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Family farm focuses on genetics, sustainability and conservation

The fourth generation farm is owned by Brey brothers Tony and Jacob

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November 1, 2023

DOOR COUNTY – Just north of Algoma, but south of Sturgeon Bay, on the eastern side of southern Door County, is the Brey Cycle Farm. 

Owned by brothers Tony and Jacob Brey and their wives – Moriah and Lauren, respectively – the fourth-generation family farm was started in 1904 by their great-grandfather, George Brey Sr.

It was subsequently taken over by their grandfather, George, Jr.; by Tony and Jacob’s parents, Bill and Clarice, in the 1970s; and, finally, by them in 2016.

“Our dad was the first in our family to get a four-year college degree, graduating from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls,” Jacob said. “He and our mom bought the farm in the 1970s from our grandparents and they farmed it for more than 40 years.”

The Brey brothers, who grew up helping out on the farm, said things have definitely evolved over the years.

Tony said when their folks bought the farm it was very diversified with a combination of dairy cattle, pigs and chickens, and even a small orchard. 

“Back then it was quite common for small dairy farms to have some fruit trees,” he said. “But our parents focused more on the dairy side of the farm. They initially had about 30 milking cows and my dad’s goal was to have about 70. But they ended up with about 200.”

Tony graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a dairy science degree and returned to the family farm in 2007 to help their parents run it.

By the time Jacob graduated college – also from UW-Madison, with a dairy science degree – and returned to the family farm in 2016, he said the herd had doubled to about 400 dairy cattle. 

Brey Cycle Farm is owned and operated by Lauren and Jacob Brey (with their two children), left, and Tony and Moriah Brey (with their two kids). Photo Courtesy of Brey Cycle Farm

In the years that the brothers and their wives – who also have degrees within the agriculture or related fields from UW-Madison – have owned the farm, the dairy herd has doubled yet again. 

Genetics in breeding
The brothers said they anticipate they will expand beyond the 800 cows they currently have, but said they are determined to focus on genetics and getting the best cattle possible, more so than just randomly increasing the herd.

“Tony and I are very passionate about the genetics side of our milking herd,” Jacob said. “We use embryo transfer to grow the herd. So, we have our elite genetic animals and we make embryos from them and implant them into cows we call ‘recipients.’”

Jacob said by focusing on genetics and breeding, cows live longer, healthier lives.

“We’ve been able to make more heifers from our best cows,” he said. “That has helped the farm grow because we have cows living longer than we used to. We take a keen interest in studying the genetics of our cows and the sire selection that we use to make the next generation a little bit better than the previous one.”

More than just a name
Jacob said the family is frequently asked about the meaning behind the Brey Cycle Farm name and are always excited to explain it. 

“When our dad and mom purchased the farm, they bought their first registered Holstein,” he said. “A registered Holstein is very much like a pedigreed dog who is registered through the American Kennel Club. Today, all of our cows are registered Holsteins.”

Jacob said Brey Cycle Farm has registration papers on every single one of its animals and can trace their lineage back to the beginning.

“Most of their (ancestry) goes back to before World War II,” he said. “Our parents came up with the name Cycle Farm because of the cycle of farming – the markets, the seasons, everything that goes into the life cycle of a cow, the crops and whatnot. That’s where the name came from.”

Brey Family Beef is formed
The Breys said they are passionate about their animals, land, family and local community – and said sustainability is a primary focus of theirs. 

But, Jacob said it’s more than just being responsible stewards of the land, growing high-quality crops to feed their animals so they can produce nutritious food for people to consume – but about finding ways to reinvent the farm so it can last for another 100-plus years. 

One way they’ve done that, Jacob said, is to begin selling beef and beef products.

Though focusing much of their genetic efforts on making the next generation of dairy cows, in recent years, Jacob said it’s become more common in dairy cattle breeding to cross a lower-quality Holstein dairy cow with an Angus beef breed, thereby making a beef animal.  

“We actually started doing this in 2017 and after a few years of raising beef cattle, as a way to somewhat diversify and to have more income (and be more sustainable as a business), we started selling beef directly to our community and neighbors, through a (secondary) business called Brey Family Beef,” he said.   

The Brey family uses a technique called managed grazing with its cows to ensure healthy plants and soil year-round. Photo Courtesy of Brey Cycle Farm

Launched at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jacob said Brey Family Beef helps support many of the local churches and the annual firemens’ picnic with donations of beef products. 

And, he said, they sell “pretty much every cut of meat you can imagine.”

Jacob said most of the farm’s beef is sold either through the online store or face-to-face with people coming to the farmstand to buy it directly.

A healthy cow is a happy cow
Years ago, Jacob said much of the focus was placed on breeding cows to maximize the production of the cows – including the fat, the protein and the milk.

In the last 10-15 years, however, he said there’s been more of an emphasis put on the longevity of the cows.

“We try to breed what we call ‘trouble-free’ cows, so she calves on her own, she doesn’t have many health issues, she doesn’t get lame – she breeds back quickly to come into calf, for example,” he said. “So, we’ve been putting more of an emphasis on that side of the breeding.”

Jacob said it costs a farmer quite a bit of money to raise a cow to live to have her first calf.

“You have two years invested by the time she has her first calf, so if you can have a cow live to be six, seven or eight versus three, four or five, the cow is obviously living longer because she’s healthier and happier and things are going good,” he said.

Jacob said trouble-free cows need fewer vaccines, antibiotics and veterinarian and drug costs.

“Our veterinary costs are less because the cows are more trouble-free than they used to be,” he said. “That’s a win-win for us.”

Conservation practices, new technologies
The Brey farm is nestled on nearly 200 acres on which they grow all of the crops they feed their animals – corn silage, alfalfa, rye, sorghum sudan grass, triticale and winter wheat.

The Breys also buy some crops from neighboring farms and minerals and vitamins are purchased from local feed suppliers. 

“One thing unique about our farm is that we plant all of our land in a cover crop called triticale,” Jacob said. “It’s a winter forage that’s a cross between rye and wheat.”

Jacob said they like triticale because they are able to no-till plant it after the corn silage harvest is completed every fall.

“So, we can have a green, living cover crop growing in a field where we just harvested corn from less than a week earlier,” he said.

This cover crop, Jacob said, continues to grow all fall, winter and spring – even under the snow. “It also scavenges all the nutrients in the soil that otherwise would be susceptible to erosion,” he said. “It really helps build the soil health and organic matter in the soil because you’re increasing the water infiltration because you have a living root growing in the ground versus just bare soil.”

Jacob said it’s a game-changer as far as how they manage the land compared to 20 years ago.

“The roots are digging deeper into the soil all fall and winter, and as soon as the soil and the temperatures warm up in the springtime, we’re able to harvest it to feed our cows,” he said.

Low-disturbance manure injection
Traditionally, Jacob said, a dairy farm would apply their manure, then plow it into the soil.

But about five or six years ago the Breys started using a new technology called low-disturbance manure injection or application. 

Jacob said a piece of equipment is attached to the back of the tractor or manure tanker, and the soil is injected (with manure) only about two inches or so beneath the surface, on average.

Then the slits in the soil where the manure was placed are closed – a process that Jacob said accomplishes several things. 

“It allows us to not have to plow the ground, so we can continue to use no-till,” he said. “It also puts the nutrients right into the root zone, because two inches down is where the majority of roots are going to get started and be able to readily absorb all the nutrients that the manure carries.”

Interseeding is a technique Brey Cycle Farm uses to incorporate cover crops into a cropping system during the growing period. The cover crops are seeded in-between the corn rows. Photo Courtesy of Brey Cycle Farm

Jacob said the application also makes the farm more efficient by not having to make as many passes across the field for tillage.

“It also allows us to still use the manure which, to a dairy farmer, is a great asset because it helps fertilize all the crops we need to grow to feed our cows,” he said. “So, we’re able to grow our crops in a more environmentally-friendly and sustainable way, as opposed to the traditional way of plowing the ground. So, we have a cover crop growing while we’re using this injection method.” 

Jacob said the process also helps reduce nitrogen loss and fits in well with the farm’s cropping system because immediately after the cover crop is harvested in the spring, manure is injected in the soil and corn can be planted mere days afterward. 

“So, between the cover crop and the corn crop, our ground literally has a crop growing in it 360 days of the year,” he said. “That’s a great way for us to maximize the nutrients in the manure, but also to keep the ground cover and to not use tillage and to do all the things we’re trying to do to overall increase the soil health and the productivity of the ground that we farm.” 

Brey Cycle Farm’s pasture management system, Jacob said, is referred to as “managed grazing” – meaning the animals are moved between paddocks to ensure plants have adequate time to recover, while keeping the soil covered and healthy throughout the year.

The animals, Jacob said, then recycle the nutrients they graze on while out to pasture through their manure which eventually fertilizes the ground – hence, he said, another way the name Brey Cycle Farm rings true. 

A fifth-generation farm?
Both Brey brothers and their wives have two small children and while they hope their kids will someday take over the farm, like they did, Jacob said there’s a lot of things that go into whether kids take over a business from their parents.
“We’re just going to raise our kids the right way on the farm, like we were raised and they can someday decide for themselves what their passions are,” Jabos said. “But I think if we show them the opportunities that farming and agriculture (offer) they’ll hopefully take a liking to it like we did.”

Jacob said he and his brother are “very proud to be a fourth-generation family business” that’s been in Door County for almost 120 years.

“We’re excited about the future of farming,” he said. “It has a lot of challenges but it’s also very rewarding. We try to do the best we can with how we raise our cattle and our crops, and we’re looking forward to continuing to be a part of this community for many more years to come. We don’t really know where the future’s going to take us, but I think if we keep doing a good job of caring for our cattle and our land, the farm will evolve well into the future.”

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