LANCASTER, Wis. – The rolling hills of Lancaster were not always home to Stone-Front Farm. Elam and Barbara Buttles were managing a 70-cow dairy 14 years ago at the opposite side of the state in Racine County. Not exactly farm country, the location between Chicago and Milwaukee is better-suited for interstate traffic than dairy farming.
When son Andy Buttles graduated in 1996 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the time had come to trade field stones for greener pastures.
“We looked at a lot of farms,” Buttles said. “This site (in Lancaster) already had a parlor and a freestall barn we could start with. And it’s an ag-based area, which we really liked.”
By fall 1997 the Buttles family, cows and machinery had all made the westward trek to Grant County. Currently home to 1,250 cows, Stone-Front Farm has been an all-registered herd since 1913. The family’s dairy-farming legacy dates back even farther – to the 1850s.
Andy Buttles’ wife Lyn Buttles hails from a dairy farm in Pennsylvania. After acquiring her undergraduate degree at Pennsylvania State University she earned a master’s degree in dairy nutrition from UW-Madison. She met her future husband during a trial she was conducting at UW-Madison’s Dairy Cattle Center where he was working. Today they are co-owners of Stone-Front Farm and have two daughters – Christina, 12, helps feed calves. She enjoys showing calves, as does Kayla, 9.
Andy Buttles said merchandizing cattle is one of his loves. The Stone-Front prefix marks the names of cattle that have garnered best placings at local, state and international shows. Thanks to the popularity of 094HO18700 Stone-Front Artist-ET, the prefix is familiar to many assessing the sire side of dairy-cattle pedigrees. The dairy regularly hosts university groups and other visitors from around the globe. An observation deck over the double-16 parlor offers visitors a look at cows as they are milked. A walk to the office showcases a blend of antique collectibles and framed prints of show-ring winners. They hang next to full-color advertisements of Stone-Front sires sold or contracted to artificial-insemination organizations.
The dairy has made a name for their registered cattle through traditional avenues such as cattle sales and shows, as well as via artificial-insemination companies. Recently Stone-Front has added something new to their business model – one that speaks to another niche markets.
“We’ve been breeding some of our cows to Wagyu beef,” Buttles said.
Selling meat from those crosses opens the doors for Stone-Front to connect with another type of customer. It allows them to diversify on a small scale. Located on a main highway not far from UW-Platteville and Southwest Wisconsin Technical College, the dairy is well-placed to attract potential consumers. Buttles said the location would support the possibility of opening an on-farm retail store in the future.
But for now the primary focus remains doing business as effectively as possible.
“Taking care of our people is the No. 1 goal here,” he said. “Taking care of the cows is next. We want to maximize cow comfort and handling.”
Successfully managing a team of employees can be complex, he said – especially among team members with a diverse range of age, tenure and responsibilities. He said the family has learned that incorporating a few basic routines has helped create a cohesive environment of work, family and fun. Employees are encouraged to take lunch breaks together when possible. Most days the dining area is where employees gather over lunch for home-cooked meals served from slow cookers and roasters. The full kitchen lends to the at-home atmosphere. The walls of the dining area showcase pictures of the farm’s soccer team and other honors achieved by Stone-Front employees.
Believing there’s no substitute for learning about their team members on a personal level, the Buttles said they believe it’s important to know employee family members. Birthdays, anniversaries, family functions and other milestones in the lives of coworkers are celebrated.
“Family is important,” Buttles said. “We want our people to see we value their family members, too.”
Another key to enhancing the tight-knit team culture has been to encourage employees to attend educational training for professional development.
“We strive to get as many people to these events as possible,” he said. “It’s a huge priority.”
And it pays dividends.
“Nine years ago I sent one of our guys to a training,” he said. “When he came back he shared what he learned with some of the others and it made my life a lot easier.”
He said they aren’t interested in micro-managing people.
“We prefer to empower them,” he said. “The key is to give them the tools they need and let them do it. We win and fail as a team. There’s no finger-pointing here because we know success takes a team of people.”
An upcoming Agricultural Community Engagement On-Farm Twilight Meeting will give them a chance to showcase to the public some of what they do. It’s sponsored by the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin as well as the Wisconsin Counties Association and the Wisconsin Towns Association. The meeting will provide a 60-minute tour of the dairy followed by free ice cream. Attendees will join in facilitated discussions; topics likely to be covered include issues impacting roads, land use, the right to farm, and the shared future of rural and non-rural communities.
“There are so few people who understand what we do as farmers,” Buttles said. “We have to do a better job communicating the work we do to the public.”