CUBA CITY — It was Steven Tranel’s belief that anyone who was a Tranel and wanted to farm could have the opportunity to do so on the family’s operation in rural Cuba City. When he became ill in 2002, his son, Travis, took over the family farm. A couple of interested relatives also came on board, and now Travis co-owns Tranel Family Farms with his three cousins, Josh, Adam and Michael.
On May 3, the Tranels hosted about 20 representatives from Organic Valley and UW-Madison, including UW College of Agricultural and Life Sciences Dean Kate VandenBosch and team members from the UW Center for Dairy Profitability, UW Plant Pathology, UW Agronomy and UW Athletics. The group toured Tranel Family Farms, an Organic Valley farm, before heading to the company’s Cashton location to learn more about the partnerships between the two entities.
Travis explained that after his father was diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer in the early 2000s, his mother wanted to either sell the farm or stop spraying and transition to organic farming. So in 2002, the farm converted to organic practices — eventually entering the Organic Valley co-op in 2005.
The partnership with Organic Valley has been great for the family and the farm, Travis said. The co-op shares many of the same concerns as he does as a farmer and it feels good to know they are working just as hard to promote their premium product.
With 550 cows, Tranel Family Farms may seem large but is actually below the average herd size of others in the Organic Valley co-op, he said. Cows are milked in a swing-20 parlor, milking 12 first and then eight to follow — something Travis said works well.
Josh Tranel works with the dairy herd, focusing on three main items: the cows, the equipment and the people milking those cows. Animal health is very important, with Josh also spending a lot of time in the maternity area and post-pregnancy pen.
“This is where we can do the most good for the cows,” Josh said. “The time they spend here is the most important for cow health.”
Cameras in the barns allow the Tranels to watch their animals closely without being on site; Josh also uses small eartags that act like Fitbits for cows. The orange tag tracks activity, how much the cow is eating, when she lies down and how long she ruminates each day. The data is stored for 48 hours, with information available for upload directly to Josh’s cellphone.
“We’ll know if a cow is sick within four hours,” Josh said.
“Technology has played an important role, especially over the past 20 to 30 years,” Travis added. “Technology like this has enabled the agriculture industry to grow so rapidly.”
Josh described their herd as “a melting pot” with primarily Holsteins, but also some Jerseys, Shorthorns, Brown Swiss and crossbreds. Crossbreeding allows the Tranels to gain high vigor and select health traits to keep the herd sustainable, he said.
The cattle have a very strict vaccination protocol and receive no antibiotics per organic practices.
About 2,000 acres of cropland is cultivated to feed the animals on the farm. There are also 36 paddocks that were recently developed; a lot of thought went into the planning of the paddocks, which all are similar in size and shape, Travis said.
“Any type of grass that exists, we have it growing out there,” he said. “It’s another thing that sets us apart — farms this size don’t usually have all this pasture. It’s a good hybrid.”
“I believe this will be one of the focal points on our farm,” Travis said.
The last stop on the farm tour was at the calf barn, where two full-time calf feeders tend to the animals. It is important to keep things consistent with the calves, who could be seen nestled in their straw bedding.
The Tranels thanked the representatives for visiting the farm before the group traveled to Cashton, where they met with Organic Valley Chief Executive Officer George Siemon and Chief Mission Officer Missy Hughes, along with several local legislators.