Wisconsin dairy mixes tradition, technology

WASHBURN, Wis. -- Inside the milk-house store at Tetzner's Dairy, a young couple and their friend packed a cooler full of ice cream. They stuffed a small envelope with the requisite dollar amount and plopped it into a lock box.

Cows line up to be milked by a machine in the robotic milking parlor at Tetzner's Dairy in Washburn, Wis., recently. Each cow wears a transponder around its neck so the robot knows which cow is milking and how often it stops by to be milked. (Bob King / Duluth News Tribune)

WASHBURN, Wis. - Inside the milk-house store at Tetzner's Dairy, a young couple and their friend packed a cooler full of ice cream. They stuffed a small envelope with the requisite dollar amount and plopped it into a lock box.

The simple transaction, sans attendant, has long been the way of the generational Tetzner dairy farm, where age-old things such as the honor system mingle with innovations such as a robotic milker to make the family outfit viable in a modern age.

"We don't deliver, either," said Pete Tetzner, 34, a third-generation farmer who led the News Tribune on a tour of the farm earlier this month. "We just don't have the time to do it."

Located southwest of the city along Nevers Road, Tetzner's Dairy is the sort of farming operation with which Bayfield County residents have grown comfortable for the way it mixes the right quotients of quaint and quality.

"It's super tasty," said Lauren Duffy-Pechacek, "and you know where it's made."


"As a chef," said her husband, Nick Pechacek, who works in the cafeteria at nearby Northland College in Ashland, "it's always important to work seasonally and locally."

They have been repeat customers since getting a tour of the farm on their first visit from the Tetzner patriarch, Phil Tetzner, who still lives on the farm.

"He happened to be here that day and he showed us around," Duffy-Pechacek said. "It was really fascinating."

Bayfield County made news in 2015 when its board of commissioners voted to implement a moratorium on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations - those farms with more than 2,500 animals that pock most parts of Wisconsin but have yet to move into the state's northernmost counties.

As the fight to keep out CAFOs continues in boardrooms across multiple Northwestern Wisconsin counties, Tetzner Dairy stands as the sort of operation approved of by the craft-and-orchard set.

The family dairy has long sold the products of its farm on-site in addition to supplying convenience and grocery stores throughout eastern Bayfield County with its bagged milk and other products, such as ice cream sandwiches.

Tetzner's whole milk includes a skosh more fat than the 3.2 percent that makes whole milk whole. The area's coffee shops like it, Pete Tetzner said, because it froths into a rich foam atop a cappuccino.

Tetzner, his dad, uncle and other family members crank out their milk products in a room deeper inside the milk house, where stainless-steel pipes and machines hum every day beginning at around 4:30 a.m. They're done by mid-morning and onto other chores - cognizant that any of the vehicles in and out of the driveway are most likely their valued customers.


But the marvel of the operation since a January nearly three years ago is the robotic milking parlor inside the humid Holstein barn a short walk from the milk house.

The parlor is about the size of an ice-fishing house and is mostly a sealed room that looks like a lab with monitors and elevated stainless-steel tanks. A narrow milking bay juts out into the barn and features a chute for the cows to stand and deliver.

Tetzner explained that the cows are fed a pellet of mineral-and-protein-rich feed every time they milk. The farm's roughly 60 milkers average three milks a day, lining up in single file whenever the mood strikes them. Creatures of habit, they've been conditioned by the pellet and the stress-free process itself to milk at their leisure.

The robot features four teat cups that operate autonomously and use red lasers to scan the udder before latching on to each of the teats in a series of precision maneuvers.

"She only milks three," Tetzner said, as only three-fourths of a robotic hand did its job on a particular cow that features a deformed teat.

Each cow wears a transponder around its neck so the robot knows which cow is milking. The robot is able to track loads of data corresponding to the milk taken from each visit. A cow that's not ready to milk again is cast away with a robotic nudge through the chute. Milk from a sick cow, one suffering from, say, mastitis, is diverted into a separate tank and not included in the day's supply. The transponder is also able to count how many times a day a cow chews its cud. Interruptions in normal cud-chewing behavior are indicators of an potential issue and alerted to the farmer.

"The cows all seem to enjoy it," Tetzner said of the robotic milker as the quiet herd mixed in the free-style barn over his shoulder.

Having been released from the chore of milking morning, noon and night, the family appreciates the robot, too.


"It frees us up and allows us to be more flexible," Tetzner said.

The family does its own haying and farms 500-600 not-all-contiguous acres. They still feed cows, bed stalls, clean the barn and manage a property that features roughly a dozen outbuildings, each one containing the sorts of maintenance and repair jobs on equipment that await all farmers.

As for CAFOs, Tetzner said it's a complicated issue that encompasses the entire timeline of farming in America.

"You've got to ask yourself, 'Why did farms get so big in the first place?' " he said, explaining that Holstein farmers have seen milk prices stabilize at low rates for decades while input costs like insurance, fuel, equipment and more have only grown over time. "We're still getting the same amount of money farmers were getting in the 1970s and '80s," he said. "So what do you do? You get bigger or you get out."

Tetzner said he personally doesn't believe it's worth the risk to bring mega farming so close to Lake Superior and its Chequamegon Bay that pokes into Bayfield County. But he's also not going to judge anyone for trying.

"We try to correct any misconceptions (of farming)," he said. "There's good and bad to everything and there's always a reason behind it."

Tetzner said he finds it funny when some of the same people who rail against mega-farms "bend-over backward to bring in a Kwik Trip." Headquartered in La Crosse, Wis., the store that has swept the Northland in recent years famously owns its own food-processing operation, supplying its 525-plus stores with its products made from ingredients farmed, in part, at CAFOs surrounding La Crosse.

Rather than get political and take a side defending their way of farming, the Tetzners are content to be themselves.


"It's what we do and what we like to do," Tetzner said. "Farmers like to be independent. We're proud of what we do."

Speaking to his family's unique position in the industry, he added, "We like it when we see our neighbors drive into the yard."

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