INDEPENDENCE, Wis. – The cows will be ringing in the dairy breakfast at George and Mary Gierok’s farm in Trempealeau County when they show off their Swiss cow bells, part of the farm’s Swiss heritage.
Cow bells are a family tradition brought to America by Mary Gierok’s father who immigrated when he was 19 from Toggenberg Canton in northern Switzerland. The Swiss use bells on their cows so they can locate them on their high-elevation summer pastures, which tend to be quite foggy.
The bells are made by blacksmiths using steel and brass. Each bell maker has a distinct design; the bells come in a variety of sizes and sounds. The Gieroks have a variety of bells, starting with the one her godmother gave them for their wedding. Through the years they have collected more bells from visitors who deliver them from Switzerland. And there are a few special bells made from farm scrap by Gierok’s father, Josef “Wisi” Bragger.
As a boy George Gierok thought the idea of cows with bells was crazy. But then his in-laws gifted the newlywed couple with bells.
“I didn’t dare take them off,” he said. “The sound grew on me.”
The bells are worn by the cows during the summer months; they make a melodic sound while they graze.
Cow bells are a practical addition to the Gierok farm, which has steep hillsides that are not well suited to cropping.
Gierok said when driving tractor on the slopes, “If you start slipping it cleans out your arteries.”
The dairy herd of 55 primarily Holstein cows are pastured six months of the year on the 285-acre farm.
“I can tell you if they are running, grazing or resting,” he said. “And I can tell each cow by her bell’s sound.”
The bells are also a great aid when a fresh cow is hiding with her calf.
The Gieroks have made several trips back to Switzerland, where they noticed the cows look perfect. Gierok said part of that is from the effects of tourism in the region, where bringing the cows home from the mountains in the fall is a big draw. He also thinks it’s because they don’t burn out their cows trying to have big production numbers.
The Gierok herd has a 14,000-pound herd average eating cob corn, hay and silage. Although the numbers are not big, Gierok said the farm is profitable not because of what he is making, but what he isn’t spending. He doesn’t have large equipment, has no desire to grow bigger and has healthy maintenance-free cattle. As an example he points to his cob corn. If he ensiled his corn, he would need more equipment to harvest it, something to store it in and a timetable to feed it before spoiling.
What money is spent operating the farm supports many people.
“Farmers have lots of employees they don’t realize depend on them,” Gierok said.
His examples include feed-sales representatives and equipment dealers. That gives the Gieroks a reason to host the dairy breakfast.
The couple like to share their bit of country paradise. Every year they have school kids tour the farm, they host a church service every summer and they have had three exchange students live with them. This is their second dairy breakfast.
“We like to teach people about dairy and what it takes to farm,” he said. “I like to show people that everything out here is real.”
He also likes the reaction when older people see how he farms and reminisce about the way dairy farming once was before the big expansions.
“I like the response of the people,” Gierok said. “The older generation notice the details. It’s not true that you have to be big to be successful. This setup can be as profitable as we want it to be.”