ETTRICK, Wis. – The Byom brothers, Tim, Dan and Roger, of Ettrick, Wis., were raised by their father, Gerald, with a mindset of practicing conservation and organic farming methods long before being certified organic was a thing.
    “Our dad was very conservation minded,” Dan said. “He was concerned about soil conservation and had contour strips and built several dams to help stop erosion. We all got those ideas in our head. I remember when I first learned to plow; he would remind me every time not to go through the waterways. You can’t farm these hills without them.”
    The Byoms each operate their own organic dairy herds, milking about 45 head of registered Holsteins each. While the herds and farms are separate entities, the family does much of their crop work in cooperation with each other. Roger’s son, Seth, is in the process of taking over Dan’s dairy farm, purchasing Dan’s cattle and his share of the machinery about a year and a half ago. The three brothers make up the fourth generation of Byoms to operate the family homestead, and Seth is the fifth generation to make a living on the farm.
    All three of the farms adjoin each other. The farm Roger operates with his wife, Sue, is the original Byom home farm, and it was honored as a century farm for being in their family for 126 years. The farm Tim operates with his wife, Sheryl, has been honored as a sesquicentennial farm, having been in Sheryl’s family for 160 years. Dan’s farm, which he operated with his wife, Judy, is more newly acquired by the Byom family, but had been operated by another family for over 100 years prior to their purchase of it when he was in high school.
    While they have farmed their entire lives with organic philosophies, each of the brothers completed organic certifications for his farm near the end of 2002, and began shipping organic milk to Westby Co-op Creamery in February of 2003.
    “We had kind of farmed that way for quite a while,” Tim said. “The main changes we had to make were to how we applied fertilizer.”
    Dan concurred, noting that they had not sprayed their crops for at least 10 years prior to undertaking the process to become organically certified. He recalled when herbicide products first came on the market, likening them to miracle products.
    “It was like a miracle, you didn’t have to cultivate so much,” Dan said. “Guys were so glad to see something to kill weeds back then. Now we have better machinery to help take care of weeds.”
    The brothers began to think about the chemicals being used in conventional farming practices and started to question if the benefits outweighed the potential risks.
    “Our dad passed away in 1974 at the age of 55 from cancer,” Dan said. “That really drove the point home and got me started thinking, wondering if all the chemicals were good for us or for our soil.”
    Roger brought up studies that show health concerns regarding chemical usage.
    “I heard something the other day about a study around the Minneapolis area that took umbilical cord blood from newborns and tested it for glyphosate,” Roger said. “Out of 200 tested, there were only three that did not have glyphosate in their bloodstream. If that is true, that is really something concerning.”
    Tim sees organic agriculture as a way to nurture and promote life and growth.
    “We farm organically because we believe it is a system that promotes life through healthy soil, crops and cattle,” he said. “This is achieved through a balance of fertility, nutrition and genetics. It takes time and patience, and there are only so many chances to get it right. Our goal is to leave our farms better than when we started.”
    When selecting sires to use in their herd, the Byoms take into consideration the traits that will be beneficial for cows required to be on pasture for 120 days a year.
    “Feet and legs are a focus. They need to be able to move around and walk,” Roger said. “Udders are also important.”
    Tim is concerned the Holstein breed as a whole has lost a lot of strength.
    “I like balanced cows. The extremes that we see aren’t what we need,” Tim said. “Holsteins have lost the power and the strength to the front end. They don’t have the capacity that they need. Stronger cows are healthier cows. I’d rather have a cow that is 8 to 10 years old rather than one that is gone in a couple of lactations.”
    Organic milk prices concern the brothers, as well as the increased input costs associated with organic dairy production.
    “Prices have stabilized for the last year. We were on a quota for about six months,” Tim said. “That was interesting. You still have to make good business decisions and keep your debt and costs low. It comes down to cash flow.”
    All three herds aim for a goal of an average of 70 pounds of milk per cow, per day, figuring that they need to maintain at least 60 pounds to stay profitable. However, none of the Byoms have their sights set on triple-digit herd averages.
    “More people go broke trying to get a 100-pound herd average,” Seth said.
    In an effort to positively affect prices, all three farms have put their support behind the Dairy Pricing Association, a grass-roots effort to help increase milk prices by affecting the commodity cheese price on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, by making a voluntary check-off donation to the organization.     
    “I think the consumers are looking for locally produced food that doesn’t travel across the country,” Dan said of the direction he sees the markets heading. “More and more they seem to want organically produced food.”
    The Byoms are concerned about the changing face of agriculture and the dairy industry, not only in their community but across the country.
    “I miss the little farms. We have a lot of neighbors that are still here, but those farms are not being farmed anymore,” Dan said. “I miss that community kind of thing, and I don’t think we’ll ever get it back. That is one reason we are glad Seth is at our place, to continue on that farm.”
    Roger agreed.
    “It’s like that everywhere. Here, it is just the three us and just over the hill is one other good little dairy farm,” Roger said. “That is all that is left, when there used to be at least 30 little dairy farms around us.”
    The community is important to the Byom family.
    “We definitely have roots here,” Dan said. “One of the most important things in our lives is our church, a couple of miles from here. It is 156 years old. We were all baptized there, confirmed there and we’ll all be buried there. We’ve all served on the church council. We’ve all been in the FFA at our high school. We are still involved with our local chapter, supporting it in different ways. We like to give back to the important things in our community.”