Our family began dairy farming in the 1950’s, and for many years Kilgus Dairy operated as a traditional dairy selling milk into a commercial market. Then in the mid-1990’s, in a quest to produce milk with higher butterfat and protein content, we made the decision to transition our herd from Holsteins to Jersey cows. This was only the beginning of a long line of changes to come on the farm, but it is where the story begins…
Our Jersey Cows
We happily discovered that Jersey cows are more efficient grazers than Holsteins, eating about 30% less while producing milk that is more valuable and of a higher quality. Jersey milk also sets itself apart in the marketplace because higher butterfat and protein enhance milk flavor. Since transitioning our farm to Jersey cows, we have never looked back. In addition to all of the business benefits, we greatly enjoy the scenery before us now of the small, docile, brown cows grazing the lush green grasses of Central Illinois.
After the herd transition was complete, we were ready to make another major change to our farm. We converted over 50 acres of good black soil once used for growing corn and soybeans into a field of seventeen, two and a half acre grazing paddocks planted with lush rye and orchard grasses and clover to send our cows out to pasture. This was a huge change in how we do things, but one that has benefited our cows and our business in many different ways. These numerous and significant benefits include the following:
- We have healthier cows that live longer! Being in the grass instead of concrete lots is a lot easier on their feet and legs, and they also stay much healthier out in the fresh air. Their life expectancy has increased to over 8 years. This has also allowed us to increase our herd numbers from within our own herd.
- It’s good for the environment! Since our cows do all their own harvesting of pasture grasses, we aren’t out burning fuel to harvest feed for them to eat in the barn. They also spread their own waste into the pastures as they graze, supplying valuable nutrient-rich fertilizer back into the land and preventing the need for chemical fertilizers.
- Milk from pastured cows is better for you and has more flavor! It has been shown repeatedly that milk from cows primarily grazed on pasture has more nutrients in it that benefit consumer health including vitamin E, Omega-3 fatty acids, beta carotene, and CLAs (Conjugated Linoleic Acid). In addition, milk from pastured cows reveals the seasonality of the grasses they are grazed on in subtle flavor variations throughout the year. The milk tastes rich and delicious.
- We save money! We spend less on traditional feed, and have calculated that our costs are $3-4 less per hundred weight of milk than confinement operations.
Grazing on Our Farm
On the farm, we have 160 registered Jersey milking cows and from April until late November, they are out grazing in the pastures. Every night, after the evening milking, the cows are led out into their pasture where water is also available. In the morning, they return to the barn for another milking. During the winter months the cows are fed a ration of non-GMO corn silage that we grow here on the farm, as well as a variety of grass hay, and alfalfa hay that we grow. In the summer, their pasture ration is also supplemented with the same mixed ration. In our pasture system, our cows are rotated to a fresh paddock of grass every 24 hours. The cows eat a paddock down and then transition to the next, allowing each paddock a period of two full weeks to grow back before it is grazed again. We mow the paddocks a few times every year to help keep the grass fresh and to prevent weeds from growing. No chemicals are ever sprayed on our grasses, all weed control is done by mowing the paddocks down.
On-Farm Creamery & Meat Animals
In 2009, after intensive research and planning inspired by fluctuating milk prices and the desire to create opportunities for future generations of the Kilgus family, we decided to shift our business model from selling milk into commercial markets to selling our own bottled milk. We built an on-farm creamery and country store and began building our reputation as the only local supplier of single-source milk bottled on a farm in Illinois. While this didn’t change much about how we farm, it altered a lot about how our business and family work together, intensifying the need for all hands on deck and creating a new focal point for us to organize around.
Meanwhile, in 2004, Justin and Trent Kilgus established a small meat goat operation as part of a 4-H project, and built a large permanent hoop structure for their goats through a grant for small farms supplying products to Chicago restaurants. Demand for Kilgus goat meat grew more rapidly than anticipated and before long this project became an important component of the Kilgus Farmstead business. There are now approximately 500 Boer goats on our farm and we built an additional heated maternity barn in 2013 where kids are birthed in February through May each year.
We chose the Boer breed because they are the best goats for high quality meat production. They were bred in South Africa in the early 1900s specifically for meat production rather than milk, which is unique for goats. Their breed combined with a diet high in non-GMO corn grown on our farm produces a marbling effect in the meat that is highly appreciated by high-end chefs for flavor and texture.
Our Steers & Hogs
Along with the goat meat, the beef and pork side of the business has grown parallel with our creamery while providing additional opportunities to include more of our family in the Kilgus Farmstead business.
Increased milk production has meant growing our Jersey herd, including the number of steers born and raised. Raising steers for beef has been a natural offshoot from our dairy operation – the majority of the young Jersey steers used in the meat operation are from the farm’s closed herd. As demand for our local farm-raised beef has grown, we have increased our herd accordingly. We now have 140 Jersey steers on our farm. They live in open pens and are fed non-GMO corn silage grown exclusively by Kilgus Farmstead.
We started raising a few hogs for personal use and local sales, feeding them the excess milk we had available when we first began bottling our own milk. We initially chose a commercial breed, but then through our goat sales, developed relationships with chefs in the Chicago area who wanted access to local Berkshire pork because they love its distinctly rich flavor, juiciness, and tenderness. We started raising Berkshires in response to this demand and we agree that the flavor and quality is superior! We are currently raising approximately 150 Berkshire hogs, purchasing some of our piglets from a neighboring farm to help us meet market demands while we experiment with farrowing our own sows. Eventually we want to be able to raise our hogs from start to finish, like all other Kilgus Farmstead products. Our farmstead milk sales are so successful that we no longer have milk available to feed our hogs; instead they are fed a high quality diet of non-GMO corn also grown by the Kilgus family.