Netherlands natives Matthew and Irena Blenke built this dairy operation in 2012 in Watertown, Wisconsin. The facility replaces a previous stanchion barn.
Netherlands natives Matthew and Irena Blenke built this dairy operation in 2012 in Watertown, Wisconsin. The facility replaces a previous stanchion barn. PHOTO BY STACEY SMART

    WATERTOWN, Wis. – When Matthew and Irena Blenke were looking for a new place in the world to farm, they chose the United States.
    Several things led them to America, including the country’s sound agricultural practices and products, free-market ideology and lower start-up costs. The couple was drawn to Wisconsin specifically, seeing the state as the perfect place to make a fresh start.  

    “Wisconsin is the heart of the world’s dairy industry,” Matthew said. “Everything is well developed here, and good service is close by.”
    The Blenkes moved from Saasveld, Netherlands, to Watertown in December 2011. They left behind the family farm where Matthew grew up – a farm that has been in the Blenke family for close to 500 years. Matthew’s nephew was taking over the farm, prompting the Blenkes to look for a new opportunity.
    The 160-acre farm in Watertown came with a stanchion barn the Blenkes replaced with a facility in 2012. Working with Fox Cities Builders, they built a four-row freestall barn for milk cows, dry cows and heifers. A second building houses calves and includes close-up and maternity pens, the milking parlor and self-cleaning holding area.
    “This place is similar to our farm in the Netherlands, only better,” Matthew said. “We built a copy of that farm here but with larger dimensions. The barn is spacious, and there’s no crowding of animals. We have an even number of headlocks to stalls to give cows more access to feed.”
    Before deciding to settle in the United States, the Blenkes looked at farms in Germany, Poland and Canada, but did not like those countries’ quota systems. Cost was another inhibitor.  
    “It’s expensive to build a dairy farm in Canada,” Matthew said. “It would’ve cost us $3 million and 400 cows to start. Canada also has strict immigration rules. It was easier to come here.”
    The Blenkes bought cows from local farms and started with milking 120 head – the same amount they had in the Netherlands. They have since grown their milking herd to 180. Cows are milked twice a day in a double-10 parlor.
    One side of the freestall barn is dedicated to milk cows, and the other side is home to dry cows and heifers grouped in pens by age. Heifers move down the line as they grow, starting out in an 18-stall pen, then moving to a 30-stall pen before landing in a 50-stall pen for bred heifers.
    The barn includes convenience features like gates that meet precisely, enabling one person to safely move animals, and a built-in refrigerator in the maternity pen for quick and easy administering of medications. Wide alleys and large stalls are other elements the Blenkes enjoy.
    “I wouldn’t change anything about this barn,” Matthew said. “I would build it exactly the same way again. Everything was perfect down to the last nail.”  
    Bedding with sand was a new concept for the Blenkes. Cows relax in deep sand beds with no concrete underneath the stalls. For the floors, Matthew and Irena chose solid versus slatted – another difference between their current farm and their farm in the Netherlands.
    “We have 30% of the hoof problems we had in the Netherlands where we used rubber mats and sawdust,” Matthew said. “We have almost no crippled cows, whereas in the Netherlands, we had one a week. Cows are under less stress and trauma, and we also have better milk production. Nothing compares to sand.”
    The facility was designed with efficiency in mind. Matthew and Irena provide all the labor at MattRena Holsteins with the help of one employee who assists with milking. The farm’s rolling herd average is 26,412 pounds of milk with 4.09% butterfat (1,079 pounds) and 3.07% protein (812 pounds).
    “Our philosophy is to provide nutritious food for the nation, and we are very focused on producing excellent-quality milk,” Irena said. “Our milk is a safe, healthy product that is made in the USA, and we’re proud of that. We’re also big on components and strive to produce milk high in butterfat and protein.”
    Improving families and building deep generations is the backbone of the Blenkes’ breeding strategy. The Blenkes like balanced cows and use only proven bulls, choosing sires that transmit high components. Heifers receive sexed semen. Conventional semen is used on 40% of the lactating herd, while the other 60% are bred to beef.
    “We select for the best heifers and like to breed for healthy cows with good feet and legs and nice udders,” Matthew said. “We breed for fitness traits like longevity, pregnancy rate and cell count. Productive life is key. We want to keep cows around as long as possible. If you can keep a cow one year longer, you can save a lot of money, which also means we don’t need as many replacements.”
    Irena agreed.
    “We’re focused on the cow not just the result of her work,” Irena said. “We don’t want to exploit them. It’s all about efficiency. We want a strong, long-lived animal.”
    Sick cows on the farm are rare. Animals transition easily after calving, which Matthew attributes to the dry cow diet.  
    “We feed our dry cows well,” he said. “Our secret is to provide excellent-quality dry hay during the last 14 days of the dry period. Tasty hay that’s a little stemmy produces good rumen activity.”  
    After freshening, cows are moved directly to the milking group where the ration consists of 30% concentrate and 70% roughage – the majority of which is corn silage.
    “Because we feed a ration lower in concentrates, it’s an easier transition for fresh cows,” Matthew said.
    The Blenkes experienced a dramatic difference in climates and landscapes when moving from the Netherlands to the United States.
    “The Netherlands is as flat as a pancake, and most of the country is below sea level, so the climate is wet,” Matthew said. “We had to pump water a lot, and our manure pit was built above ground. Here, we have a lagoon.”
    The hefty price tag on land in the Netherlands and the country’s dense population are things the Blenkes do not miss.
    “Farmland in the Netherlands is the highest priced in the world at $26,000 per acre,” Matthew said. “There are also more restrictions in the Netherlands.”
    When relocating to new soil, the Blenkes chose a location where they could prosper. Leaving their homeland to begin anew, Matthew and Irena love the place they have called home for the last eight years and are certain their decision to come to the United States was the right one.
    “The U.S. is a good place for a dairy business,” Matthew said.