The final stretch of road leading to Sassy Cow Creamery‘s production facility outside of Madison, WI is long and flanked by rolling farm fields and the occasional rural home. The few businesses along the way are a tavern, a used car lot and a gentleman’s club. To jaded city slickers and coastal residents (Midwesterners like to call them “Coasties”), this is textbook flyover territory — but if you love cheese on your eggs, butter on your pancakes or cream in your coffee, the region serves a distinctively noble purpose.
Wisconsin’s epithet — “America’s Dairyland” — is well deserved. The state produces a quarter of the United States’ cheese supply and 14 percent of the country’s milk supply, making it number one in cheese production in the US and number two in milk production behind California. The state is home to 11,490 dairy farms and 1.27 million dairy cows. In a state that prides itself on its glowing dairy industry, it takes something special to stand out above the rest.
Brothers James and Robert Baerwolf started Sassy Cow Creamery in 2008. The two had an extensive background in dairy framing: They were third-generation dairy farmers, working the land their grandfather bought in 1946. Adding a creamery to the business seemed like the logical next step. “We looked at it as another way to grow the business besides just adding cattle numbers,” says James. “We were at a good point in our farming careers to do so.” $1.5 million dollars later, the Baerwolf’s had their new milk-processing and bottling facility.
The shift from simply farming to farming and production came with its share of difficulties. “The biggest challenge to starting was the lack of information we had going into it,” says James. “We had considerable experience in dairying but no knowledge of processing.” Working out a successful business and distribution strategy was a challenge, as well. “The second-biggest challenge was just making people aware of who you are and what you do,” he adds.
But there are some serious benefits to small, family-owned operations like Sassy Cow. Traditionally, milk production facilities and dairy farms are separate entities. The production companies pick up the raw milk from these farms before actual processing begins. But Sassy Cow’s production facilities and farms are under the same ownership and are within spitting distance of each other. “We try to focus on bottling the freshest milk we can,” says James. “Since we own our own cows and they are right next to the creamery, many times we can be bottling the morning milking from the cows that afternoon.”
Freshness adds to quality, but there’s also merit to having James and Robert overseeing and ensuring the proper treatment of their herds. “Cows really are some pretty amazing animals,” James says. “We just do our best to allow them to do what they naturally do…we feel that when the weather is nice, cows should be allowed to be outside for health reasons.” When the weather allows, all the cows get to graze daily in shifts. Grazing dairy cattle is good for them as it reduces their risk for illnesses and injuries, and reduces the possibility that the cows need to be treated with antibiotics, a controversial practice in the dairy industry.
“Cows really are some pretty amazing animals,” James says. “We just do our best to allow them to do what they naturally do.”
The Baerwolfs have a herd of 400 dairy cows eating standard feed and 150 cows on an organic diet. While the organically fed cows allow for greater product diversity, it should be noted that the both Sassy Cow’s traditional and organic products don’t differ as much as one would think. For example, the use of recumbent bovine growth hormone (rBGH) — a method to produce more milk from a single cow — is acceptable in non-organic dairy cows but not practiced on Sassy Cow’s traditional livestock. According to Sassy Cow, the greatest difference between their two herds is that the traditional fields are treated with herbicides and the organic fields are not.
Sassy Cow Creamery isn’t the only family-owned farm that refines and bottles its own dairy products, but it is one of the most prolific, at least in the upper Midwest. Daily production is approximately 6,000 gallons of milk per day. That number is considerably smaller than corporate creameries, but enough to make wider distribution in cities like Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago possible. But rather than being preoccupied with large production quotas, Sassy Cow is interested in quality, and their unique setup allows them to keep a close eye on things, start to finish. And the proof is in the product: some of the finest milk in the Midwest, quality controlled from cow to carton.