When Kyle and Rachel Zwieg (both FISC’07, ’08) first arrived at the National Outstanding Young Farmers (NOYF) Awards Congress in Appleton, Wisconsin, back in February, it didn’t take them long to conclude that the competition would be stiff. Many of the other nine finalists had large, diverse farming operations, and the Zwiegs were simply happy to be in the room, having qualified by winning the Wisconsin OYF competition in 2022.
But when the names of the national winners were announced two nights later, the Zwiegs were one of the four couples selected, much to the delight of the many local attendees.
“We were a little bit bummed that our Congress was in Appleton in February — it was in South Carolina last year and will be in Washington state next year. But it was cool when we won; there was a hometown crowd,” Kyle says. “There were quite a few past winners from Wisconsin there, and my parents were able to be there. They wouldn’t have been able to come if it was a long ways away.”
“I was extremely shocked,” Rachel says. “It wasn’t something that we expected.”
The NOYF Awards Program, administered by the Outstanding Farmers of America Fraternity, recognizes candidates’ achievements in agricultural career progression, soil and water conservation practices, and community service. Eligible nominees must be between ages 21 and 39 and derive two-thirds or more of their income from farming.
The Zwiegs operate a 1,450-acre dairy and crop farm, known as Zwieg’s Maple Acres, near Ixonia in Dodge County. The farm has been in the Zwieg family since 1856. Kyle represents the sixth generation to operate the farm, and Kyle and Rachel’s children — Theodore, 7, and twins Landon and Logan, 6 — are the seventh generation to live there.
As a student at Oconomowoc High School, Kyle wasn’t sure he wanted to join the Zwieg farming operation. He was concerned the farm wouldn’t generate enough income to accommodate another family. His parents and grandparents were milking about 40 cows and cropping about 150 acres at the time.
“If I was going to come back to the farm, it was going to have to be under a new situation,” Kyle says.
Kyle went to work at the neighboring Koepke farm, where the Koepkes (a family with several CALS alums) encouraged Kyle to attend the Farm and Industry Short Course (FISC) to gain more farming knowledge. In fact, the Koepkes were “relentless” in their motivation, Kyle says. They gave him a campus tour and offered to pay for half of his tuition.
“I kind of just went out of obligation to them more than anything,” Kyle says. “But it was fantastic. I took it seriously while I was there.
I don’t think there could have been a better program o provide direct access to production agricultural information than the short course.”
Rachel attended FISC at the same time with an eye on advancing her horticulture knowledge. She had worked in a greenhouse and hoped to make a career in the industry.
“It was really nice to be with other people who had similar interests,” Rachel says. “I was shy and awkward in high school, but the short course helped get me out of my shell. The connections we made and the knowledge we gained have really benefited the farm.”
Kyle and Rachel, both 35, fondly remember their time at FISC, with each recalling instructors who had a positive influence on them. Kyle says Dick Wolkowski BS’76, MS’78, PhD’89, a soil science professor at the time, planted the idea of no-till farming in his mind. The technique, which involves significantly less soil disturbance, has helped reduce farm labor and increase profits on the Zwieg farm.
“You get all these kids who come to your class, and you can tell pretty quickly those who are truly engaged,” says Wolkowski, who retired in 2011. “It was pretty clear from the outset that Kyle and Rachel wanted to learn. I expect I taught 1,200 to 1,500 students over the years, and they were certainly in the top 10 who left a memory in my mind.”
The Zwiegs, who met while juniors in high school, have expanded their cropping operation incrementally by adding neighboring rental properties. They have also reduced dairy farm labor by installing a DeLaval robotic milking system. The system was installed in 2020, in the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic, which the Zwiegs found a bit unsettling, given milk prices were so uncertain at the time.
“But I would never go back,” Kyle says. “It was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.”
Kyle says the switch from a stanchion barn, where cows are milked in stalls, to robotic milking, where the cows pass through one-way gates to an automated machine that milks them up to four times per day, helped improve their efficiency. Now they’re DeLaval’s highest producing robotic herd in North America on a per-cow annual average — 114 pounds per head for their 70-cow herd.
The attached free-stall barns are designed so they can be expanded to accommodate up to 240 cows, but the Zwiegs don’t have any immediate plans to do so.
Because of the low-labor dairy and cropping systems on their farm, the Zwiegs don’t use any out-of-family labor. Kyle’s father, Joe Zwieg, is still involved in the operation, and Kyle says there isn’t much Rachel can’t do on the farm. When he’s planting or harvesting crops, she takes total charge of the dairy operation.
“I try not to let him know what I can and can’t do,” Rachel quips.This article was posted in Fall 2023, Food Systems, Health and Wellness, Offshoots and tagged Dairy, Dick Wolkowski, Farm and Industry Short Course (FISC), Kyle Zwieg, National Outstanding Young Farmers Awards Congress, no-till, Rachel Zwieg, robotic milking, Zwieg’s Maple Acres.