Shop time on Dan and Dave Bertram's Ledgeland Dairy LLC, is as important as tending their 300-cow Holstein dairy herd and their 1,050 acres of cropland. The brothers, who farm near Malone in northeast Fond du Lac County, combine creativity and necessity to not only maintain but to build many of the machines they use in their farm operation.
A sprayer they designed and built with parts found in the immediate area and in Michigan, Minnesota and Iowa and the Iola Car Show saved them thousands of dollars and won a national contest for homebuilt machines. That sprayer replaced a different model they also designed and built and remains in use. They also provided most of the labor to build their houses, a free-stall barn and remodeling to other barns on the farm.
The brothers became partners on their parents' 120-acre farm after taking over the farm operation in 1986. "We were partners from the get-go," says Dan, the older brother and spokesman for the partnership, Right away, he adds, "We wanted to get more land. We worked together since we were kids but when the business started we started buying. We struggled; we still struggle. When you make payments on that amount of land it's a struggle. We have a good relationship with Farm Credit. It takes a lot of faith when you say you want money to build a sprayer." Parts for that award-winning sprayer cost about $40,000, but that's a fraction of the cost for a new one. Most parts were found in salvage yards, from both trucks and tractors, although the wheels, set up for 15-inch rows, were custom-built in Iowa.
Dan and Dave figure they bought land at the right times, paying as little as $500 an acre for their early purchases for land now worth up to $4,000 an acre. "We started buying land at a good time," Dan says. "Not that many acquired land like we did. Hopefully that will pay off in time."
Depending on the years, the brothers will raise up to 900 acres of corn, 350 of wheat and up to 400 acres each of soybeans and alfalfa They also raise 130 head of Holstein steers on a neighboring place, selling live animals or halves or quarters of beef. They sell corn, 50,000 bushels last season, including some for corn burners and deer stations, operate a custom baling business and sell baled bedding, and Dave does custom welding. He's also adding a corn-fired boiler to the house where he and his wife, Rachael, and their four daughters live. It's located on the original Bertram farm. Rachael operates a salon out of the home. Dan built a house across the road where he lives with his wife, Kim, and their son and two daughters. Kim is a registered nurse and works in Fond du Lac.
Bertram's Ledgeland Dairy is poised to expand. "We could be feeding maybe a thousand cows in the same amount of time," Dan says. "Then, why not 2,000 and make the computer (which controls the TMR feeding system) really worthwhile?" Three thousand cows, Dan thinks, might be too many but "whatever fits, we have the land base." The brothers already are exploring expansion with another local farmer. "I figure it will be sooner rather than later," Dan adds.
He and Dave would like to build a new barn and add cattle while a cement plant is located on their farm. About 10 years ago, the brothers developed a stone quarry on part of their original farm which lies along a large bed of limestone. In connection with a windmill construction project in northeast Fond du Lac County, the contractor set up a cement plant at the Bertrams' quarry and the brothers negotiated an agreement to utilize the cement left over at the end of the day. They've poured hundreds of yards since - for driveways, barn floors and storage areas. "The dairy, if it happens, it'd be nice to do it while the cement plant is in the area." He'd like to modernize the farm's feeding system too, noting that "we're kind of growing out of silos. I can feed here, it's convenient (from a three-silo arrangement) but it's not the best for the cows." He's looking for a better TMR mixing system to gain more consistency in feed quality. "That's what cows make milk on," he says. "It's consistent feed."
The dairy herd carries a 23,000- to 24,000-pound milk average on three-time-a-day milking. In addition to themselves, the Bertrams employ four milkers, a calf feeder, a part-time herdsman and a part-time electrician working on the farm. And with winter here, there's time to clean up the shop from the summer repair rush and plan more projects. "Everything here we built," says Dan as he gestures at the free-stall barn and feeding setup for the dairy herd. "We reuse a lot of stuff. We spend a lot of time in the shop. There've been a lot of projects over the years."