May 16, 2022 at 3:00 p.m.

Farming by feel

Brekken does not let blindness slow him down
Cory Brekken milks 75 cows and farms 200 acres near McFarland, Wisconsin. Brekken was born legally blind and farms with limited vision. PHOTO BY STACEY SMART
Cory Brekken milks 75 cows and farms 200 acres near McFarland, Wisconsin. Brekken was born legally blind and farms with limited vision. PHOTO BY STACEY SMART

By Stacey [email protected] | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

MCFARLAND, Wis. – Imagine seeing only shapes but no details at close range and seeing nearly nothing from far away. This is what life is like for dairy farmer Cory Brekken.
However, he can still do many of the same things other farmers do. Cory milks cows, feeds, does fieldwork like cutting hay, and also performs maintenance on equipment. He treats cows and does much of his own veterinary work and can also breed cows and assist with difficult calvings. He drives tractor, runs the chainsaw and maneuvers around the farm with ease.

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Legally blind since birth, Cory suffers from Leber congenital amaurosis. He is missing cells in both of his retinas and as a result has had minimal vision his entire life.
“I grew up this way, so it’s all I’ve ever known” Cory said. “I’ve been farming like this for so long that it doesn’t really seem challenging to me.”  
Cory milks 75 cows and farms 200 acres near McFarland. He began working on the farm as a salaried employee in 2000. For 18 years, Cory managed the dairy for the radiologist who owned the farm until purchasing the operation in 2018. From day No. 1, the farm has practiced seasonal calving and rotational grazing. Cory’s herd goes dry around Jan. 10, and cows started calving again this year March 1.
“I don’t have a freestall barn, so my cows are outside year-round,” Cory said. “By drying them up during the coldest part of the year, there’s no trouble with freezing teats.”
Cory’s dad, Dave, is a retired dairy farmer who comes to help his son almost every day.
“Baling is challenging for me, so my dad does that,” Cory said. “With the new electronics, it’s harder for me because you have to be able to see the arrows. It’s also difficult for me to see the windrow, especially if it’s green hay on a green field. Raking hay is hard too. I can’t go and get parts or run around for supplies, so my dad does that as well.”
Cory does pick up round bales and wraps them – an activity that requires a lot of on and off the tractor to make sure he is in the right spot.  
“Cory doesn’t have what many of us take for granted,” Dave said. “At one point, we thought they could fix his eyes through surgery.”
Cory lives in a tactile world, relying on his sense of touch to get things done. Without normal eyesight to guide him, he sees with his hands.
“When taking something apart, he doesn’t have to look at it,” Dave said. “Instead, he uses his fingers for eyesight. He can overhaul tractors and fix most anything. He relies a lot on his other senses like hearing, smell and touch.”
Cory’s visual acuity score is 15/400. This means that Cory sees in 15 feet what a person with normal vision sees in 400 feet. He can see shapes but not details. For example, he can see the outline of a person in front of him but not the expression on their face or what color hair they have. To read print, the letters must be 1.5 inches high. Cory is the only person in his family with a visual impairment, and growing up, he attended the Wisconsin Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Janesville.
Injuries are common to Cory, who has to be more careful than the average person when using hand tools and machinery. He recently cut his finger through a leather glove when trimming trees. He also smashed up his hand when it got caught in the manure spreader. When he was 15, he got in a dirt bike accident when he ran into a tractor.
“I think the cows kind of know I can’t see and they help me sometimes,” Cory said. “Once when it was foggy and I couldn’t see well in the pasture, a cow came back for me and I followed her out.”
Of the 200 acres Cory owns and rents, 100 acres are devoted to pasture. There are 38 pastures in the rotation, and cows are moved to a new pasture daily or sometimes twice daily. The rest of the acres are used for making hay. Cory feeds his cows silage round bales during the winter that he places in plastic feeders. Cows drink from a creek all year long and are milked in a swing-8 parlor.
“We start grazing in spring when the pasture reaches 3 inches high,” Cory said. “We usually get them on pasture by mid-April, but this year we are starting about a month later because of the weather we’ve had. The biggest thing with grazing is that you can’t take the pasture down too far.”
In 2019, Cory improved his pasturing system by redoing all the cow lanes and putting up new fencing. He received funding through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program to help pay for the project.
“Before we put in the gravel lanes, it was all mud,” he said. “We had big ruts, and our equipment would sometimes get stuck in the mud.”  
The fence consists of two high-tensile wires with tamarack wooden posts placed every 25 feet. The fences are painted black and white to make them easy for Cory to see. The tops are white, making them visible in summer, and the bottoms are black to make them obvious on snow-covered ground.   
“I was glad to get rid of the barbed wire,” Cory said. “We took out a lot of trees to do this and gained about 5 acres. Grazing makes things easier and keeps expenses low.”
Since purchasing the farm, Cory has also put new green roofs on the buildings and redid the shop. He also put up a corn bin last fall.
“I used to go to my cousin’s for one load of corn at a time,” Cory said. “Now, I’m able to buy corn all at once during harvest and get a little better price.”
Cory likes crossbreeds and has eight breeds mixed into his herd. Starting out with Jersey, Cory proceeded to add Holstein, Red Angler, Normande, Dutch Belted and more. This type of breeding created a smaller cow weighing between 1,000 and 1,100 pounds.
“I like the variety and even milked an Angus for awhile,” Cory said. “I’m getting away from Dutch and really pushing Normande now. They’re gentle and do well grazing. The cross I like is Holstein, Normande and Jersey.”
When Cory was younger, his parents tried to get him a job at a factory or at fast-food restaurants, but nobody would hire him because he was seen as a liability.
“We worry about him a lot and wonder how he can do this,” Dave said.
But, Cory does not see his blindness as a handicap.
“What other choice do I have?” he said. “The work has to get done. That’s kind of why I did this job. Farming is something I could do.”


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