September 21, 2023

Dairy diversifies: Operation sells milk bottled at farmstead

FAIRBURY, Ill. — Dairy products made at the Kilgus Farmstead are available for purchase in over 150 locations.

Diversification of the farming operation occurred in 2009 when the family started bottling the milk from the Jersey herd.

“We had more family members coming back into the operation,” explained Matt Kilgus during the Forage Expo held at the farm and sponsored by the Illinois Forage and Grassland Council.

“We thought it was a good niche market because nobody else in Illinois at that time was doing a farmstead bottled milk,” Matt said. “We are doing a non-homogenized milk to differentiate ourselves from other brands on the shelf.”

The first milk was bottled in June 2009.

“We launched the brand and we had about 20 local stores and restaurants interested in our product, so we cut our herd back to 70 cows,” the dairyman said.

About six months later a distributor from Chicago that sold a lot of local products heard about the farm’s product.

“They were interested in carrying our milk, which helped us get into some Chicago markets, and now about half of our business is going up there,” Matt said.

Products made from the Jersey milk include whole, 2%, skim and chocolate milk, heavy cream, half-and-half, and eggnog seasonally, as well as an ice cream mix.

“We went from selling about 700 gallons of milk per week to 6,000 to 6,500 gallons now,” Matt said.

Milk is processed on the farm on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

“We have three to four people working in the plant and we do about 1,500 gallons of milk on Wednesday and Friday and about 2,300 gallons on Monday,” the dairyman said. “Our pasteurizer can do about 600 gallons per hour.”

Visitors to the Kilgus Farmstead Country Store can watch the bottling process through a large window.

“We also opened the store in 2009 and the store traffic grows a little bit each year,” Matt said.

Along with the dairy products, customers at the store also can purchase beef from the Jersey steers, Berkshire pork or Boar goat meat. Additional local products are also available in the store, including cheese, cow’s milk soap, honey, coffee and eggs.

Since the milk is non-homogenized, it has a cream line.

“People who are not educated about this might think it’s bad,” the dairyman said. “But people shopping in health food markets know more specifically what they’re shopping for, so that wasn’t as big of a hurdle.”

Another market that was unfamiliar to the dairymen is the coffee shops.

“We had no idea that market existed, but now over half of our production goes to coffee shops,” Matt said.

The dairymen began rotationally grazing their Jersey herd a few years before they started bottling their milk.

“We like rotational grazing for the herd health and when we started bottling it was an excellent marketing tool,” said Paul Kilgus.

The 140-head of registered Jersey cows are fed non-GMO feed.

“That is also one of our marketing tools, so our ration is corn silage, alfalfa baleage, dry hay and earlage,” Paul said. “We feed linseed meal as our protein base because if we feed soybean meal you can pick up the flavors in the milk.”

Several years ago the family built a compost barn for the Jersey herd that replaced a freestall barn.

“When we started rotational grazing, our biggest struggle was the cows would not transition back to the stalls after being on pasture all summer,” Paul explained.

“I would never go back to a freestall barn because the compost barn is very compatible with pasture,” Paul said. “We get a lot of tours and many of the people have hardly been on a farm, so this barn is a lot more public friendly.”

The cows are milked twice a day.

“During the summer the cows graze 12 hours a day, so after milking in the afternoon they go out and graze until the next morning,” Paul said. “They stay under the fans in the barn during the day.”

For the winter months, the cows stay in the compost barn all day.

“We till the compost after every milking with a cultivator,” Paul said. “We need to till at least 10 inches deep to get aeration.”

Sawdust is added to the barn twice a week, on Tuesday and Friday.

“We add 2 inches of sawdust and it’s like adding fuel to the fire,” Paul explained. “If we till and the compost is not steaming, then it’s time to add more sawdust and the deeper it gets the better it composts.”

Compost is applied to crop fields right after silage chopping is completed.

“We haul out two-thirds and leave one-third of the compost in the barn,” Paul said. “We like about one foot of cover to keep the compost going.”

With the compost barn, Paul said, the cows stay clean and the mastitis is low.

“The cows run around 60-pound milk average per cow and the Jerseys are very good grazers,” he added.

The rotational grazing system includes 60 acres.

“Our paddocks are 2 3/4 to 3 acres and we move the cows every day,” Paul said.

“We’ve got cows 15 years old and we’re building cow families to sell genetics,” he said. “We sell a fair amount of breeding stock.”

Martha Blum

Martha Blum

Field Editor