REEDSBURG, Wis. – Don and Dorothy Harms are gradually leaving the dairy industry.
It hasn’t been easy to relinquish a business they’ve enjoyed since the 1980s but the physical demands of dairy farming are becoming more difficult as they age. That – coupled with a long period of poor milk prices and the prospect of needing to replace well-worn equipment – prompted them to look at alternative sources of income.
The result is a new look for their 140-year-old family farm, Dorothy Harms said. They switched to beef cattle plus they operate a “bed and breakfast” and a farm store at Valley Springs Farm near Reedsburg.
“It’s been invigorating to hear about our farm from others,” she said of bed and breakfast guests. “They often comment on how green it is.”
The lawn around the farmhouse and barnyard certainly has been green and lush in a summer of abundant rain. But the farm’s guests also comment on the verdant pastures where a herd of beef cattle graze. Don and Dorothy Harms take turns driving a Kawasaki “MULE” utility vehicle to show guests around the 260-acre farm. There visitors can watch cattle peacefully munching a mix of pasture grasses.
The couple bought in 2012 their first beef cattle – four Red Angus heifers. A year later they bought seven more heifers from Russ Dahl, owner of Oak Ridge Farms Red Angus near Deerfield, Wisconsin.
“Red Angus lend themselves well to grass-fed operations,” Dahl said. “They’re more docile than Black Angus and have an easier time calving compared to other breeds.”
Today the Harms have about 125 head of Red Angus as well as crossbred Red Angus with Red and White Holstein cattle.
“I’ve always liked red cattle,” Don Harms said with a smile.
Pete Prochnow, a production and membership coordinator for the Wisconsin Grass-fed Beef Cooperative, said the Harms couple started their beef operation with good genetics.
“Red Angus are well-suited to grass finishing,” Prochnow said. “And starting with good genetics is a third of the battle.”
He’s observed numerous ex-dairy farmers and others enter the beef industry, he said. While one may think raising beef cattle is easy, finishing them on grass isn’t. A producer must select excellent genetics, provide good-quality forage and have patience to feed cattle for 24 months.
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“Those are critical obstacles to clear,” he said. “And there aren’t wide margins in the beef business.”
Don Harms said he’s needed to learn the nuances of the beef-cattle business.
“We’ve had a conventional dairy farm; beef cattle have different diets,” he said.
Attending pasture walks and using resources from the Wisconsin Grass-fed Beef Cooperative have helped ease the learning curve. Prochnow helps the Harms couple on the marketing side, such as the right time to sell for optimal marbling quality.
In addition to selling beef through the cooperative the couple sells beef direct at their on-farm store and at area farmers markets. Available in bundles or specific cuts, the beef is processed at Straka’s Meats in Plain, Wisconsin. It’s animal-welfare-certified and state-inspected.
The Reedsburg Farmers Market is one of the main farmers markets for Valley Springs Farm. The market is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Fridays from May through October at the Reedsburg Area Medical Center, 2000 North Dewey Ave., Reedsburg.
“I love to work with all the vendors who take pride in what they bring to the market every week,” said Carla Mercer, vice-president of marketing and customer experience at the Reedsburg Area Medical Center and manager of the farmers market. “The Harmses and all our vendors pay attention to great quality. It’s a pleasure to support people and organizations like them.”
In addition to the beef venture, the Harms couple launched in 2013 their bed and breakfast. They use the Airbnb online marketplace. They also list the business through the Reedsburg Area Chamber of Commerce and the Spring Green Chamber of Commerce. Valley Springs Farm Bed and Breakfast can accommodate up to 10 guests.
“We welcome families with kids,” Dorothy Harms said. “The kids like to help us feed calves. Many of our guests are here for the farm experience.”
Through their eyes, she said, she sees farming and the family farm in new ways. The Harms farm has been in the family for 140 years – but the farm has needed to change. She believes more family farms will need to change to survive.
“We have to find a way of diversifying,” she said. “We have to learn to be entrepreneurs.”
Valley Springs Farm will host an open house during the Hill and Valley Exploration Tour of Wisconsin’s northern Sauk and Richland counties, held Oct. 5-6 and Oct. 12-13. The annual event celebrates area farms and rural businesses.
Visit valleyspringsfarmbb.com or wisconsingrassfed.coop or springgreen.com or explorehillandvalley.com or reedsburg.org -- or ramchealth.com and search for “farmers market” -- for more information.
Lynn Grooms writes about the diversity of agriculture, including the industry’s newest ideas, research and technologies as a staff reporter for Agri-View based in Wisconsin.