When three generations are working side by side in the barn and in the fields, it gives new meaning to the term ‘family farm.’ That’s the Dieringer farm in the Town of Belgium.
About half of the 80 dairy farms in Ozaukee County are still run by families, but the numbers are dwindling. In 1982, there were 235 dairy farms in the county and the number is steadily declined, said Dan O’Neil, University of Wisconsin Extension agricultural agent for Ozaukee County.
“We lose one or two a year, and we don’t get back very many,” O’Neil said.
For Tom Dieringer, 77, his son Gary, 52, and Gary’s son Josh, 24, it’s a way of life they cherish and are continuing for the fourth generation.
It took Josh only three days of working in a factory in Mayville to realize he didn’t like it and wanted to be back on the family farm on Highway B in the Town of Belgium.
“When you grow up on a farm working with family, it’s hard to leave,” his mother Leann said.
“There is always somebody around to talk to. We’re one big happy family. I’m so happy he came back.”
Josh missed not only the family dynamics, but also the fresh air he was accustomed to breathing.
“I just enjoy being outside,” Josh said. “I like the variety and the flexibility. Anybody can get away if we know ahead of time.”
He shoots pool on Monday nights, his father shoots pool in a Tuesday league and Tom bowls on Fridays.
Leann and Josh’s sister Samantha fill in when needed.
The dairy operation has been family owned and operated since Tom’s father Thomas Sr. started the business in 1942. He rented 236 acres and a farmhouse from Art Mayer.
In 1957, Tom and his brother Francis bought the farm from Mayer. Another brother, Andrew, bought an adjacent farm.
Tom and his wife Barbara, a city girl from Port Washington, converted the single-family farmhouse into a duplex. They lived in the lower apartment, where they raised six children, five boys and a girl. Francis lived upstairs. Tom’s parents moved to northern Wisconsin to operate a tavern.
In 1973, Tom bought out his brother and farmed with his sons. Gary bought the farm in 1995 and later purchased his uncle’s adjacent farm, increasing the land to 550 acres.
Gary and Leann, who is a postal carrier in Port Washington and provides health insurance for the family, have three children, but only Josh is interested in farming full time. Rachel is a
social worker in Milwaukee. Gary’s brothers and nephews also lend a hand.
But mostly the three men depend on each other to share the work and profits.
Gary is the manager and oversees the cows, deciding when each should be bred and the rations each should receive.
Josh prefers field work and repairing equipment.
“I started driving a tractor when I was 9. I always begged to ride along in the tractor,” he said.
Gary said his father “works cheap and does a little bit of everything.”
“When they have a problem they can’t solve, they call me,” Tom said. “I don’t give advice anymore because we all have different ways of doing things. I let them work it out. I have to bite my tongue sometimes.”
Tom can fix just about anything, does field work and helps with the morning and evening milkings.
He and wife recently moved off the farm to make room for Josh and his wife Amber, who were married in May.
For the first time in 53 years of marriage, the elder Dieringers don’t have children in their house.
“We had to move out to make that happen,” Tom said.
“It’s wonderful. It’s very quiet and peaceful,” Barbara said. “I haven’t been back much because I’m still unpacking boxes.
“It was fun living on the farm. Everyone loves going to the farm. The grandchildren love to visit because there is always something going on.”
The couple moved about five miles away to a former schoolhouse in the Town of Holland.
Gary and Leann moved from the upper to the lower flat. Josh and Amber are settling in above them.
“I’m still not used to going to the door to the lower apartment. I start heading upstairs,” Gary said.
Amber is finding places for her things in the flat where her husband has lived all his life.
“She changes things around,” Josh said. “She moved the toaster, which had been in the same place for as long as I can remember. It’s not a big deal. It’s just weird.”
What hasn’t changed is the unpredictably of farming, which depends on the whims of Mother Nature and a global marketplace that determines prices for milk and grains.
“There have been more changes in farming in the last 15 years than the previous 50 years,” Tom said.
He’s wary of the trend toward large dairy herds, but said that issue is for his son and grandson to work out.
Gary decided to add land for cash crops when milk prices dropped and grain prices rose.
Milk prices are now about $15 per hundred pounds, which is much better than last year’s $10, he said.
Gary plans to stay small and continue farming without hiring outside workers.
“I have enough headaches with 100 cows, let alone 1,000,” he said. “Cows don’t talk back and they don’t quit on you.”
The 100 milk cows, calves, young stock and dry cows bring the dairy herd to 250 animals. Beef cattle are raised on the adjacent farm.
The cows are milked twice a day in the parlor that Tom and his brother installed in 1961. He was one of the first farmers in the county to have a milk parlor.
“We used to have five machines for 10 stanchions, so we would move the machines from one side to the other,” Tom said. “Now, we have 10 machines and a two-inch line that is connected directly to the milk tank.”
Each cow has a tag around its neck that triggers computerized feeders to dispense the right combination of corn and protein. The ratio is based on how much milk the cow gives and is adjusted daily, Gary said.
The weather has been ideal for crops, he said.
The warm weather and moderate rainfall yielded a bountiful hay crop that has filled the silos. The cows are now feasting on fresh hay cut each morning.
The Dieringers are harvesting soybeans this week and expect to start the corn harvest next week.
“It’s been hot and dry enough that it’s drying in the field. We won’t have to wait for a frost this year like we did last year,” Gary said.
Corn prices are high now, so the sooner it gets off the cob, the better, he said. About 60% of the corn and other grains will be fed to their animals, with the remainder sold on the open market. He also grows wheat and soybeans as cash crops.
This is the best time of year, he said.
“I like it when it starts getting cooler and it’s harvest time,” Gary said. “You get the family together to help and you see the results of your hard work.”
Josh Dieringer, his father Gary and grandfather Tom keep the Town of Belgium family farm running smoothly. Photo by Sam Arendt