September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.
Willard and Gwen Toews milk 170 cows on their farm near Clayton, Wis. Their three sons, Weston (42), Leslie (37) and David (33), have continued working together to operate a successful dairy operation. Something their parents never expected but have thoroughly enjoyed.
"We had three boys around here so we had to give them something to do," Willard said. "And they have to eat so you have to make more money to feed them."
"None of them ever left," Gwen said. "They never had a job away from home."
Having three sons stay home has helped the Toews grow their herd through the years and make improvements around the farm as they go.
Willard left his father's farm as a teen to work a cheese factory job. When he left, Willard vowed he would never milk a cow again. While working in Michigan, he met and married Gwen. Upon returning to the area years later, Willard was working at a cheese factory when a neighbor approached him about buying his farm.
"I was getting tired of the factory job, so I took it," Willard said.
In 1967, Willard and Gwen bought the neighbor's farm - 80 acres, some machinery and a tractor - and started milking 23 cows. Willard received help from his dad. When he eventually retired, Willard and his brother worked together before they went separate ways.
"At that time, everybody in this area milked cows," Gwen said. "That's all everybody did then. Our boys grew up with dairy and that's all they've ever known."
The boys thrived on the farm, learning to drive tractor at an early age and tagging along to milk cows and do fieldwork.
"I never taught my boys to drive tractor," Willard said. "They learned from riding along and watching me."
The original 60-foot barn - still being used today - had room for 24 cows and a calf pen. By the time Weston was old enough to help with chores, the calf pen was taken out to make room for 30 cows. Soon after, the Toews added on a 26-foot section to make room for more cows.
"Well, then Leslie came along and we needed something else to do so then we built a shed for the heifers," Willard said. "We finally got up to milking 60 cows."
In 1990, Weston and David took 40 cows to fill up the tiestall barn and the neighbor's farm, which they had just purchased.
"Leslie, Gwen and myself continued milking 45 cows at the home farm," Willard said. "We just kept keeping all of our heifer calves and kept growing."
At one time, the Toews were milking up to 125 cows while switching them through the 40-cow tiestall barn for milking. In 1991, they put up an open-sided shed with the intent to raise steers. But the shed became housing for more cows. The Toews herd continued to grow internally through the years. They continued to switch cows in and out of the tiestall barn.
In 2007, the Toews built a 160-foot by 200-foot loose housing barn and retrofitted the original tiestall barn with a double-10 parlor.
That transition was perhaps the most difficult but also the most time saving.
"Try milking cows while they are tearing out cement and installing a parlor," Leslie said.
For several weeks, the Toews could only milk their 80-cow herd, seven cows at a time.
But it was well worth the wait and the trouble.
"I love it," Willard said about the upgraded facility. "The only problem is, I was ready to retire. Then I put a parlor in and now I don't want to quit."
The loose housing bedding pack was originally built for 200 cows at 85 square feet per cow. Today, the Toews keep their cow numbers around 170 to keep from overcrowding and to keep the cows cleaner.
Originally, the Toews planned to bed with sawdust. But when prices went up, the Toews began bedding with any available material to keep costs down. The herd averages a somatic cell count between 180,000 to 200,000. The Toews feel maintaining a 55 to 60-pound herd average is where the most profit is for them. With cow comfort at a premium, the Toews are pleased with the herd's longevity and health.
"I feel like with what we are doing, our herd health is terrific," Willard said. "We've trimmed hooves once since moving into the barn in 2007, we've never had a foot bath and no stepped on teats."
The Toews are on a once-a-month herd health check schedule when they also vaccinate for Johnes. Other than a few DAs in the past year, the Toews handle all of the treatments themselves.
With so many family members working together, the Toews keep to their own jobs but are ready to step in when someone needs help.
Weston takes care of weaned heifer calves when they are moved to his farm a mile down the road. He helps milk as needed. His wife, Margaret and their four children also help with heifer chores. Weston also operates a custom baling business.
Leslie mixes feed, feeds cows and scrapes barn. His wife, Karen, feeds calves, keeps all the cow and calf records and will fill in for milking as needed. They have three children.
David milks and breeds the cows, buys seed and fertilizer, and does all the planting in the spring. He will also help with feeding if Leslie needs help. David's wife, Joni, will also fill in for milking. David and Joni have three children.
Generally, David and Willard do all the milking. Gwen helps prep cows for milking as well as doing all the bookwork for the dairy.
"Everybody knows each other's jobs so when people take time off from the farm, we can cover for each other," Gwen said.
"In 15-20 words, Leslie can tell me what needs to be done with feeding and scraping and I can cover for him," David said.
All of the Toews share the fieldwork when they don't have custom help do it. They run 320 acres and rent 195 acres.
Weston, Leslie and David all work for wages now but in the next year, Willard and Gwen plan to pass along the dairy to their sons. As for the future, the Toews want to improve their heifer facilities. They currently have no adequate housing for springing heifers, dry cows or animals they want to treat. They said it is difficult to sort the cows and hold them.
But the constant challenge and ever -changing atmosphere is what keeps all of the Toews in the dairy industry.
"Dairying is a challenge," Willard said of why he enjoys dairy farming. "There is always something different going on."
Weston said farming is like anything else in life, you take the good with the bad.
"I like working with the cattle and the challenge of dairying," Weston said.
Leslie agreed with his older brother.
"There is always something to look forward to in farming," David said. "This time of year you move snow and cut wood, we make syrup in the spring then we look forward to spring planting and then summer arrives. I always look forward to the next season."
Willard and Gwen love every minute of farming with their three sons.
"The boys get to stay home and be with their own kids all day," Gwen said. "This is all we've ever known and we are used to it. It would be pretty quiet if Willard and I were the only two at home."
From a factory job to operating a dairy with his sons - Willard is happy with the security he has built in his family and his dairy. A dairy farm that has become what it is today because his three sons never left home.[[In-content Ad]]
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