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Serving: WI

Brian and Yogi Brown build top-notch dairy farm

Fran O’Leary Yogi and Brian Brown standing in barn with Holstein cows in background
CARING FOR COWS: Yogi and Brian Brown care for 500 Holstein cows in a sand-and-sawdust-bedded freestall barn. Their commitment to detail saw their milk production increase 10,000 pounds in 10 years.
These Master Agriculturists milk 500 Holsteins and farm 1,000 acres.

Brian Brown grew up on his family’s dairy farm south of Madison near Belleville, Wis. Throughout his childhood, he was active in 4-H and FFA and was on several dairy judging teams.

“I always knew I wanted to work with cows,” says Brian, who is receiving the Master Agriculturist award this year.

In 1979, he met a girl from nearby Verona named Yogi. “I met him at my high school graduation party,” she says. “I grew up in town, and I didn’t know anything about farming, so I took a few ag classes at University of Wisconsin-Platteville.”

Related: Master Agriculturists: Wisconsin’s cream of the crop

Early years

After graduating from UW-Madison Farm and Industry Short Course in 1980, Brian rented a farm near his family’s dairy farm so he could start building equity in cows and equipment.

In 1983, after Yogi graduated from UW-Platteville, the two were married. A year later, they formed a partnership with Brian’s dad and bought a dairy farm adjacent to the home farm.

“The barn had 60 stanchions, and we milked 90 cows,” Brian says.

Brian and Yogi envisioned a facility that offered improvement in cow comfort and labor efficiencies.

“It was also important to us to expand our operation so we could attend our kids’ games and other activities,” Brian explains. “That wasn’t happening when we were milking 90 cows in a 60-stanchion barn and switching.”

In 1998, the Browns chose a new site on their farm to construct a 300-cow freestall barn and milking parlor. In 2007, they bought Brian’s dad’s half of the farm, and a second freestall barn was built.

Today, the Browns care for 500 Holstein cows in a sand-and-sawdust-bedded freestall barn at their farm, Sunburst Dairy. Cows are milked three times a day. The family’s commitment to detail saw their milk production increase 10,000 pounds in 10 years.

“We like this size dairy because we can take time off and so can our employees,” Brian says. In addition to themselves, 10 employees work full time on the farm.

Brian believes in employing a well-trained staff. He and Yogi provide training sessions for cow handling, cow psychology and safety. They emphasize the importance of producing high-quality milk and meat, and the teamwork and fun that is involved.

While Brian is busy with all aspects of farm work, Yogi handles the accounting, employees and feeding the baby calves. Calves are raised on the farm until they are 6 months of age; then they go to a custom heifer grower. They return to the farm prior to calving.

Helping with research

For the past 20 years, the Browns have worked with Dr. Nigel Cook, chair of the Department of Medical Sciences in the School of Veterinary Medicine at UW-Madison.

“Sunburst Dairy was one of the first dairy farms in Wisconsin to join the 30/30 club — elite herds that have achieved over 30,000 pounds of milk per cow and a pregnancy rate of more than 30%,” Cook says.

Because the Browns have a top-notch dairy and they live close to Madison, they frequently host international guests and visitors from all over the country at their farm, especially during World Dairy Expo. They enjoy sharing their knowledge and experience with others, and explaining the challenges and pitfalls of what they have learned.

“Sunburst Dairy was the very first commercial farm in the world where anyone had ever attempted to videotape cow behavior and construct a cow’s daily time budget,” Cook says. “Brian allowed us to poke around the barn, hang up electrical cords and spend the night checking the cameras to make sure they were still working.”

Cook says the Browns’ second freestall barn “was a giant leap forward in cow comfort and would not have happened but for Brian’s willingness to take a risk.”

He explains, “The stalls in the new barn were the first 10-foot-long and 50-inch-wide sand-bedded stalls constructed anywhere — and what we learned from the cows in that barn has fueled the recommendations that are now the industry standard.”

Crops and conservation

The Browns own 360 acres and rent 700 acres. They grow corn, alfalfa and soybeans on 1,000 acres. Twenty percent of their crop acres are irrigated with center-pivot irrigation, which has been a plus this year with the drought in southern counties in the state.

Brian no-tills his corn, plants cover crops and follows a manure management plan developed by a crop consultant.

He is also involved in local conservation efforts and leads the Farmers for the Upper Sugar River Watershed Association. He has had a couple of watershed projects completed on his farm to stabilize the banks of the Upper Sugar River, which flows through the farm, to reduce soil erosion and improve water quality.

“I talk to urban people in the watershed, and I explain to them what no-till is and what a nutrient management plan is,” he says. “That helps build trust between the two groups.”

Brian also serves on the board of directors for Alcivia Cooperative (formerly Landmark Services).

All about family

The Browns are active in their community and farm organizations, and enjoy spending time with their family. They have four grown children, two daughters-in-law and, so far, three grandchildren.

Their son Cory is assistant farm manager at Sunburst Dairy, and his wife, Katy, is a calf specialist. Their oldest daughter, Erin, is an office designer. Their son Chris is a production engineer. He is married to Rachel, who is a pharmacist. Their youngest daughter, Whitney, is a production laboratory technician. In the fall, Whitney will begin working on a master’s degree in reproductive physiology in livestock at the University of Wyoming.

Brian treasures his memories of the kids when they were younger showing dairy cattle and other 4-H projects at county and state fairs. Yogi believes the farm was a great place for their kids to grow up.

“1 think our kids really became global people with so many visitors coming to our farm from all over the world and from the United States,” she explains. “They were exposed to many different cultures, and that was really neat for them. I’m glad they had those experiences.”

2021 Master Agriculturist

Brian Brown
Age: 60
Location: Belleville, Dane County, Wisconsin
Farming enterprises: 500 Holstein cows, 500 Holstein heifers, crops
Size of farm: 360 owned and 700 rented acres
Family: Wife Yogi; daughters Erin and Whitney; son Chris and his wife, Rachel; son Cory and his wife, Katy; three grandchildren
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