Our family has farmed the same land in central Illinois for decades, and a love for farming runs long and deep in our history. We became dairy farmers in the 1950s, and as times changed and our family grew, we worked together to devise creative solutions to diversify our farm business and include more family members. This led to falling in love with Jersey cows and sending them out to pasture, building an on-farm creamery to bottle our own milk, and finally to raising goats, steers, and hogs to provide a line of farmstead meats. Our original dairy farm has evolved into a multi-generational independent family business with four families working together to produce, market, and distribute Kilgus Farmstead dairy and meat products.
Kilgus Dairy was founded by Duane and Arlene Kilgus in Fairbury, Illinois in 1958. The farm was purchased from Duane’s father, Herman Kilgus, who owned the land and milked a handful of cows during Duane’s childhood. When they married in 1955, Duane owned and operated a grocery store in town, but soon realized that he needed to be outside working on the farm. Given that Arlene had grown up bottling milk on a dairy farm, she was supportive of making this leap to start their own farm.
Duane and Arlene Kilgus started milking 55 Holstein cows and sold their milk into a local cooperative for over 30 years. They raised seven children together, and many of their children and grandchildren share Duane and Arlene’s innate love for farming. When a farming accident caused Duane to have to give up his life’s work in 1989, the next generation stepped up to take over the dairy farm.
Seeking a way to earn more income to preserve the family farm, Duane Kilgus’s sons Paul and Jeff grew the dairy herd. They also made the decision to transition from Holsteins to Jersey cows because Jersey milk demanded a higher price in the commodity market due to higher butterfat content.
Less than ten years after passing the farm on to the next generation, tragedy struck the Kilgus family again, and Duane’s son Jeff died of cancer. Duane’s grandson, Matt Kilgus, began working full-time on the farm in his father’s place. He was only in high school at the time, but became a full partner with his uncle Paul after graduating from college.
Sending our cows out to pasture
In their new partnership, Paul and Matt made another major change to the farm. After learning about the benefits of pasturing dairy cows and how well-suited Jerseys are to the grazing life, they decided to implement seasonal rotational grazing on the farm. They converted over 50 acres of good black soil once used for growing corn and soybeans into 17 grazing paddocks planted with lush rye, orchard grasses, and clover.
Still considering how to best preserve the family farm for future generations, Matt and Paul and their families explored many options. Ultimately, after intensive research and planning, they decided to build an on-farm creamery. In 2009 Kilgus Dairy began bottling and distributing their own milk and Kilgus Farmstead was born.
From April until late November, our dairy cows are out grazing in our pastures. Every night, after the evening milking, the cows are led out into the pasture. In the morning, they return to the barn for another milking. 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 pastures. This system allows us to provide the highest quality grasses for our cows to eat, and also to maintain the land in the most natural state that we can.
During the winter months, our cows are fed a mixed ration of our own non-GMO corn silage, grass hay, and alfalfa hay. In the summer, their diet is also supplemented with the same mixed ration as needed. In addition to spending time outdoors grazing as weather permits, we also have a compost bedded pack barn where our cows are free to roam and can lounge and relax comfortably in deep, soft compost bedding. The whole goal is to provide the maximum quality care for our animals to in turn produce a very healthy, high quality product.
We have found that shifting to a pasture-based system is good for the health of our cows, our customers, and the sustainability of our farm. Some of our findings from experience include: