Kimberly Elbe feeds grain to calves Nov. 11 in the farm’s 250-stall calf barn at the dairy near West Bend, Wisconsin. Kimberly works with cows and youngstock, and also helps with fieldwork.
Kimberly Elbe feeds grain to calves Nov. 11 in the farm’s 250-stall calf barn at the dairy near West Bend, Wisconsin. Kimberly works with cows and youngstock, and also helps with fieldwork. PHOTO BY STACEY SMART

    WEST BEND, Wis. – Even though he did not grow up on a farm, Chris Elbe was hooked on dairy farming starting at age 9 when he began working for a neighbor. The farmer could not afford to pay him, so he gave Chris calves instead of cash. By the time he graduated high school, Chris had 25 cows.
    “I fell in love with farming right away,” said Chris, who grew up in Cedarburg. “I did not come from a farming family. My dad worked at Miller Brewing Company in Milwaukee for 45 years.”

    On May 15,1991, three days before they were to marry, Chris and his wife, Tracey, purchased a farm in West Bend. The couple had 90 cows and 250 acres at the time. Today, Golden E Dairy milks 2,400 cows and farms 5,000 acres – 2,000 of which are owned and 3,000 rented.
    The operation is a true family affair. Following in their father’s footsteps, the second generation has also chosen a career in dairy farming. Chris and Tracey work alongside their four children – Ryan, 25, Kimberly, 24, Matt, 22, and Kyle, 16. The three oldest stayed on the farm after high school, and while the youngest is a junior, he, too, has shown a strong interest in farming with plans to join his siblings after graduation.
    Involved in many aspects of the farm, the Elbes do not have designated roles per se, but each gravitates towards specific areas. Ryan and Matt take care of crops, with Ryan in charge of planting and Matt in charge of spraying. Ryan also plows snow for the town of Farmington and is a volunteer firefighter. Kimberly and Chris are the cow people but are still active on the crops side as well. It is not unusual to find Kimberly on a tractor or driving truck as she helps with chopping, combining and more in between working with cows and youngstock. Kyle helps with calves, feeding, packing silage and wherever else he can lend a hand when not playing football.
    Chris does all the feeding at the main farm and also plants and chops. Tracey feeds calves, does bookwork and also cooks, sometimes feeding up to 20 workers during the busy harvest season. The farm employs 25 people including family members.
    In addition to their farm in Washington County, Chris and Tracey also own a farm in Sheboygan County and one in Ozaukee County where they raise youngstock and steers. When Chris knew his kids wanted to farm, this first-generation dairy farmer started making plans to ensure Golden E Dairy could support the second generation.  
    In 2014, the Elbes built a new facility and doubled in size. Prior to that, they milked cows on two sites – 1,000 cows at the home farm and 300 at the Ozaukee County farm. They built an 8-row, 2,000-stall cross-ventilated freestall barn and double-32 parallel parlor where cows are milked three times a day, new calf barn, feed pad and manure storage. In 2016, the Elbes added a commodity building, and in 2017, they built a grain center, which acts as their onsite feed mill.
    “We switched from high-moisture corn to dry corn and handle all the drying and grinding here,” Chris said.
    Also in 2017, the Elbes hosted Washington County’s Breakfast on the Farm. In 2018, they added on to their pre-fresh barn and built a new heifer barn at their Sheboygan County farm.
    The Elbe family finds diversification important and began raising Angus crossbred calves two years ago for additional income.
    “We breed 80% of our cows to Angus bulls,” Ryan said. “We’re breeding to maintain; we don’t need more dairy heifers right now. All the Angus calves – both bull and heifer – are raised for beef.”
    The Elbes enjoy the simplicity of raising beef cattle compared to dairy cattle.
    “Raising beef is completely different,” Ryan said. “It’s way easier than dairy. We feed and bed – it’s a quick job. They’re fed shelled corn and pellets in a steer stuffer that we fill twice a week. Once they reach 350 pounds, they’re pretty much hands-off. Crossbreeding brings more vigor, and we find the beef cattle to be healthier and more solid than dairy cattle.”  
    From cropping to calf and heifer raising, the Elbes do everything inhouse except liquid manure hauling. The farm also hauls its own milk, which is shipped to DFA. It goes to a Kemps plant 18 miles from Golden E and is sold as fluid milk.
    “We’re very efficient,” Ryan said. “We have a small labor force for the number of animals and acres we run. We also have good equipment and nice facilities. Everything is updated. We don’t do a lot of repairing because we have newer stuff. When you have nice equipment, you can get more done with less people and it’s easier to hire help.”
    Chris said a good lender is also beneficial.
    “We use Compeer Financial and couldn’t ask for a better partner through tough times,” he said. “Even when the milk price was low, we tried hard; we didn’t give up. We never stopped. You can’t give up when things are bad. We continued genomic testing and feeding good-quality feeds. We thought about stopping the testing when things were tight. But, we had made a lot of progress and didn’t want to give that up. It would’ve been a crash and burn scenario if we would’ve stopped and started over. I’m thankful we stuck with it.”
    The farm switched to using all A.I. to breed in 2013, and genetics have improved greatly as a result, the Elbes said.
    “What should’ve taken 25 years to accomplish only took us five,” Chris said. “This is thanks to aggressive management and making good breeding decisions. We don’t keep low genomic animals, and we use sexed semen on the better cows.”
    Even on a downfall, the Elbes said they look for things that can snowball into success.
    “Economies of scale play a big part,” Chris said. “We stick money into things that pay back – and they’re short paybacks. Grinding our corn here has saved us a dollar per bushel, and we save 25 cents per gallon through our fuel center. Investments like these help. That’s the only way you can be successful with margins as tight as they are.”
    The Elbes feel they are at the perfect size and do not plan to grow larger.
    “We’re headed in the direction of diversification instead,” Ryan said. “Whether that’s more beef or something else. After this downturn, there has to be something other than milk. It might not even be farm related. For example, we have excavating and tiling equipment and have thought about starting a business doing that type of work for others. Adding more cows is not the answer.”
    Chris has come a long way from the 9-year-old who earned his paycheck in the form of black and white four-legged animals and is proud to share his passion for farming with the entire family.
    “I did a lot in a short amount of time, and I feel blessed that everything worked out,” Chris said. “I’m excited to see where the future takes us.”