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Bur-Wall Holsteins: Popular stop for World Dairy Expo visitors

Maria F. McGinnis Published on 30 September 2015
Behnke family

When World Dairy Expo travelers make plans for things to see and do around Madison, Wisconsin, there’s a good chance a visit to Bur-Wall Holsteins is on their list.

Located just 15 minutes from the expo grounds in Brooklyn, Wisconsin, Bur-Wall Holsteins is owned by Wallace (Wally) and Donna Behnke and family. The farm is home to roughly 50 registered Holstein cows whose genetics are highly sought after.

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“We have sold embryos all over the world,” says Bob Behnke, Wally and Donna’s youngest son, who also manages the day-to-day operations of the farm.

But this family is more than breeders and caretakers of elite cows. Every member of the family has long-standing volunteer commitments with World Dairy Expo itself.

Wally served on the board of directors. Donna is a former staff member and current volunteer. Son Brian is a past collegiate contest winner and has judged in the cattle show. Daughter Brenda volunteers with the Red and White show, checking cattle in when they arrive and into the show ring.

Their late daughter Keri volunteered in the dairy cattle office before and during the show. Son Roger worked with a popular show photographer. Daughter-in-law Lisa is a former expo employee and was known as “the voice of the expo” as an announcer during the Parade of Champions.

Son Bob has volunteered with the judging contests and manages countless farm tours during World Dairy Expo as well as daily farm operations. To top it off, Wally and Donna’s grandchildren are often there exhibiting cattle too.

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“Our cows don’t know it’s expo week,” Bob says. “Chores don’t stop for the show – and it’s hectic to coordinate at times.”

Ready for their close-up

The Behnke family will get numerous requests before, during and after the expo from potential buyers looking to view the Bur-Wall cows up-close and personal; many are international visitors.

“Some years, we have visitors who stop out unannounced, so we have to have everything in place,” Bob says. “We make sure that all the cows are washed, the barn is clean and the property is manicured.”

That’s right – in addition to normal chores and volunteer obligations at the show, this family has to get everything ready for potential buyers to tour the farm. It’s safe to say they probably don’t sleep much during the five-day event.

“It takes several days’ worth of work to get everything ready – and everyone has to help,” Brenda (Behnke) Murphy says. “Bob arranges everything. Most of my tasks are completed ahead of time since I volunteer at the show and work a booth.”

Brenda added that even while her sister Keri battled cancer, she contributed by creating individual signs on her home computer to help tour guests identify cows.

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According to Bob, one of the most important pre-tour preparations comes from Donna with her world-renowned baking.

“My mom bakes cookies and other desserts for all of our tours,” he says. “She has sent recipes all over the world.”

Opening their doors for a ‘friendly visit’

While the use of virtual tours and other online tools has slowed some of the walk-in traffic, Bob notes that buyers still prefer to see cattle in person.

“People want to see the cows, and we want them to come,” he says. “Most of our visitors are prepared with plastic boots, although we have some for those who don’t have their own. People are used to being on farms looking at cows and know what to do.”

Tour guests come from all over the world from dairies often as diverse as their home countries.

“We have had people who milk water buffalo, and people who milk by hand,” Bob says. “It can be tough to explain how a milking machine works – simple things that we take for granted [in the U.S.]. It’s also interesting to talk about milk production because it’s so different in other parts of the world.”

During the week of the expo, Bob and Wally trade off milking. Wally feeds the youngstock, and Donna feeds calves (just like their usual routine). Siblings and extended family members also take time off at their jobs to help on the farm. Even the neighbors come and help.

“There have been times when I could do part of a milking but not the entire shift, and our family really steps up. You just figure it out,” Brenda says.

A family tradition

So exactly how does a small farm outside of Madison create an international reputation?

“Our family initially got involved when the Dane County Holstein Breeders bull and heifer sale merged with World Dairy Expo’s sale,” Wally says. “We put together a group of adults and kids, and it went from there.”

Speaking of kids, Brenda recalls that growing up just outside of the Madison metro area, there weren’t many other kids who needed to get out of school to attend a cattle show.

“There were some farm kids in our school district, but my friends were not as involved as we were. Thankfully, our teachers knew how much [the expo] meant to our family, and they let us out of classes,” she says.

After high school, Brenda and her siblings attended various programs at the University of Wisconsin – Madison and were in good company with fellow ag students who “got it” when it came to cattle.

As the years passed, the Behnke family’s involvement in World Dairy Expo began to pay off.

“By the late 1980s – early 1990s – the national and international presence ramped up, and the tour requests became a staple during the expo,” Brenda says.

Dairy really is in their DNA

The family atmosphere at Bur-Wall is somewhat unusual in today’s elite genetics marketplace. The farm and their marketing program is 100 percent family-managed and run – from the ground up.

The expo is a hectic time of year – coordinating chores, volunteering at the show, hosting guests and marketing the herd – but as Brenda points out, “it’s a way of life.”

Would they ever give up the week in favor of focusing on fall farm chores such as harvest? Not a chance.

“Corn and beans can be harvested a little late, but there is only one day for the [Holstein] cattle show,” Bob says. PD

Bur-Wall Holsteins is located on 265 acres in Brooklyn, Wisconsin, and consists of 50 registered milking cows. The herd has a rolling herd average of 32,377 pounds of milk, 3.9 percent fat, 1,256 pounds of fat, 3.2 percent protein and 1,029 pounds of protein. The herd has a Breed Age Average (BAA) of 110.3.

Maria F. McGinnis is a freelance writer. She and her husband, Nick Woldt, are first-generation farmers milking 60 cows in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.

PHOTO: Bur-Wall Holsteins, owned and operated by Wally and Donna Behnke and family, is located just 15 minutes outside of Madison, Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of Holstein Association USA, Inc.

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