Deep in the Heart of Dairyland Holstein Sale Tells Story of a Family and the State

Written by John Gurda on Friday, May 22, 2015


This piece originally appeared in the May 3rd edition of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

 “Lot 1 is Goldwyn Deidra. Every sale’s gotta have a Lot 1, and she’s a beauty: seven generations excellent and fresh in January. Goldwyn’s got champions in her bloodline, folks. Who’ll give me $3,000?”

Goldwyn Deidra was oblivious, of course. The 1,500-pound dairy cow, six years old and still a steady producer, was the first of more than 180 purebred Holsteins to parade through a makeshift sales ring in a machine shed south of Sparta. The shed was on Tyrone and Barb Johnson’s farm, 240 acres of cropland with a fringe of forest in the rolling hills of southwestern Wisconsin. After a lifetime in dairying, Tyrone, at the age of 60, was leaving the business.

For an entire week the cows had been treated with care usually reserved for beauty queens. They’d been clipped, washed, combed, and then photographed, each with her front legs on a small riser to show off her lines. These bovine pinups filled a sales catalog that was widely circulated in the region. Cows who lacked full tail switches were even provided with bushy clip-ons for the camera.

On the day of the sale, a raw Friday in early April, roughly 350 people converged on the Johnson farm. The north cornfield was filled with what must have been the largest gathering of pickup trucks in Monroe County, many of them pulling livestock trailers. These pilgrims, some traveling from 200 miles away, had obviously come to buy, and why not? Tyrone and Barb’s Holsteins were widely considered some of the best dairy animals in Wisconsin.

And what was I doing there, a city kid whose closest contact with a cow is usually the milk in his morning cereal? Tyrone Johnson is my cousin.

“Next up is Shottle Daphney. She’s got a straight back and a crackin’ good udder. She’s a factory, folks—112 pounds of milk a day. Another one of them good Shiloh daughters. She does more work in three hours than most of my buddies do in three days. Who wants to start?”

My maternal grandfather, John Johnson (from Wisconsin, no less), emigrated as a boy from Norway to Coon Valley, a picturesque hamlet 15 miles southeast of La Crosse. His father, Torger, was a carpenter, but John Johnson became a farmer, writing the first chapter in a family story that mirrors the story of Wisconsin dairying over the last century.

John owned a small general farm, covering just 80 acres on the ridge north of Coon Valley. He maintained a small dairy herd, chickens, pigs, and the tobacco patch that was once obligatory in that region. My grandfather’s career ended in 1939, when he suffered a fatal skull fracture after slipping on a patch of barnyard ice. 

By the time John died, his third son, Laurence, was already established on his wife Julia’s home place a few miles south of Coon Valley. That gorgeous farm, straddling a spring-fed brook between two rocky bluffs, was a fixture of my childhood, and I continued to visit as an adult. Laurence owned a herd of about 25 Guernseys whose milk was collected in old-fashioned metal cans and cooled in a spring house. He shipped his Grade B output to the Coon Valley creamery, where it was turned into butter and cheese.

Laurence’s son, Monroe, made the transition to the world of Holstein cattle, bulk coolers, and Grade A (fluid) milk. In 1954 Monroe and his wife Beverly bought a 160-acre farm near Melvina, 25 winding miles northeast of Coon Valley, and developed a herd of about 50 cows—twice as many as his father. Most were “grade” cattle, without pedigrees or papers, but their son Tyrone took an early and active interest in genetics, an interest that really blossomed during his college years, which he finished at UW-Madison, of course. Year by year the herd’s bloodlines improved, and so did its output. By the time Tyrone took over the operation and moved to a farm of his own just up Highway 27, every cow was registered, and the herd grew to about 75 in the stalls.

In three generations, the average Johnson herd increased from 25 to 50 to 75, the average farm size doubled and then tripled, machines took over many of the more arduous manual tasks, milk cans gave way to bulk coolers, and management shifted from seat-of-the-pants to thoroughly scientific. That is precisely the evolution of the state’s dairy industry. As went the Johnsons, so went Wisconsin. 

“And here’s Advent Destiny. She’s all business and all pedigree. Ninety-six points and earned every one of ‘em. Mark her pregnant to Atwood. Goldwyn’s her sire. She’s carrying a heifer calf, so here’s a two-for-one. What’ll you give, what’ll you give?”

The Johnson family mirrors Wisconsin in one other particular. When they decided to sell their herd, Tyrone and Barb joined an exodus from the dairy business that has been under way for decades. In 1960 our state was the home of nearly 100,000 dairy farms and 2.2 million dairy cows. By 2015 the number of farms had nosedived to fewer than 10,000, and the cattle census had dropped to 1.3 million. Even with those diminished numbers, the state’s milk output actually increased more than 50 percent during the same period—the result of better feed, better breeding, and more scientific management.

Dairy farmers are leaving despite the production gains, and who can blame them? When we city-dwellers drive out into the countryside, we gaze through rose-colored glasses at the neat fields, the orderly outbuildings, and the cows grazing contentedly in their green pastures. What we fail to see is the work. The most skillful breeders have yet to develop a dairy cow that stops producing on weekends. Tyrone Johnson routinely put in 80 to 100 hours every week, and it’s been 15 years since he’s had a real vacation, even with a full-time hired hand. No one contributes to a farmer’s pension plan or pays his health insurance premiums, and the price of milk is as volatile as gasoline. ““I’m at the place,” said Tyrone, “where I need to slow down a little bit.” With the herd in great shape and their son pursuing another career, he and Barb decided on what the industry calls a “complete dispersal.”

By the time the auctioneer slammed down his gavel for the last time on that blustery April day—more than three hours after Goldwyn Deidra entered the ring as Lot 1—the most tangible fruits of a lifetime of unremitting labor had passed into other hands, and in their place was a pot of nearly $600,000. With that conversion of cows to cash, the fourth generation of dairy farming in my family came to a bittersweet end.

"Lot 121 is Atwood Paisley. Here’s a really nice heifer calf, folks. Sired by Atwood out of the great Shiloh Desire. Who’ll start us off at $2,000? There’s a blue ribbon in this calf’s future for sure.”

When I asked Tyrone, a few weeks later, if he had any misgivings about the sale, he said, “Not really. It’s fun watching the good cows develop. You miss the good cows, but not the work.” I had noticed a few misty eyes when the last cows entered the auction ring, but there was nothing tragic about the sale. I was especially impressed by the number of younger farmers in attendance. Tyrone’s cows are now improving many of their herds, and the prices his cattle commanded were heartening. “You hear a lot of doom and gloom in this business,” said a Grant County dairyman I met, “but with a sale like this, everyone feels good. You come away knowing there’s something in it.”

Although a melancholy presence hovers in the air of every empty barn, Tyrone and Barb Johnson’s decision to leave the dairy business doesn't mean they've left farming. In fact, there were 65 Angus steers in their cow yard a week after the sale, and they’ll continue to raise cash crops on their 240 acres. But beef cattle require infinitely less attention than dairy cows. “Twenty minutes a day,” said Tyrone, “and you’re done.” A summer trip to Colorado is in the works.

And a fifth generation is in the wings. Tyrone and Barb’s daughter, Ashley, married another dairy farmer, Zach Hemmersbach, and they milk cows with his father on nearby St. Mary’s Ridge—organically, no less.  A story started by John Johnson in the early twentieth century continues in the twenty-first. Even though I make my living in the city, the story is also mine, both as a Johnson and as a citizen of this state. As I drove back to Milwaukee with hay on my jeans and manure on my shoes, I knew I had witnessed something purely and elementally Wisconsin. Bittersweet it may have been, but my cousin’s sale took me to a place where the Johnsons have always been—at home in the heart of Dairyland.

John Gurda is a Milwaukee-born writer and historian who has been studying his hometown since 1972. He is the author of nineteen books, on subjects ranging from life insurance to Frank Lloyd Wright and from heavy industries to historic cemeteries. In addition to his work as an author, Gurda is a lecturer, tour guide, and local history columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.  His son, Anders Gurda is a 2014 graduate of the Agroecology Program.
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