Grandpa Lawrence would be proud. His original 4010 John Deere is still in rotation at Kieler Farms in Platteville, Wisconsin, and his six great-grandchildren—in miniature work boots and tutus—are learning the ropes at an early age about what it takes to run an enduring, multi-generational family farm.
The key word here is family. Grandpa Lawrence may not have guessed that his humble 375-acre, 13-cow endeavor would grow into an award-winning 3,500-acre+, 1,800-cow dairy, 700-head feed yard, 250 beef cow/calf operation and 11-facility farm and educational destination. He may have guessed, however, that the farming gene would remain strong in the Kieler lineage long after his departure. And, he’d be right.
Seventy-two years after first establishing roots in what is known as “Dickeyville Bottoms,” this thriving family farm is currently led by a hard-working team of nine, all with their sleeves rolled up and carving out a very successful niche in a competitive—and oftentimes struggling—agricultural industry.
Meet the family
Louie & Ann Kieler
Louie (son of Lawrence) – grew up on the original home farm. Soon after his parents moved out, his wife Ann moved in and the couple kept farming. By the time they married in 1980, they were milking approximately 35 cows together, a herd that expanded to about 50 in 1983. Louie still manages day-to-day operations on the farm, along with overseeing its financial growth.
Ann – grew up on a dairy farm in Belmont about 20 miles to the northeast and met Louie through her brother. Ann does accounting work for the farm, as well as provides much-appreciated childcare, general farm maintenance and care-taking.
George Kieler (son of Lawrence), wife Jackie & son, Daniel
George – ventured away from home to pursue veterinary school, later returning to apply his newfound knowledge to operations at the farm with brother Louie in 1985. George still actively participates on the farm today, caring for the health of the calves, steers and heifers. His wife, Jackie, plays an important supporting role while also serving as a small animal veterinarian for the last nearly 30 years at the Platteville Veterinary Clinic.
Daniel – is a large animal veterinarian and cares for the health of the milking herd. He assists with a thorough Herd Health Check every Tuesday afternoon to assure the animals are in good health and well-being.
Eric & Leah Kieler
Eric (son of Louie and Ann) – was drawn to farming and farm machinery at an early age. At age two, mom (Ann) had a hunch her son was destined to farm. “He was always telling us what kinds of tractors were going up the road. He knew his machinery,” she remembers.
Eric’s role at the farm includes machinery repairs and maintenance, and crop work. He and his family live at the original farmstead, having built a new home at the same location.
Leah – was hired to work at the farm and had been there a few months before meeting future husband, Eric. One day, Eric just happened to end up in the milking barn at the same time. “Eric never milks cows,” laughs Leah, “except, strangely enough, on that day…” Eric and Leah now have three children: Reegan, 7, Jodi, 5, and Parker, 2. Leah is the parlor manager at the farm and also leads the human resources division.
Renee & Matt Clark
Renee (Kieler, daughter of Louie and Ann) – “I remember that as a teenager especially, Renee just wanted to leave and never come back,” recalls her Mom Ann, laughing. Renee did leave and head off to college, but returned, indeed. One day over Christmas break, she was out milking cows with one of the farm workers, Matt. “Dad kept talking him up,” Renee remembers, “…saying he was such a good worker, which was really high praise, you know [laughs]…I didn’t really care at the time.”
But, there must have been some magic in the milking barn (remember, Eric and Leah’s romance started there too), because soon, Renee and Matt started dating. This fall marks the couple’s ninth wedding anniversary and they are also parents to three girls: Kendra, 6, Addison, 4, and Savannah, 2. Renee’s “office” at the farm is the front-end loader, where she leads feeding of the milking herd and a portion of the heifers.
Matt – manages the sand separation system, along with building projects and maintenance, as he has a construction degree. When building their new barn, Matt had a large hand in the construction process, and kept things moving along the way the family wanted.
In addition to family, the farm is host to 28 other full-time and seasonal workers, many of whom are high school or college students. Even brother Ryan, the second-eldest of the third generation (Renee and Eric’s brother) lends a hand when he finds time away from his attorney work in Platteville. Father-in-law Royce helps too, driving the mixer and helping to feed the steer and heifers. In work and in life alike, this family sticks together. All nine owners affectionately call the collective 3,500+ acres of Kieler Farms “home” and maintain homesteads there.
Success and succession
So, how does a multi-generational farm plan for succession or set themselves up for enduring success?
When it comes to the people portion, Kieler parents simply don’t force the issue. Yes, you can hope that the next generation will want to take over the farm. “My older daughter seems much more into the animals,” muses Renee, “and my younger two are really curious about all the machinery…you just never know. It depends on each kid.” The challenge, she says, is to just keep them all engaged in activities on the farm and make it part of their daily life. “It should be fun,” she explains, “something our kids want to do, not something that feels like a chore.” The beauty is that there are plenty of opportunities on a farm this size. There is room for an accountant, an HR person, engineer or food engineer. So, if one of those adorable great-grandchildren are not keen on a life of tending the herd, they can still find a place at the heart of Kieler Farms. At age seven, the eldest of Kielers’ daughters can almost carry a full bucket of grain, we’re told. “Is this how you measure the growth of a farm kid?” we jokingly ask. “No,” laugh the moms, “but at some point you start to think of things that way!”
Chances seem pretty good that at least some of the fourth generation of Kieler kids will opt to keep the tradition going. But, smart farm planning means more than simply relying upon that farming gene to survive. Instead, farmers need to create efficient, sustainable systems that will help them farm smarter, not harder. MSA has been proud to partner with the family on a variety of farmstead planning and farm expansion projects to help them achieve these goals. Kieler Farms has since introduced new and expanded systems, incorporated more environmentally friendly methods and increased efficiency – a move that has set a new benchmark for how farms can sustainably grow.
One example of smart expansion was the decision to construct a new 50-cow milking parlor, which commenced operations in January of 2018. Having grown into a 1,800-cow dairy, the farm needed room to accommodate growth while also maximizing efficiency.
In addition to the new robotic milking parlor, the family has added a cross-ventilated free-stall barn with mechanical sand separation and waste and feed storage facilities. This addition could have been very rudimentary; instead, the Kielers wanted to show that farming could also be a catalyst for change. Rather than simply collecting the requisite amount of waste and feed byproduct, they chose to collect every bit of the extra waste and wastewater, recycling and reusing water as well as recycling sand bedding. They also chose to construct a watertight asphalt feed storage container with an under-drain system that serves as a secondary collection measure. This is a watertight asphalt concrete material which not only saves waste, but saves the family money. The upgrade earned them the 2017 Innovation Award from the Wisconsin Asphalt Pavement Association for watertight asphalt design. The project is now serving to educate fellow farmers and community members about the possibilities of reuse and recycling in agricultural endeavors of any size.
The rewarding byproduct of all of this? Agritourism. Kieler Farms now stands as a modern dairy education center, hosting bus-loads of local students, nursing home residents and even foreign visitors to see how a contemporary dairy functions. The farm opens its barn, adapted for educational purpose, and invites visitors to observation areas where they can watch and learn about how the rotary milking parlor functions.
In addition, the family takes time to discuss topics of sustainability and how they use cover crops, no-till fields, asphaltic feed pads, and the sand separating system to collect rain water to clean sand for reuse. They recognize that water preservation is an area of growing concern, especially in the Ag industry, so extra care is taken to train employees about proper water usage. The same goes for animal welfare. The Kieler family works closely with their team to make sure animals are handled with care, and maintain a certification with the FARM (Farmers Assurance for Responsible Management) Program, which works with producers to take quality care of their animals and the environment. The Kielers also chose to adapt to the stricter guidelines of large-farm permitting, which keeps a close eye on pollutant limits, management practices and higher operational standards.
While the farm may look a little different than in 1947, Grandpa Lawrence—who passed in 2015—would be thrilled to see the next generations keeping his dream alive. “He would have never imagined this,” comments Ann. “He’d be so proud of all that has been accomplished.” Recently, the family hosted the Grant County Dairy Breakfast, serving all-you-can-eat pancakes, eggs, sausage links, honey, applesauce, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, milk and coffee to over 3,500 guests.
Kieler Farms is a place for friends and neighbors to gather and share a meal together, just like it always has been. “Family Grown since 1947” is their motto – and that’s exactly what makes this farm so very special – family.
MSA’s Agricultural Services team has been proud to partner with Kieler Farms in planning for the next generation of success. Connect with us and learn how we can be your partner and ally in smart farming.
Andrew R. Skwor, PE
Agricultural Services Team Leader, Market Lead - State and Federal