gary and Jean's Jerseys have met with success in the show ring. Bekk-View Harvest Lynette was chosen as the supreme grand champion of the Vernon County Fair in 2014. Lynette was scheduled to head to a new home with the rest of the cows.
Call it chance or call it fate that Gary and Jean's cows were sold the way they were. The story goes back to the Bekkedal daughters - Kristine, Kari and Sara - continuing their Christmastime tradition of hanging garlands in the 1921 barn and tying a ribbon onto each cow's tail.
At Christmastime last year, they posted pictures of the cheery barn and decorated cows on Facebook. They also posted these words: "This might be the last time we decorate Mom and Dad's barn."
A few days later, Gary and Jean were surprised to hear a message on their telephone, expressing an interest in buying the cows. The Bekkedals had no idea what that was about, since they had not advertised their Jerseys as being for sale.
Kari unraveled the mystery, Jean said. A nearby dairyman, Matthew Canter, saw the Facebook post, liked the way the cows looked and made the call.
"If this turns out, you know it was truly meant to be," said Jean, recalling the conversation with Gary.
Members of the Canter family looked at the cows and gave their stamp of approval.
"His mother even came out and put a milker on a cow," Jean said. "He (Canter) said he couldn't believe she did that."
During more than four decades married to Gary, Jean turned from a city girl whose only pet was a turtle into a full-fledged farm woman.
"I really liked the cows," Jean said. "I stayed home and took care of them while Gary worked. I curried the cows every day. They're very tame."
Gary found farming and teaching a good combination. He tried to tie science and math lessons to real life, asking students to calculate the circumference of a silo, or the square footage of a barn and how many bales of hay it could hold.
"He liked telling his jokes to the kids," Jean said.
If a student laughed, Gary invariably placed a piece of candy on his or her desk. After a few days, everyone was laughing at Gary's jokes.
At his wife's urging, Gary offered this example of his classroom humor: "I know why you're sharp in school. Your head comes to a point."
Gary added, "I really loved teaching. I liked the kids. It was a blast. I really had fun."
The Bekkedals were not sure how they would fill the voids where their 6 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. chores and milking used to be.
They got a taste when one of their daughters wanted to try milking by herself once. While Sara milked, Gary and Jean went for a drive.
"We just didn't know what to do. I think it's going to be like that, a little bit," Jean said.
Welcoming visitors old and new to the guest cabin will help the Bekkedals pass the time. Gary and Jean close the cozy cabin that sleeps six each winter and open it again toward the end of March.
The Bekkedals can continue to provide sleigh rides and buggy rides behind their team of Haflingers. Guests can still pet the donkey, see the two Jersey steers and gather eggs laid by Jean's cackling flock. But they cannot watch milking.
Gary is philosophical about his cows' departure. He has had two surgeries, a heart attack and has battled cancer.
"Your mind tells you when to quit. You really don't want to. But you'd better listen to other parts of your body," Gary said. "It's been a good ride. Jerseys were an excellent choice."