Focused on production, automation
Zwiegs named Wisconsin Outstanding Young Farmer
Rachel and Kyle Zwieg stand in their robotic barn built in 2020 at their farm near Ixonia, Wisconsin. The Zwiegs are this year’s winner of the Wisconsin Outstanding Young Farmer award. PHOTO BY STACEY SMART
IXONIA, Wis. – Success in the barn and on the fields culminated in Kyle and Rachel Zwieg winning the 2022 Wisconsin Outstanding Young Farmer award Jan. 22 in Neenah. The Zwiegs’ small family farm is run on big ideas with high milk production at the heart of their success.
“I didn’t know how our smaller farm would fare at the state level, so I was a little surprised we won,” Kyle said. “A lot of excellent agriculturists have won this award in the past, and it is an honor to be put in their company. It’s really cool to have earned this recognition and be amongst these industry leaders.”
Kyle and Rachel are the sixth generation on Zwieg’s Maple Acres – a dairy and crop operation near Ixonia where they milk between 65 and 70 cows and farm 1,400 acres of corn, soybean, wheat and alfalfa. Net income is split evenly between the dairy and crop enterprises.
Established in 1856, the farm has been in the family for more than 150 years. The Zwiegs are raising their three boys – Theodore, 6, and twins Landon and Logan, 5 – on the farm as the seventh generation. Both Kyle and Rachel attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison Farm and Industry Short Course. Kyle also worked at a local farm for five years where he picked up helpful techniques related to both dairy and cropping that he would later apply at Zwieg’s Maple Acres.
When Kyle returned to the family farm in 2010, he wasted no time growing the family’s land base while also increasing herd size and optimizing milk production. On top of that, he got to work implementing conservation practices that would better the land and make the farm more profitable.
“When I came home, we had 40 cows and 140 acres,” Kyle said. “It was barely enough for my parents. I had to make a spot for myself, so I sold the benefits sustainable practices have on an owner’s land. It was popular here as we have many absentee landowners in the area who are concerned about conservation which enabled us to add a lot of acres in a short amount of time. We also doubled the size of our herd.”
Milk production took off after switching to a total mixed ration in 2011 and continued to climb because of the strong focus placed on nutrition. Devoted to feeding forages of stringent quality, the Zwiegs follow strict intervals for crops and adhere to tight moisture windows when harvesting silage and haylage. Performing regular dry matter testing and forage analysis testing and routinely tracking dry matter are also part of the regimen.
“I think everything else on the dairy is tied to the success or failure of nutrition,” Kyle said. “Having that base right improves reproduction, animal health and more. We target our crops for feed and take the best acres for that purpose.”
The Zwiegs were the top Dairy Herd Improvement Association herd in Dodge County for twice-a-day milking from 2015-19, and in 2019, they had the top herd overall, including herds milked three times per day. Cows were averaging around 100 pounds in the stanchion barn before switching to robots.
Realizing their cows were capable of more, the Zwiegs knew the secret to maximizing production was to milk three times per day, but Kyle was not willing to sacrifice time with his family to get those extra pounds.
Instead, Kyle’s love for technology and automation fueled an interest in robotics. The Zwiegs built a robotic milking barn in 2020 and began milking cows with a DeLaval VMS V300 robotic unit that November. Now, cows are milking just shy of three times a day with the average number of trips through the robot at 2.9.
“Robotics solved the labor issue and got us from twice-a-day milking to three times a day,” Kyle said. “We attribute our final 15% production increase to that. We’re DeLaval’s top robotic herd for number of pounds per cow per day.”
For the last six months, cows have averaged 113 pounds of milk daily and 7,050 pounds per unit. The robotic environment fits well into the Zwiegs’ commitment to cow comfort and increased efficiencies.
“The barn is really quiet,” Rachel said. “Everyone is content, and there’s no herding of animals. It’s a really pleasant setting for the cows.”
“When it comes to animal comfort, we’re revolving things around the cow as much as we can – what she wants and what she prefers,” he said. “Robotics allow cows to function at their free will. They can milk, eat and lie down when they want. No time is spent in a holding pen. Very few minutes are wasted because a cow is always doing what she wants.”
On the crop side, the Zwiegs take conservation efforts seriously. In 2010, Kyle established a 100% no-till cropping system straight out of school. Since adopting no till, the Zwiegs have fabricated a nitrogen application tool bar from scratch, designed and manufactured a liquid fertilizer trailer, retrofitted a self-propelled sprayer for drag line nitrogen application, and made many conversions and adaptations to their planters to improve their no-till performance. Kyle credits no till as the cornerstone of the farm’s sustainability efforts and said that soil tilth, soil biology, porosity and increased net income have improved dramatically from the practice.
Zwieg’s Maple Acres is one of 16 farms taking part in the Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easements program since 2010. A conservation easement was sold on their original homestead property ensuring their land will remain in production agriculture and can never be subdivided for development. As part of the state of Wisconsin’s Working Lands Initiative, the program’s focused preservation efforts center around urban areas to help preserve the ag industry and maintain farm viability amid urban sprawl.
The Zwiegs are also active in their local watershed group – Farmers for Lake Country – and work with Tall Pines Conservancy of which Kyle is a board member. His family’s conservation easement was the first completed by Tall Pines on a working farm.
“The conservancy has exploded in growth since then, resulting in the protection of 1,000 acres of farmland northeast of the Milwaukee suburbs,” Kyle said.
The Zwiegs have been selected for a variety of EQUIP grants which helped pay for aerial cover crop seeding into standing corn and soybean as well as a large-scale waterway and plunge pool installation project done on highly erodible land.
“Automation in crops is the next thing coming for us,” Kyle said. “Next year, we’re looking at doing drone applications and will experiment with the technology for cover crop seeding and other row crop applications. The labor market is not great, so we’re going toward the automation solution.”
The Zwiegs farm in a unique area of rural and urban intertwinement. Thus, the couple finds community involvement critical and hosts regular on-farm tours and invites landlords for annual visits. They have welcomed bicyclists through Tall Pines Conservancy, held an on-farm event featuring author and singer/songwriter Michael Perry, done a fundraiser for local land conservation efforts that was featured in a live telethon through YouTube, as well as given school tours through Oconomowoc High School FFA and hosted farmers interested in robotics.
“It’s important to have a relationship with the people around you,” Rachel said. “We’re very connected to the city and have an active Facebook page targeting our immediate neighbors so they can learn more about what we’re doing and why while getting to know us. We want to be understood by the people in our area and put a positive light on farming.”