September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.

Dairying with a view

Raethkes find challenges, beauty farming blufftops between two rivers
From their 100 percent registered herd of Holsteins, the Raethkes sell excess heifers and breeding bulls, and do some embryo transfer work. Every year, about 20 of their cows are listed in the top 10,000 TPI list. (photo by Krista M. Sheehan)
From their 100 percent registered herd of Holsteins, the Raethkes sell excess heifers and breeding bulls, and do some embryo transfer work. Every year, about 20 of their cows are listed in the top 10,000 TPI list. (photo by Krista M. Sheehan)

By By Krista M. Sheehan & Mark Klaphake- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

PEPIN, Wis. - Sitting prominently at the top of the bluffs and hills near Pepin, Wis., R Green Acres dairy farm has a viewing radius spanning Pepin County's topography that has been naturally carved and formed by the surrounding rivers.

"From some of our blufftops you can see where the Chippewa River empties into the Mississippi," said Chuck Raethke, co-owner of R Green Acres dairy farm. "It's absolutely beautiful."

Chuck and his two brothers, Jeff and Jon , with the help of their families milk 185 cows on their farm, R Green Acres LLC, in Pepin, Wis., located across the border from Lake City, Minn.

Because of it close proximity to the river, Pepin becomes a tourist town in the summer, attracting vacationers, restaurant visitors, artists and people who are spending time at their weekend homes.

"It's a pretty cool mix of people and it's an awesome place to live," said Jeff, who takes care of finances and is in charge of the feeding program on the dairy. "The resources and natural beauty here are incredible."

The Raethkes' farm near Pepin includes nearly 500 acres on limestone bluffs that create a naturally neutral soil pH.

"... We can grow great alfalfa and corn with the best of them," said Jon , who is in charge of the crops on the farm. "It's great ground with tremendous yields and really good crops, but there are some limitations for us."

The farm has geographical borders with the Mississippi River a few miles to the south and the Chippewa River one mile to the east.

"You can see a lot of places you can't get to," Jon said.

Their blufftop location also doesn't accommodate large-acre fields. Many of the fields are contour strips and are no larger than eight acres, making it hard to find accommodating machinery. The Raethkes consider a flat field on their farm a four percent slope while steep hills have a 24 percent slope.

Their landscape also limits dairy sizes and numbers. The Raethkes said they only have about a half dozen other dairying neighbors within 15 miles with many of them being smaller herds.

"It's lonely dairying here," Jon said.

With 185 cows milked in a double-10 Germania parlor, R Green Acres is considered a large dairy in Pepin County.

"This isn't the place for a 1,000-cow dairy," Jon said.

But other areas of Wisconsin have larger dairies.

"Across the [Chippewa] River in Buffalo County, 400 cows and bigger is not uncommon," Chuck said. "Freestalls have been over on that side of the river for quite awhile. Right here, it's more of the Mom and Pop 40 to 50 cow herds in stall barns."

R Green Acres also started in similar fashion when the Raethkes' parents, Glen and Myrna, purchased the 80-acre farm in 1962 and started milking cows in a 32-stall barn. The three brothers grew up learning the dairying ropes from their dad while the farm continued to expand in acres and cows. Each of the brothers attended the University of Wisconsin-River Falls before returning to the farm.

"Other than college, we've always been here," Jon said of their involvement on the farm.

Since they started farming, the Raethkes said there has always been demand for their milk, which is sold to Ellsworth Creamery 32 miles to the north where it is made into cheddar cheese.

"[Ellsworth] has a great market for that and it's the self proclaimed cheese curd capital of Wisconsin," Jon said.

Because Wisconsin is a populous dairy state, finding equipment and other dairy support isn't a problem, either.

"There's been more consolidation and dealers are farther apart, but dairy stuff is certainly available," Chuck said about the dairy infrastructure. "Getting equipment is not a problem."

Since their upgrade to a 164-stall freestall barn and parlor setup in 2002, the Raethkes have been able to increase their herd size and sell nearly 20 excess females each year. They also market their herd's genetics as another source of income.

"We do a little flushing and have about 20 cows in the top 10,000 TPI list every year," said Chuck, who's main responsibilities are sire selection, heat detection, embryo transfer work, taking care of the maternity pen and feeding calves.

From their 100 percent registered herd of Holsteins, they also sell about 50 breeding bulls every year to other dairy producers and send between two to six bulls to genetics companies.

"We like nice cows, but we're not breeding show cows either," Chuck said about their breeding philosophy.

Even with the extra income, the Raethkes are frugal in their spending, especially with many dairy farms struggling with this year's milk prices.

"[Farm expansion] for us is slow to come because we're concerned about paying down our debt," Chuck said.

Even with the challenges of the industry, the Raethkes said they enjoy making dairy farming their lifestyle.

"I was working on a fence one day feeling sorry for myself when I thought, 'You know how lucky you are? You have a blue-sky ceiling in your office.' It's what some people would kill to have and sometimes you forget that," Jeff said.

It's the basic things that keep us happy," Chuck added. "We have plenty to do and plenty to eat."

And despite the hardships of farming between two rivers, the Raethkes love farming among the blufftops and the natural beauty of the earth where their dad first began their family's dairying journey.

"We like this place in the world," Jon said. "It's a pretty place to be.

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