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For the love of Kayla and cows

Holly (Fritz) Slegowski for Progressive Dairy Published on 07 October 2021
Ryan Sonneburg

The World Dairy Expo has special meaning for 34-year-old Holstein breeder Ryan Sonnenburg.

While at the University of Wisconsin – Platteville, Sonnenburg met his future wife, Kayla Dolan, through the university’s Pioneer Dairy Club. It should come as no surprise their first date was to a dairy show. They went to the World Dairy Expo to watch the selection of the Supreme Champion and, as Ryan says, “It worked right from there.”

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The couple married in 2014, and Kayla’s passion for showing led her to a full-time job in 2015 with the expo, as sponsorship and trade show manager.

“World Dairy Expo was her thing,” Sonnenburg says. “You couldn’t take her away from that if you tried.”

Then, the support of that extended show family took on new meaning as Kayla fought a rare liver cancer for nearly eight years before her death in 2018 at age 28.

“You name it, and they were here to do it,” Ryan says of friends, neighbors, co-workers and even strangers who gave time, money or support. There were days Kayla would come home from a treatment, Sonnenburg recalls, and halter her show heifer for a walk “just to help relieve stress.”

Following Kayla’s death, the Pioneer Dairy Club created a scholarship in her memory, and a bench in front of one of the New Holland Pavilions at World Dairy Expo bears Kayla’s name.

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“Her love for showing cattle is a lot of what keeps me doing that today,” Sonnenburg says.

Now, he’s also inspired by the successful dairies around him. “There are so many great herds in Green County, it’s hard not to feel the urge to be at that level with them,” Sonnenburg says.

With Kayla’s battle and Sonnenburg’s own health issues (he is also a cancer survivor), the young farm couple had to focus on their health before the farm, he says, and “it really limited us from being where we wanted to be. Now, I’ve been trying to catch up to where we’d always dreamed of being,” he adds. “It’s a slow process, and it can be frustrating sometimes.”

But signs of progress are there. Sonnenburg recalls a moment at World Dairy Expo about four years ago when one of their show calves – the one Kayla would take walking – garnered interest from strangers who approached them with an offer to buy the calf.

“It was the coolest thing,” he says. “That’s when I knew that we’ve done something.”

Ryan works alongside his father, Tom Sonnenburg, on a 220-acre dairy farm in Belleville, Wisconsin. He looks beyond their older barn and milking setup and sees, instead, an operation built on a solid foundation with a solid future.

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“Our biggest goal is to make things as efficient as possible with the least amount of people, to be able to flourish with what we have and be efficient at the same time,” says Sonnenburg, who is the third generation on this farm. “Our dairy is a little bit older-school but, for the investment we would have to make to modernize, it just doesn’t pencil out for us right now.”

The Sonnenburgs’ herd of 105 registered Holsteins (with two Ayrshires thrown in for good measure) are housed in a tiestall barn but go out on pasture with access to a feedbunk during warmer weather. Cows are milked with BouMatic companion units with auto-takeoffs, a system Sonnenburg admits is also a little older, but the units are rebuilt every year, “so they’re up to par and milking efficiently for us.”

About six years ago, they installed Kraiburg stall mattresses, which Ryan says has made “a big difference” in herd health, production and heat detection. “With these, the cows are way more comfortable,” he says. “They’re producing more milk and just seem to be in better health overall.”

They’ve taken other steps to improve cow comfort in the barn. Tom Sonnenburg installed five big fans at one end of the barn at least 20 years ago to create tunnel ventilation, and there are six basket fans in front of the cows and another three behind the cows to help push air through the barn. “We have a good breeze going through there,” Ryan says.

There are lights both in front of and behind the cows, and when the herd does stay in the barn at night, the front lights are on a timer to go on from 10 p.m. until 2 a.m. to stimulate the cows to eat. Waterers are located at each stall.

Ryan shows at his county fair, district Holstein shows, the Wisconsin State Fair and “if I have anything that I think is good enough, we’ll go to the World Dairy Expo.”

He started showing grade calves through 4-H in 1997; then two years later, he bought his first registered Holstein calf. “I was glued then and have been going strong since.”

It’s more than just the ribbons or champion banners that keep him coming back to the show ring – it’s the opportunity to see the fruit of his breeding and management abilities.

“For me – a person who’s younger – it’s awesome to be able to go to these shows and see your progress throughout the years,” Ryan says. “When I first started, I was always at the middle to the bottom of the class – but through the years, you steadily see yourself getting higher and higher in the class. It’s rewarding to be able to see that.”

“Ryan’s always had a real passion for showing and the cows,” says Dave Bollig, Sonnenburg’s early 4-H leader and mentor. “The cows are number one with him.”

Bollig, who is also the World Dairy Expo dairy cattle show superintendent, adds that Sonnenburg is also reaching out to the next generation, bringing several youth exhibitors out to his farm, teaching them how to show and letting them show his animals.

“He keeps these young people going, and I think it keeps Ryan excited too,” Bollig says.

The real lure of showing cattle, says Sonnenburg, is the people.

“I love going to see everybody and I love the competition,” he says. “Everyone is out to win, but at the end of the day, everyone is there to celebrate the person who did win.” end mark

PHOTO: With an eye toward herd quality during competitions, Ryan Sonnenburg never loses sight of the real goal – building connections with people. Photo courtesy of Case New Holland.

Holly (Fritz) Slegowski. Email Holly (Fritz) Slegowski.

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