ASHIPPUN – “All the people there were great to meet. Rachel and I had a wonderful weekend,” said Kyle Zwieg, the sixth-generation dairy and farmer from the Oconomowoc area who was recently appointed outstanding young farmer from Wisconsin in Neenah.
The couple were selected from a field of six applicants from across the state, all outstanding candidates in their own right, according to the Zwiegs.
Zwieg’s family established their farm in 1856 and Kyle says he always had an interest in continuing the family farming business, but he knew it would take careful planning and education.
He began his endeavors by taking a job at a thriving dairy farm nearby where he not only earned money which he would eventually use to invest in his family’s farm, but also gained a wealth of knowledge from his employers during the process.
The size of his family’s farm was a challenge. In 2009, when Kyle wanted to join the business, the size of the farm was barely big enough to support his parents and grandparents. To make matters worse, 2008 was also a disastrous agricultural season for the Zwieg. Most of the cultivable acres on their farm are in a valley directly adjacent to the Rock River which experienced record flooding that year. The family lost 65% of their harvest.
Despite this setback, Kyle continued to follow the business plan he had been busy formulating. He invested all the savings he had made working on Koepke’s farm to double the size of the dairy herd and aggressively seek out more acreage to rent, as well as build a grain storage facility for the sales of feed grain and cash.
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For five years, he carefully followed his business plan to transfer ownership of the business.
Zwieg says her parents always encouraged further education. As employers, the Koepke family encouraged him by pushing him to take the UW-Madison Agriculture and Industry Short Course Program and paying half of his tuition.
Through this program and his employers, Zwieg learned about the positive effects of developing a no-till system on their farm. He also met many other mentors through the short-term training program who helped him save on his crop’s input costs without sacrificing yield.
Since 2010, the family has adopted a 100% no-till system and experimented with a wide range of self-made machine accessories and tools.
Beyond equipment modifications, they have been aggressive in trying new techniques such as aerial seeding of cover crops in standing corn and soybeans which began in 2018. This project was accompanied by a EQUIP grant through NRCS.
Zwieg was also part of one of the first classes to be trained on SnapPlus nutrient management software during her 2007 classes at UW-Madison.
One of the challenges of growing the farm was being able to secure enough land in the area to lease. He learned the importance of developing relationships in the region when trying to increase the land base. Each year he has been able to secure more land and in the 2022 crop year he will have accumulated over 1300 acres. The increased land base has helped him achieve his financial goals.
Farm Zwieg’s dairy business has also gone through many changes over the past decade.
At the start of their involvement with the family farm in 2010, the family milked 40 cows in a traditional stanchion barn and the cows were fed components. The following year, the Zwiegs switched to a TMR system and by 2012 all cows were in free stalls with sand bedding. Small improvements continued until the family took the leap by installing a new single-unit Delaval robotic barn in late 2020.
Zwieg called the robotic barn his biggest challenge and his biggest “new practice”.
Moving cows into the freestalls helped him achieve his original goal of increasing production to over 80 pounds of milk per cow. The farm’s herd average continued to increase in the years that followed. He said the recent move to the robotic barn in 2020 has made the Zwieg farm the most productive farm in Delaval. According to DHIA and Delpro Data, the herd is currently on track to reach 115 pounds per animal.
Zwieg’s wife, Rachel, has always been supportive of his farming efforts, and his off-farm income has contributed to the couple’s goal. In 2015, with the birth of their first son, Theodore, she quit her job with plans to care for their son and help with farm responsibilities. Then 18 months later, the couple welcomed twins, Landon and Logan. From then on, caring for their three young children became her full-time responsibility.
As their boys continue to grow and mature, Rachel has slowly been able to return to her active role in farming operations. She is more active with the livestock, performing tasks with the herd and taking over management of the robotic barn during busy harvest seasons. Rachel has also developed and maintains several social media pages for the farm that serve community outreach and networking.
The operation’s Facebook page has become particularly useful in cultivating new owners for tillable acres and deepening relationships with existing owners.
Conservation has been a big part of Zwieg’s cultivation plan. They have gained a lot of knowledge in this area as a member of the local farmer-led watershed group since 2017. Zwieg also credits his association with the UW Discovery Farm program while attending school at UW-Madison where he completed an internship with the program, as another valuable learning experience.
In 2010, the family placed a permanent conservation easement on their original homestead. The easement ensures that the land will remain in production agriculture and can never be subdivided for development.
Kyle and Rachel are very active in their community. Kyle sits on the board of the Tall Pines Conservancy and is also part of the Farmers for Lake Country organization.
He was also President of Oconomowoc FFA and earned his American FFA degree. At the Waukesha County Agricultural Bureau, he served as president of young farmers. The Zwiegs were both active members of the Ashippun Fire and EMS for eight years. They are members of Whitestone Community Church where Rachel acts as the leader of the church moms group.
Since their farm is on the fringe of the urban development of the town of Oconomowoc, the Zwiegs understand the importance of promoting the agricultural industry and the challenges it faces.
Zwieg says he has taken classes and been involved with organizations that help him develop his speaking and communication skills to better tell the story of agriculture. The family offers tours of the farm and takes advantage of numerous television and newspaper interviews to help tell their story.