INDEPENDENCE — When George Gierok has to track down a stray member of his dairy herd, he just has get to the top of a hill and have a listen.
Farming with the Swiss traditions his wife, Mary, grew up with, the herd at High Hillside Acres is outfitted with cowbells when they are on pasture from spring through fall.
“I’ll shut the four-wheeler off and just listen a little bit,” he said. “This gives them away every time.”
“I was always around cowbells growing up,” Mary said. “The cowbells are great. It sounds good. But we’re able to find the cows in the pasture or if something doesn’t come home, or especially the dry cows when they’re freshening, we’re able to find them if one isn’t with the group.”
Visitors will be able to enjoy the sound of cowbells June 8, when the Gieroks host the 39th annual Trempealeau County Dairy Breakfast. The breakfast typically draws about 2,000 people to the farm, according to Kay Wiemer of the Trempealeau County Dairy Promotions Committee.
“It’s a unique, small family farm tucked in a valley,” Wiemer said. “It’s a great place for the breakfast.”
The Gieroks’ farm consists of 285 acres, 132 of which are tillable. The Gieroks grow about 50 acres of corn and some oats and hay, but a majority of the farm is hilly and wooded pastures, which are divided between the milking cows, maternity cows and heifers.
“I’ll be sure to put the bells on my dry cows,” he said. “On my dry cow pastures, a fair amount of it is wooded. If something calves sooner than you thought it would, they like to go hide their calf.”
Mary’s father moved to Wisconsin from Switzerland and started farming in the Traverse Valley, north of Independence. George grew up on the other side of the valley from Mary. Their romance started on the school bus, George said, and the pair dated seven years before marrying on Mary’s family farm in 1992.
Both knew they wanted to dairy farm, and they looked at about 30 farms before buying their property between the two home farms in 1991.
The Gieroks’ herd is made up of 55 cows, 61 heifers and a registered Holstein bull. The family milks twice a day in a 50-cow stanchion barn.
“We’ve got five more than 50 stalls, and that’s five too many,” George said.
The pastures are supplemented with corn silage and ground cob corn, with a mix that includes oats and vitamins and minerals. The Gieroks don’t buy added proteins for the mix.
They raise their own replacement animals but keep a close eye on the size of the herd, selling up to half the replacements as springing heifers each year.
The family frequently hosts church on the farm and has hosted school groups for nearly two decades, George said.
“We’re always hosting something,” George said. “Nobody does it like this anymore. We’re milking cows in a stanchion barn and keeping everything nice.”
George and Mary have four sons, Samuel, who died as a toddler, Aaron, Mason and Owen, and a daughter, Jorgiann.
George and Mary have traveled to Switzerland several times and always return with cowbells to add to their collection. The couple makes a point to keep a strong connection with relatives in Switzerland, staying with family when they travel and hosting family members when they visit Wisconsin.
Each visit brings more cowbells back to the farm.
George said there used to be a handful of farms in the area using cowbells, but now it’s just them.
“The neighbors a couple miles away can hear them, and they’ll go, ‘Oh, that’s George and Mary’s cows,’” he said. “You can tell if they’re running or if they’re grazing or if they’re just lying down chewing their cud.
“It’s like living next to the highway, you get to the point you don’t even hear it anymore. You have to stop and listen. The sound is always there.”
The Gieroks operate with low overhead, paying cash for machinery and doing as much work themselves as possible.
“It’s not the money we make, it’s the money we don’t have to make,” George said. “Everything here, my wife and I physically put here. We didn’t hire somebody to build it for us.”
Mary works as a nurse at Gundersen Tri-County Memorial Hospital in Whitehall.
“She’s been working as a nurse almost as long as we’ve known each other,” George said. “I look at that as being diversified. If something happens here or something happens with my health or something happens where this whole thing isn’t going to work, we still have that.
“But it’s no different than having pigs or chickens or something on the side.”
The Gieroks also hosted the Trempealeau County Dairy Breakfast 14 years ago. George said the family decided to host the event this time around after the county was struggling to find a host.
“Tradition has kind of gotten lost a little in this industry,” George said. “I want to show people who come to the dairy breakfast that this little outfit can be great and that we can be a small producer and do quite well. This farm can be profitable.
“The world is so far from farming that I feel like it’s not just promoting anymore, it’s making people aware of it. This is real.”