Pete Tetzner begins his workday every day at 4:30 a.m.

It’s a fact of life. If you operate a dairy farm, you get up early. You sometimes go to bed late. And there are no holidays or vacations. The cows need to be milked and tended to every day, whether that’s Christmas or a family member’s funeral.

“You get used to it,” he said laconically.

By 7 a.m. Tetzner and farm employee Bernice Bizub are bagging milk.

Tetzner’s Dairy just south of Washburn is unique among Wisconsin dairies. While the average number of cows on a Wisconsin dairy is approaching 200, Tetzner’s remains a small family operation with just 60 milking cows at a time. The number of dairies in the state is shrinking rapidly. Last year, Wisconsin lost 818 dairy operations, mostly due to a five-year slump in dairy prices that has many farmers losing money with every gallon of milk they produce.

Yet the Tetzner family has been able to stay in business and provide for a family that includes Pete; his brother, Matt; their dad, Phil; and his brother, Gregg, as well as their spouses and children in a dairy that is a fraction of the size of a typical dairy.

They have survived by using bagged-milk system that is common in Canada but largely unknown in the United States.

“We even bought the bagging machine in Canada,” Pete said.

About a third of the milk they produce is cream-separated to produce low-fat milk or left unseparated for whole milk, pasteurized, and homogenized. It is then fed into the bagging machine, which measures the milk into tough, transparent half-gallon plastic bags, seals and discharges them into a receiving area where two bags are placed by hand into a second bag with the Tetzner logo on it. The bags are taped shut and placed in plastic crates ready to be shipped to retailers including the Chequamegon Food Cooperative, Midland Co-Op in Ashland and the Cenex Co-op in Washburn, Super H Foods in Ashland as well as the Benoit Cheese Haus.

The balance of the milk is shipped to the National Farmers Organization marketing operation, but it is the enthusiastic market for fresh, locally produced milk that keeps the dairy in business.

“We wouldn’t be here without it,” Pete Tetzner said. The dairy produces between 300 and 400 gallons of bagged milk a day — quite an evolution on the farm that started in 1891 when Frank Tetzner bought 80 acres of land with the idea of raising beef cattle and hogs to supply a meat market he owned in Washburn.

He found dairying to be more profitable and with that Tetzner’s Dairy was born. In 1920, his son Earnest began a route, selling raw milk in glass containers until sometime in the 1950s, when the route ceased but not local sales of milk. People took to coming out to the farm for the milk, establishing a tradition of on-the-farm milk sales that continues to this day.

In 1976, Wisconsin outlawed the sale of raw milk to consumers, so Tetzner’s built a processing plant that includes equipment to make ice cream and the regionally famed ice cream sandwiches that are a huge hit with summer visitors.

Among the innovations installed at the dairy is a Netherlands-manufactured Lely Astronaut milking robot that allows cows to self-milk. When a cow gets that uncomfortable full feeling, “all she has to do is walk over to the milking stand, where a chip in a band around her neck is read to identify the cow. The milking apparatus then uses a laser to precisely attach milking cups. As an incentive, the cow is given a tasty treat to munch on while the milking takes place. When the milking and cleaning is done, a gate opens and the cow is free to wander out of the milking stall. It isn’t unusual to have two or three cows waiting their turn in line to be milked, Tetzner said.

Although the milking unit represents a considerable capital expenditure, there is also an important labor savings, and allowing the cows to choose when they will be milked means an overall increase in the amount of milk produced, Tetzner said.

All of the efficiencies the family can muster are needed to keep the business profitable. And it is worth fighting for, Tetzner said.

“Some days you just scratch your head, but a big motivator for me is how happy people are with the products,” he said. “Their support keeps us going.”

Tetzner, one of the fourth generation of the family to help manage the farm, said there is nothing else he would rather do.

“As a little kid, I just loved being at the farm; something like that gets in your blood. I’d hate to see us ever sell the cows. You do what you have to do to keep doing what you like to do,” he said. “I have little kids now too; the farm is a good place to raise kids and teach them how to work.”