More than a century of growth

Written by Emily Battmer

Wisconsin family spends generations improving and expanding its herd

Progress has always been a focus for Fertile Ridge Dairy.

Since third-generation farmer Gary Sutter’s grandfather purchased the Mount Horeb, Wis., dairy in 1903, the farm has established a pattern of slow and steady growth, updating facilities and expanding their herd over time. 

“This isn’t something new that’s been done just in the last 10 years,” Sutter says. “We’ve always been expanding.”

Today, Sutter and his son, Joel, milk 600 cows on the farm, where they also raise corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa on 450 owned and 1,000 rented acres.

The dairy hasn’t always been as large as it is now, but Sutter says the family has always expanded progressively. His father grew the dairy from 18 cows to 30, and added to the herd periodically, in small expansions that coincided with building updates and maintenance.

“As your facilities wear out, you need to replace what you have and modernize,” Sutter says. “It’s about becoming more efficient.”

When Sutter took over the dairy, he was milking 80–100 cows. In 2003, Fertile Ridge Dairy’s 100th year of existence, the Sutters made their most major expansion, more than doubling their herd size and replacing their old tie-stall barn with a freestall barn and milking parlor.

“Prior to the 2003 expansion, parts of the old facility were 100 years old,” he says.

Time had taken its toll on the old facility, which had become cramped and outdated. Sutter says the stalls were too small and the barn was stuffy, with low ceilings making for poor air quality. Fans were installed in the barn, but it was still not as comfortable and well-ventilated as Sutter would have liked. He says it was an “unfriendly environment” for the cows and the people.
Modern facilities and technologies are much better for cow comfort, Sutter says.

“It used to be you just put fans on the barn and that was it,” Sutter says. “But now there’s a lot of research and development on new facilities and what’s best for the cows.”

The new barn is more spacious and open, with improved air quality and more comfortable, larger stalls for the cows. As a result, Sutter says he has seen milk production increase. In the old facility, he says at the most, the cows were producing an average of 50–60 pounds per day. After transitioning to the new facility, that number quickly climbed to 85 pounds, and now he says his cows are producing about 90 pounds of milk per day.

Sutter says he believes the increase in milk production can be attributed mainly to cow comfort, something the dairy is always focused on. Fertile Ridge Dairy emphasizes employee training as a key step in ensuring cow comfort, and the Sutters work with their employees to teach them how to properly handle cattle and keep them calm and comfortable. Sutter says they have worked hard to establish a culture of mutual respect for the cows and the employees.

“We try to give the cows the most comfortable environment they can have, and we want our employees to enjoy life and work,” Sutter says. “We want that for ourselves too. And we feel that if we take care of the cows, the cows will take care of us.”

By modernizing the dairy, Sutter says Fertile Ridge has become more efficient and more productive, and the cows are well cared for. Sutter says he credits modernized agriculture with his cows’ improved comfort and the dairy’s overall efficiency and production.

“I think that our cows are really better taken care of in our modern facility than they ever were in the old facility,” Sutter says. “They do better because it’s more comfortable for them, and it’s a healthier environment.”

Sutter says he would like more consumers to understand how modern dairies operate and how beneficial they can be to the cows and the people involved. While he says they don’t have many scheduled tours, they always welcome visitors to the farm to see modern dairy farming firsthand.

Once, Sutter says a doctor, his daughter and grandchildren stopped by from Chicago. The family was driving by and, on a whim, decided to knock on the door and ask to take a look around.

“They ended up staying probably two or three hours,” Sutter says. “He wanted to give his grandchildren a look at a modern working farm, and I think they had their eyes opened pretty well. They didn’t realize what all goes into producing milk.”

If more people would take the time to learn about where their food comes from, Sutter says he thinks they would better understand the realities of contemporary agriculture. 

“If people will listen, we want to tell them the story of how modern agriculture is good for the environment and good for people,” Sutter says. “People don’t always get the message.”