Doc Sterken, one of the owners of Sterken Farms, stands in the freestall barn which was built when Doc and his brothers, Wayne and Lester, combined herds in 1999. The Sterkens milk 600 cows and farm 1,300 acres near Delavan, Wisconsin. 
Doc Sterken, one of the owners of Sterken Farms, stands in the freestall barn which was built when Doc and his brothers, Wayne and Lester, combined herds in 1999. The Sterkens milk 600 cows and farm 1,300 acres near Delavan, Wisconsin. PHOTO BY STACEY SMART

    DELAVAN, Wis. – At Sterken Farms in Delavan, cows and goats are next-door neighbors. The cow side of the operation is owned and operated by three brothers – Wayne, Doc and Lester Sterken – while the goat operation, Musty Meadow, belongs to Lester. Between the two farms, Sterkens milk 1,200 animals – 600 of each – filling their bulk tanks with quality milk from two kinds of dairy animals.

    Second-generation farmers, Wayne, Doc and Lester, combined their herds into one in 1999, uniting 250 cows. They continued adding bovines until reaching 600 cows after three years. They built new facilities, including a freestall barn and milking parlor and added a special needs barn for fresh and closeup cows in 2001.
    Doc’s wife, Mary, a retired schoolteacher, does the books. Lester’s daughter, Holly, is in charge of calves. Lester feeds all the cows in addition to running the dairy goat operation down the road with his wife, Helen. It was just before Christmas 2015 when Lester branched out into milking goats.
    “I thought it would be fun,” he said. “I was tired of cows. They’re too big to handle.”
    Lester describes his 1,000-head goat operation as a hobby that exploded. He started out milking 80 does, and his herd grew fast. He bought 150 kids before starting his new venture which were soon added to the milking string. Breeds of all kinds can be found here, including Alpine, Lamancha, Toggenburg, Saanen and Oberhasli, as well as various crossbreeds.
    “It’s easy to get started,” said Lester, who began with two goats. “Just go buy a few. They don’t cost much. But if you mess with just a few, you don’t make money. You either have to milk them and sell the milk, or you might as well have a dog.”
    The goats are milked twice a day in a double-16 rapid exit parlor with eight milking machines on each side. Two hundred goats can be milked per hour. Lester said each goat produces an average of 6 pounds of milk per day with components similar to that of cows at 4.1% butterfat and 3.2% protein. Milk is shipped to Kolb-Lena Cheese in Lena, Illinois. They are paid $40 per hundredweight and earn $2 more in winter when overall volume for the industry is down.
    The cows are milked three times a day in a double-10 parlor. The Sterkens farm 1,300 acres and own additional land which they rent. Youngstock are sent to custom growers, but they feed out 400 Holstein steers. The herd is mostly Holstein with a few crossbreeds. A cow that does not stick after the fourth try is bred to a beef bull.  
    “We have an efficient system here,” Doc said. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s a good way of life. There’s just not much cashflow lately.”
    The dairy and goat operations have separate employees.
    “We have a really good crew,” said Mary of the dairy’s nine employees. “We’re lucky to have such good people helping us. Our herdsman, Ruperto, has been with us for 20 years and can do everything on the dairy. He’s amazing. We couldn’t do this without him.”  
    At the goat farm, employees tend to come and go frequently which can be especially challenging during the busy kidding season when Lester finds himself welcoming five to six new babies every day.  
    “Six does had a total of 17 kids the other day,” Lester said. “We get lots of twins and singles, too. Older does tend to have more triplets, but one doe had four kids recently.”
    Goats start out tiny, and Lester said keeping them warm is a must. Therefore, the nursery, which has capacity for 200 babies, is equipped with a heated floor.
    “We’ve had good luck raising kids,” Lester said. “But it’s very hands on.”
    Lester starts newborns on bottles, feeding each one by hand for the first 10 days. He may have up to 50 kids on bottles at once before transferring to a bucket feeding system that can feed several kids at a time.
    “The babies are really time-consuming,” Lester said. “Even once they move to group feeding, you still have to help them out at first.”
    It takes five hours to feed the kids, and kids stay on milk for two months. He raises most of the does and tries to get rid of the bucks.
    Along with the goats, this animal lover has taken a variety of animals under his wing over the years, including ducks and geese. When comparing goats to cows, Lester said there is less manure to deal with and goats stay cleaner.
    “You don’t get dirty milking,” he said. “Goats are also small and easy to handle, and they don’t eat as much as cows do.”
    In addition, he feels goats do not get mastitis as easily as cows, nor do they have much trouble with milk fever. Instead, he said goats must be watched for pneumonia and caprine arthritis encephalitis. Pregnancy toxemia can also be a problem. This illness occurs about a week before kidding if kids grow too fast inside the doe, causing her blood sugar to drop.
    “Younger ones with a nice shape tend not to get it,” Lester said. “We make sure to feed a decent diet to our dry goats.”
    As much as he loves his goats, Lester admits they are not without challenges. Goats like to chew on whatever they can get their mouths on. These incessant chewers find wood to be a yummy snack, which is why Lester makes sure everything the goats are in contact with is made of metal.
    “They eat anything they can reach – curtains, wiring,” Lester said. “They’re noisy too and like to play with things like the metal clips on the gates.”
    The goats reside in loose housing on a straw bedding pack. Milking does are divided into four big pens with no stalls.
    “They like to snuggle close together,” Lester said.
    All does are bred naturally by a buck. Goats have a shorter gestation period than cows – five months – and sometimes Lester milks certain does through, meaning he will milk them for about a year and a half and breed back every other year instead of annually.
    While Lester has become partial to goats, Doc and Wayne remain committed to cows. All three brothers continue to share the same passion for producing high quality milk.