By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — This year’s Dunn County Dairy Breakfast will be close to home.
The 20th annual dairy breakfast will be held Saturday, June 8, at Denmark Dairy south of Colfax on county Highway B.
Denmark Dairy is owned and operated by Mary and Dennis Kragness and Mandy, Karl and Olivia Kragness.
Even though Denmark Dairy milks 850 cows, it is still a family operation, said Karl Kragness.
Karl joined the family farm in 2002 after graduating from UW-River Falls with a degree in broad area agriculture and a minor in agronomy.
“I liked the field work side of things. Dad was more of a cow guy. So I thought it would be a good combination. As I went through college, I was bound and determined I was going to come home and farm,” said Karl, who is a graduate of Colfax High School.
Dennis and Mary also attended college at UW-River Falls.
The Kragness home farm is located five miles to the east of Denmark Dairy and was founded in 1902 by Dennis’s grandfather, Anton, who had arrived from Norway four years earlier.
Anton started out in Texas but concluded it was too hot and dry, so he moved to Wisconsin, Karl said.
On the original 200-acre farm, Anton and his wife, Gurine, built several buildings, including the original farmhouse, barn and tobacco shed.
Anton died in 1935, and his two sons, Lloyd and Andrew, operated the farm and increased both the herd size and the acreage.
Dennis and Mary joined Lloyd and Avis Kragness in the farming operation after purchasing Andrew’s share in 1973.
The Kragness farm went from 50 cows to 80 cows, and in 1986, Dennis and Mary took over complete ownership of the farm and called it Denmark Dairy.
Dennis and Mary raised five children on the home farm. Karl is their only son. Mary Kragness is an occupational therapist.
“It’s in the family. I’m the fourth generation now. The older you get, the more you appreciate going back to a family farm. It’s in our blood. It’s carrying on a family tradition. As me and Mandy have more kids, it’s an opportunity to pass that on to another generation,” Karl said.
Karl and Mandy’s daughter, Olivia, is a year and a half old.
“Olivia is at the point where when she sees cows, she can say, ‘mooo.’ She knows what they say …she has grown up with cows and dogs. Those are the things she’s been trying to talk to us about. She loves the cows. If you take her outside and show her the cows, she’s happy. She’s daddy’s little princess,” Karl said.
Mandy and Karl are both hoping that Olivia will be interested in working on the farm.
“People have made the comment, ‘you need to have a boy so you can pass on the farm.’ But you know, with the technology and where it’s gone in the last 20 years, and where it might go in the next 20, a girl or a boy, it’s not going to make any difference,” Karl said.
Although Mandy still works three days a week at the University of Minnesota hospital in the Twin Cities, she is taking on more of the responsibility for the Denmark Dairy bookkeeping.
“Back in the day, farm wives didn’t drive an hour and a half to get to work. But now I’m starting to do the bookkeeping for the farm,” noted Mandy, who is originally from Plum City and grew up on a dairy farm.
“Mandy is getting more involved with the farm. She is part of the farm now … she’s still working her job in the Cities, but she’s working her way back to the farm and maybe eventually will become full-time here as we grow,” Karl said.
Denmark Dairy employs about ten people all together.
Initially, the Kragness family had considered expanding their dairy operation on the home farm, but after discussing the idea with a consultant and looking at the options, the family decided to expand their dairy operation on a more open and flat parcel, Dennis said.
“We could have gone up to about half the size (of Denmark Dairy on Highway B) at the home farm. We hired a consultant who said ‘don’t do it.’ We looked at the property and found a 20-acre spot. The consultant said it would have to be at least 40 acres,” he said.
“A hundred years ago, a farmer would look for a creek to water the cattle and a hill to protect them from the north wind. Now a hundred years later, we look for a great big open field for proper ventilation and for ease of expansion,” Karl said.
“Those are differences between the two sites. It describes our home farm. We had a creek. And we had a hill,” Karl said.
In December of 2006, Dennis and Karl moved 200 milking cows from the original dairy into the new dairy designed to milk 600 cows. Additional cattle were purchased to fill the barn.
A 250-cow special needs barn was built in 2011 designed for calving, dry cows and fresh cows.
After the cows give birth to their calves, they are kept in the special needs barn for a period of time and monitored closely to make sure they do not have any health problems, Dennis said.
The site for Denmark Dairy was purchased from Dick Matthews.
“No one in Dick’s family was interested in farming. I knew Dick from high school. He was in my older sister’s grade. Dick’s farm had been in the family 150 years,” Dennis said.
“I met with him several times. It was 80 acres … (and) when he found out we wanted to build a dairy here, I think it went back to his farming background. I think that made his mind up, to have it go back to dairy,” Karl said.
Last year, the commodity shed and shop was built.
The building also houses an office and a conference room and will be the location for the dairy breakfast’s food preparation.
The dairy promotion committee expects anywhere from 800 to 2,000 people or more to attend the breakfast, Mandy said.
“Much will depend on the weather. The food preparation will be in the shop. Rain or shine. It will all be inside, and people will be able to eat under a tent or inside,” she said.
“We really want to invite people to our farm to see the operation,” Karl said.
“It’s an ideal time to come out and see our farm,” Dennis said.
In addition to milking 850 cows, Denmark Dairy has 950 heifers that are raised off the farm.
The calves are raised at a facility near Barron until they are five months old, then go to another farm and return to the Kragness farm when they are a year old.
“The calves are vulnerable and need careful watching and careful care. (They) are so valuable because they are the future … we’ve found a system that works well. We’ve grown from within with our own cattle,” Karl said.
“We tried to take care of the calves ourselves at first. It was a nightmare trying to keep it all going,” Mandy said.
The home farm has 300 heifers at any given time, Dennis said.
Cow comfort is an essential part of the farming operation, Karl noted.
“We’re glad to have people come out and see the cows. The cows are more comfortable in the barn on a 95 degree day than they would be anywhere else,” Karl said.
Cows prefer cooler temperatures and actually do better when it is cold than when it is hot, Dennis pointed out.
The free-stall barns feature fans and water spray to cool the air, and before the office was built, people preferred to hold meetings in the barn on hot summer days because it was cooler there than anywhere else, Karl said.
“The free-stall barn is 15 degrees cooler on a hot summer day. We take care of our cattle, because otherwise they won’t pay the bills. They are in the best possible place. Any successful farm is going to have comfortable happy cows. If cows are uncomfortable, they will not produce as much milk … everyone on the farm understands the cows come first,” Karl said.
Denmark Dairy also uses a cattle nutritionist as well as other consultants. The nutritionist tests the feed periodically and balances the rations for the cows.
“The key to success is to surround yourself with knowledgeable people,” Karl said.
Feed and forage
Good quality feed and balanced nutrition are necessary to keep the dairy cows producing at their peak.
This year, Karl plans to chop 15,000 tons of corn silage and 4,000 tons of haylage.
He also chops rye for the heifers as well as oats and peas.
Denmark Dairy buys all the soybean meal that is fed and goes through one semi-load every three weeks.
“That will increase as the corn silage increases because the protein (from the soybeans) is needed,” Karl said.
Denmark Dairy also feeds cotton seed and goes through a semi-load every ten days.
Whey, a by-product of milk, is fed to the cows, too.
“I think that’s fairly new to the industry and replaces some ground corn,” Karl said.
The dairy feeds a semi-load every week of modified wet distillers’ grain from the ethanol plant near Boyceville.
The cows eat two semi-loads of ground corn per week.
“There’s a lot of feed that goes into the animals,” Karl said.
Denmark Dairy owns 1,100 acres and farms 1,600 acres.
The Kragness family decided to purchase their own harvesting equipment so they could control when the crops would be harvested in order to take advantage of optimal nutritional quality.
“The timing of the harvest is crucial to success … our return is healthier cattle and more milk production. That’s the biggest return. It’s not the cost savings of hiring that guy (to harvest). It’s having the feed when you need it,” Karl said.
In return, the Denmark cows milk an average of 29,500 pounds of milk per year per cow, which translates into nearly 3,500 gallons, or between nine and ten gallons per day per cow.
Denmark Dairy milks in three shifts, 24 hours per day.
The milk from Denmark Dairy is shipped to Swiss Miss in Menomonie for making pudding, chocolate, and hot cocoa.
“This part of Wisconsin and in the Midwest, we have milk buyers. We take our milk buyers and water quality for granted here in the Midwest,” Karl said.
“Other companies would like to have our milk, so that creates competition for milk buyers, and that’s good for us,” Dennis said.
“It’s one of the few places in the country where there is a demand for milk. That’s a huge benefit to us. All the different milk-processing plants were created by the small family farms. Now they’ve lost the small farms to supply milk,” Karl said.
“We are a family farm. We’re not a corporate farm. We’re not owned by someone else,” he said.
“We’re basically doing the same thing we did on the home farm, except it’s a much larger scale now,” Dennis said.
Swiss Miss pudding is part of the dairy breakfast menu, so it is very possible that people who attend the breakfast and eat pudding will be consuming a product made from milk produced at Denmark Dairy.
“I appreciate being able to ship our milk to a local company … we are producing food locally,” Dennis said.
The Dunn County Dairy Breakfast runs from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. on June 8.
The menu also includes Dad’s Belgian waffles; syrups; sausage; cheese curds; ice cream; milk and coffee. The cost is $5 per person.
Attractions include a petting zoo, The Milk Buds, an antique car and tractor display and door prizes.
Denmark Dairy is located south of Colfax on county Highway B about one mile west of state Highway 40.