By Charles Collier, The Denmark News
Manitowoc County’s Breakfast on the Farm this year will be hosted at Habeck Homestead Farms at 12135 Pleasant Rd. in Maribel on June 11 from 8 a.m.-noon. The annual event hosted by the Manitowoc County Dairy Promotion Committee, Manitowoc County Farm Bureau and the Wis. Milk Marketing Board brings roughly 5,000 visitors to farms in the area for food, games, a tour of the farm with a taste of a farmer’s life and, of course, delicious dairy products.
The Habeck Homestead, under the sixth generation of management with Kim and Keith Habeck at the helm, is as rich in history as their milk is in protein and calcium.
On March 3, 1866, one year after the American Civil War came to an end, a German immigrant named Wilhelm Sturm purchased land amidst the rolling hills of Maribel in Manitowoc County to milk cows in a young Wisconsin.
The farm would remain under the Sturm family name until the 1930’s when World War 1 veteran Herman Habeck, husband of Corrina Sturm, took over the farm. Herman had suffered a gas attack while fighting in France and rarely spoke of his experiences. Gerald, Herman’s son, once found the rifle used on the battlefield and gleefully told his father about the discovery. In an example parental teaching, Herman threw the rifle down the farm’s well, never to be handled again.
Years after throwing away that tool of death, Herman would pass the family’s life—a then 100-acre stead with a herd of 20 cows—to Gerald in 1959, who purchased the farm with his wife Yvonne. After hand-milking, they would carry the cans filled with the liquid through the barn to the second-story cooling tank to await pick-up.
There had to be a better way.
“For years [Gerald] was told he couldn’t put a pipeline system in because of gravity,” Kevin Habeck, Gerald’s son said of getting milk to the tank. In 1978, Habeck milk would defy the downward force.
“They said it wouldn’t work. Well, someone figured out we could do that [by putting] the pump down below.”
With the new piping system, milk was better protected from contamination by being transported directly from the udder to the bulk tank.
After acquiring neighboring property in late 1978, the farm soon featured one of the first free-stall barns in the area, giving animals more space and comfort. For milking, cows were transferred three times and manually tied to stalls for milking. Ten years into this labor-intensive process a twelve-stall parlor attached to the barn was constructed.
By 1998 the herd had grown to around 175 milking cows and 75 young stock, inspiring the first piece of what would become the consolidated structure standing today. Though high velocity winds toppled the half-built structure in early fall, the barn was completed and housing animals before the end of the year.
That barn would be the last major expansion Gerald would oversee before suddenly passing in 2006. The farm stayed in operation on the frame of a strong family backbone which had been fostered for 140 years. Organizational changes were made in the wake of Gerald’s absence, moving the farm into a family corporation. One year later in 2008, an electrical fire would claim one of the original barns imbued with a wood carving which read, “1866.”
Though losing this impressive piece of history was tough, the farm constructed new fresh (recently calved and producing milk) and dry (non-milk producing) facilities to match a new, larger milking parlor. The new facilities along with new freshening techniques which utilized groups instead of individual cows made two more pens a necessity in only three years.
The farm’s most advanced feature, a computerized and automated calf-feeding system, welcomed its first inhabitants in 2013. Using individual computer chips in each calf, the computerized feeder provides varying amounts of milk according to each animal’s individualized nutrition plan for 75 days before being switched to grain feed. The 76-foot addition houses the calves for five months before they are brought to the larger free-stall pens.
Today, with 1,300 total acres of cropland and an 850-foot multi-compartmental barn, Habeck Homestead, LLC holds 500 milking cows with about as many non-milking. Mechanical alley scrapers keep the rubber-coated concrete flooring clean and paper waste bedding in the stalls has helped reduce somatic cell counts indicating healthier and more pathogen-resistant animals, according to co-manager Kim Habeck.
17 employees, including members of the seventh family generation, milk three times a-day in 21 hours to produce 38,000 pounds of milk every day for Land O’ Lakes. Co-managers Kim and Keith Habeck say they are eying the implementation of a robotic milking parlor, though costs and practicality as of now leave that goal far down the road.
Contributing to Wisconsin’s iconic industry is second-nature to those who grow up on farms. For the 99% of the population that does not have a hand in food production a carton of milk, brick of cheese or gallon of milk may seem to simply come from the store and cows only a roadside decoration. Farmers have no equivalent in dedication, spectrum of practical knowledge, long-sightedness, innovation or importance. As June Dairy Month approaches, remember as you eat and drink the dozens of products dairy makes possible that, despite occasional unpleasant smells, the farmers among us make possible the most essential part of modern convenience: ice cream.