Flashback to 30 years ago. We were milking in a 61-cow tiestall barn and contemplating building a freestall barn with a parlor. I was writing freelance articles for a national dairy magazine and providing dairy farm labor. Our barn was showing its age with leaky pipes and watering cups; and the teat injuries and swollen hocks caused by unyielding rubber mats and very large Holsteins were taking a toll.
    A few days ago, I was looking for a photo I had taken for a magazine in my stash in our office. I did not find the photo, but I did find the cover story about the Crave Brothers’ newly built freestall barn and the start of their operation. It was enlightening to re-read the article I had written. I remember the exciting interview with them in 1990 at their dairy operation in Waterloo, Wisconsin. Since that time, the strides the Crave Brothers Homestead Cheese (operated as a separate entity), dairy farm and anaerobic digester operations have made require many to exclaim, “Wow,” for the family’s hard work and success.
    The Craves are legendary for their renowned mozzarella and other soft cheeses made on-farm, and because they host the National 4-H Dairy Conference attendees, a farm and cheesemaking facility tour that is a favorite part of the conference for many, including our three kids.
    I have not been back to see the Crave operation since 1990 when I wrote the article focusing on their low-cost facility. Checking their website, I found a YouTube video shot in 2017 at their operation for a PBS program called, “Wisconsin Foodie.” George Crave gives the host a tour of the current astounding operation, which is run today by the family of four brothers and their families.
    Back to the barn article from 30 years ago. The gist of it was that the Craves had built a 200-cow, cold-housing, uninsulated, naturally-ventilated, four-row, center feed alley, curtain-sided freestall barn for $800 per stall, including the slats, pit and gravity flow to a manure lagoon. They did much of the construction work themselves and had researched the barn by touring other operations, talking to experts and spending two years in planning. The upsides of the barn were its low cost, opportunity to boost milk volume by adding cows, feeding a drive-by TMR and actually lowering the debt load per cow to a lower level for their operation than before they built the barn, even with the $10 per hundredweight milk price of that time. The Craves mentioned the new barn’s simplicity, the reductions in cow health costs because they had fewer mastitis cases, and how it had reduced their labor requirements.
    For context, all of the adjectives used to describe that barn were not as commonplace 30 years ago as they are today when many cows in all parts of the country are housed in similar barns. Yet those were relatively new concepts, and as George Crave described in the video, “It was one of the first curtain-sided barns in the Upper Midwest at the time.”
    Well, it so happens that the timeframe was also when we had started the process of planning for a facility change, and the barn we put up is similar. I sure could see my biases as I re-read the article.
    Our kids are at home this summer and are providing labor on our dairy. They have gained insight as they have been out and about at other dairy farms in their college endeavors and their current jobs. They frequently ask good questions about choices we made with facilities and management styles. These questions cause us to reflect on how those decisions were made and how they might be made differently if we were starting over again.
    Once again, our dairy facilities are aging. We have aged, too, which seems to make our work more difficult.
    Bovines take a toll on any facility. Roofs leak, parlor gates rust and malfunction, and curtains need to be replaced and repaired. Pretty soon all of the things that are not working right add more hours to the workload.
    Improvements to save labor are needed, yet scarce cash makes the next moves and changes even tougher to consider. Yet, a lack of capital was the same scenario 30 years ago when we made our major change from tiestall to our present set up. Is that an insurmountable roadblock?
    The questions today revolve around what might be the best model for the future of our operation. We have started researching options and thinking about what would be feasible for our business to remain a viable one. No answers have jumped out, mostly because of the economics faced on dairy farms.
    Maybe it will take the next 30 years to figure out the best choices, make the changes and then reflect once again. Maybe while we are contemplating, we will find our inspiration by another tour or article about other groundbreaking dairy facilities.
    Jean dairy farms with her husband, Rolf, and brother-in-law, Mike, and children Emily, Matthias and Leif. They farm near St. Peter, Minnesota, in Norseland, where she is still trying to fit in with the Norwegians and Swedes. They milk 200 cows and farm 650 acres. She can be reached at jeanannexstad@gmail.com.