REEDSBURG — When Amy Raboine was 10 years old, she begged her mother to let her help milk the cows. Her mother warned her that once she started, she would never be able to stop.
“Boy, was she right,” Amy said of her mother’s warning. “I just love the animals. You have to love them and make sure they’re happy every day, and put yourself in their shoes. If the cows are happy, we’re happy. It’s as simple as that.”
Amy is a finalist in this year’s Wisconsin Outstanding Young Farmer competition, which is slated for the weekend of Jan. 27-29 in Baraboo. Raboine was also a finalist in 2014, when she finished as the first runner-up.
Raboine farms about 700 acres in western Sauk County with her fiancé, Marques Koenig. She also works part time as a program technician at the Sauk County Farm Service Agency office in Baraboo.
Raboine took over the farm about eight years ago from her mother, Denise, a few years after the death of Amy’s father, Dennis, who died from stomach cancer.
“I’m just so thankful that my mom kept the farm going after Dad died,” Amy said. “She was a city girl from Madison but you would never know it. She’s a great example. I can’t think of anyone I hold in higher regard than my mom.”
Raboine and Koenig met about 2½ years ago when Raboine was asked to play on a softball team that Koenig was a member of.
“I didn’t realize it was going to be a guys’ team until I got in the car with four guys,” Raboine said. “It worked out OK. I did better than half the guys.”
And she met her future husband.
Koenig quit his job as a welder and metal fabricator to work with Raboine about a year later. He manages the farm during the daytime hours while Raboine is working for the FSA.
She was working in town full time but was able to cut back to part-time hours before Koenig joined the operation. They have since added about 500 acres of rented ground — including about 300 new acres for 2017 — so the part-time hours suit her schedule better.
The farm, known as “Raboine’s Jumping Jerseys,” has been certified organic since 1996. The predictability of the organic milk price — set by contract — has been a godsend for Raboine and Koenig.
“The price sustainability has made a big difference,” Koenig said. “(Organic farming) is also better for the land and animals.”
“We’ve had the vet out here in the past year for pregnancy checks, and that’s about it,” Raboine said.
In 2016, Raboine and Koenig will average a pay price of $35 per hundredweight, about double the conventional price.
Jerseys have been a big part of the farming operation since it began in 1984, but they have also been breeding their Jerseys to Normande bulls and have some Holsteins in the herd. They milk about 80 cows in the summer and 50 through the winter.
With Jersey cattle dominating their milking string, Raboine and Koenig don’t plan to break any records with their milk production. Instead, they concentrate on keeping cows in the herd for a long time.
“We’ll never sit down and brag about production numbers on our animals,” Raboine said. “If they do over 10,000 pounds a cow, we’re happy. We like to talk about their longevity. Our goal is a calf every year.”
Raboine said they are able to get six or eight lactations out of a cow rather than three or four like they might if they were pushing their cows for higher production. They bring in extra income by selling more replacement animals, too, she said.
“Happy cows equal happy people,” Koenig said.
Raboine and Koenig, who are planning an Oct. 7, 2017, wedding, are expecting a baby in February. The baby is due just a few days after the OYF state finals, so they’re hoping they’ll be able to make the Baraboo festivities.
They already have a name picked out for their daughter — Aubrey — and she will join Koenig’s 5-year-old daughter, Jacelynn, in the family.
Koenig is a fifth-generation farmer, coming from a conventional dairy farm near Loganville. His family milked 65 cows on about 300 acres while he was growing up, but the herd has since been sold.
“It was a different transition from spraying the weeds out to having to cultivate and hand-pull them,” Koenig said. “I’ve adapted well. You have to try new things. I’m always learning.”
Their barn is nothing fancy — it is fitted with 50 stanchions and tie-stalls — but it works well enough for the time being.
“Eventually we’ll put in an (in-barn) parlor and add a free-stall barn,” Raboine said. “That’s in the 10-year plan. We’re building a machine shop in the spring — that’s where we’re going to have our wedding next fall.”
Raboine and Koenig enjoyed a profitable year in 2016, thanks to their stable milk price and improved production.
“It was fun re-doing the numbers (for the OYF application) two years later and realizing that even though we didn’t quite double our herd size, we tripled our milk production since 2010,” Raboine said. “The milk price is also $8 (per hundredweight) higher than it was six years ago, so along with the fact that we are producing better quality milk, that really helped.”
Even though Raboine has loved animals since she was a youngster, she really didn’t intend on being a farmer until her father died.
“I had enrolled at Winona State before Dad passed away — your priorities sometimes change,” she said. “I stayed closer to home at (the University of Wisconsin) Baraboo for a year and then finished my degree (in finance) at UW-La Crosse.”
Shortly after that, she jumped into farming with both feet, buying 40 acres and the buildings from her mother. She said her major goal from the start has been sustainability — economic, environmental and social.
“When I started out, I obviously wanted to achieve economic sustainability before the other two,” she said.
After about five years of struggling to survive economically, she began working on environmental sustainability.
“That’s when we started composting and focusing on spending more money working toward soil improvements,” she said.
Much of the rented land she and Koenig have acquired has come out of the Conservation Reserve Program, so they have added contour strips as the first order of business before beginning to produce crops on the land.
Land coming out of the CRP program can be quickly certified organic as long as it wasn’t sprayed with chemicals for three years.
More recently, Raboine has been working on social sustainability, trying to educate people about agriculture.
“We do farm tours for Organic Valley and I’m part of the CROPP ambassador program,” she said. “I always invite people to stop by the farm. We never say no.”
Raboine, 33, is a member of the National Farmers Organization, Farm Bureau, and has been a youth and high school junior varsity softball coach for seven years.
Koenig, 32, always knew he wanted to farm full time but circumstances didn’t allow him to take over his family’s farm.
“He found the next best thing — me,” Raboine said with a smile. “I knew the first time he came over to the farm and started singing to the cows that I wanted to keep him here forever.”
“I love being my own boss,” Koenig said. “I’m a straight-up country boy.”
Koenig said he is young enough that he might enter the OYF contest himself someday after the farm’s facilities are upgraded.
“We’ve got a good start, but we still have got a long way to go,” he said of improvements to the farm.
If you go
What: Wisconsin Outstanding Young Farmer Finals Program.
When: Saturday, Jan. 28.
Where: Clarion Hotel and Glacier Rock Convention Center, 626 W. Pine St., Baraboo.
Information: Cindy or Harold Matton, 715-833-9469 or email@example.com.