PHOTO BY STACEY SMART
PHOTO BY STACEY SMART
RANDOM LAKE, Wis. – With a new freestall barn on the horizon and a goal to grow the herd by 100 cows, Matthew Ramel is a fourth-generation farmer making plans for the future. Loving life at Windy Hill Farms, Matthew and his family have a never-give-up attitude and like to live each day to the fullest. Full of farming ambition, Matthew farms with his parents, Mark and Debbie, and his uncle, Jim.
The Ramels milk 145 cows and run about 550 acres near Random Lake. Matthew and the rest of the Ramels seized the day April 12 as preparations for spring fieldwork accompanied daily chores which began at 5 a.m. Matthew started mixing feed while Mark, and Matthew’s sister, Jessica Batterman, checked for newborn calves and pushed up feed for the dry cows. They also looked over the youngstock and then set up for milking, opened the overhead doors and put the first group of cows in the parlor so Jim could begin milking.
Matthew feeds all of the farm’s cows and heifers and started by mixing a total mixed ration for the milking herd which eats from an outdoor bunk. The Ramels store their feed in four silos as well as bags.   
“I prefer silos for our setup,” Matthew said. “I find them to be much more efficient than bags. I’ve even thought about building another silo, but they’re pretty expensive. Silos make great feed. Once it hits the blower fan, the work is pretty much done. There’s no packing or piling, and silos take up less space.”
Once milking began, Jessica and Mark scraped manure and bedded barns. One works in the skid loader, and the other scrapes by hand. The stalls are then bedded with straw, and the pair finished cleaning and bedding by 6:15. Jessica then headed to the calf barn to feed calves.
Jessica is filling in for her mom, who recently had surgery after being diagnosed with breast cancer in January for the second time. Debbie is responsible for fresh cows and calves from birth to weaning.
“In farming and life, all kinds of challenges come your way,” said Debbie, who beat breast cancer 23 years ago. “But the Lord only gives you what you can handle. That’s the way we live our lives.”
Debbie and Mark enjoyed raising their four children – Brian, Steven, Jessica and Matthew – on the farm. At the age of 8, Brian was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a rare form of cancer.
“The doctors told us he would only live a month, but God blessed us with another 17 years, as Brian lived to be 25,” Debbie said. “He went to school for dairy management and worked as a herdsman at a couple other farms. Brian’s love and passion for farming was an inspiration to Matthew.”
Steven is an electrician and helps on the farm in his free time. Jessica is splitting her time between her parents’ farm and her own farm, as her husband is also a dairy farmer.
“Everyone has to share me for the next eight weeks,” said Jessica, who is working on her parents’ farm every morning as well as Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. “Right now, we’re in the lull of calving which was good timing with my mom’s surgery as she’ll be off for six to eight weeks. But this summer, the calf barn will be full.”  
The Ramels also have a hired hand who started in February – 15-year-old Jonah Ciske from Cedar Grove.
“He works 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. four days a week, and he’s been very helpful,” Matthew said. “It’s nice to have a youthful, energetic person like him around. He’s happy to be here and brings a positive light to the farm.”
The Ramels’ nutritionist, Irv Haugen of West Bend Elevator, dropped in before 7 to pick up a feed sample.
“We just switched silos and wanted to test the quality, protein content, etc., of the haylage,” Matthew said.
Jim does all the milking, and around 7:30, the last group of the morning – the hospital pen which includes fresh and treated cows – entered the double-8 parlor for milking. Jim purchased the current farm from his parents in 1975, and in 1979, he and Mark began building facilities so they could move their herd from Mark’s place to the original family farm. In 2001, they added a parlor and remodeled the 70-cow tiestall barn.
On Jan. 1, 2021, Matthew purchased his uncle’s part of the farm which included the cows, the land where the barn sits, feed and immediate assets. Matthew and his parents now own the farm in a limited liability company, while his parents and Jim own the land in a partnership.
“It was a way for my wife and I to take the farm into the next generation,” Matthew said.
Matthew and his wife, Jessica, have two children – Mary, 5, and Rebekah, 3 – and are expecting their third child in June. The couple met at Fox Valley Technical College where they both majored in farm operations. Matthew is in the planning stages of building a new freestall barn. His goal is to get up to 240 cows milking and dry.
“We have ideas we’re trying to bring in to keep this farm going for the next generation,” he said. “You can’t limit yourself. Our current setup is maxed out.”
The Ramels ship their milk to Cascade Cheese, and the milkman arrived promptly at 8 a.m. which was right around the time Matthew finished feeding. Jessica went to Tom’s Old Country Mill in nearby Boltonville at 8:25 to buy milk replacer, calf feed and barn lime. Jim, Mark and Matthew then moved some dry cows to the barn at Mark’s farm and brought one cow back to the pre-fresh pen.
Morning chores wrapped up around 9 a.m. Jessica headed home for the day, Matthew went home for breakfast, and Mark and Debbie went home to get ready to head to Milwaukee for Debbie’s doctor appointment at 1 p.m.
“I really love farming and the farm life,” Debbie said. “It’s always been a passion in me. I know retirement isn’t that far away, but I don’t intend to quit.”
At 10:15 a.m., Matthew was back at the farm to visit Bruce Johnson from the International Silo Association to inspect the recently emptied silo. Johnson provided a quote from Beaver Gunite to reline the silo, which Matthew hopes to do in a month. Around 11:30, he began working on giving the tractors a spring tuneup while Jim cleaned out the heifer barn. At 12:30 p.m., Country Visions Cooperative delivered corn and alfalfa seed.
The farm’s 7120 Case International received a complete overhaul that day. The tractor has more than 10,000 hours on it and is used for chopping and hauling liquid manure. Matthew changed the air filter, fuel filters, and hydraulic and oil filters. He also added engine oil and hydraulic transmission oil.
“We’re getting things ready for spring, and I like to go through all the tractors and change oil,” said Matthew, who does all the maintenance on farm equipment. “They’re usually due for an oil change about now. We have an older line of equipment, and we try to keep things well maintained.”
Matthew started evening chores around 4:30 p.m. as it took a little longer than he expected to get the tractor put back together. He finished about 9 p.m., and Jim finished milking around 8:30 p.m.
“Like most days, I was the last one to leave the barn,” Matthew said. “But like most days, I feel like I accomplished a lot.”