BELGIUM, Wis. – Matt and Sarah Winker are doing all they can to cut costs on their farm in order to stay in business. They’re trying to find ways to be progressive while remaining practical with cow health and comfort.

“We have to do everything we can to cut costs and use what we have, and feed what we can grow ourselves so we don’t have to buy much,” Sarah Winker said.

Owners of Red Line Dairy of Belgium, the couple milks 125 Holstein cows and runs 450 acres. Efficiency and thinking about what might be coming in the future continue to help them stay in business, they said.

An investment in smart collar tags a few years ago was one of the best decisions the Winkers have made for their farm, Matt Winker said. SCR collars monitor rumination and activity, providing the Winkers with information such as how many minutes each cow ruminates per day and her overall activity level.

“It’s Fit Bit for cows,” he said.

Knowing when to breed the cows is one major benefit of the collars. The collars monitor heats for each cow and send that information to a central computer system. That allows him to breed the cows without watching for heats or using hormone shots, he said. Money savings on hormones and semen is significant.

“Our calving interval is shorter; we have a 12-month interval,” he said. “That’s a huge benefit because when you’re constantly turning the cows over with a new calf, you get more peak milks and that correlates to more milk in the tank.”

It wasn’t always so obvious to see the benefits of the collar system. The sizable upfront cost of purchasing them and the computer system to run them wasn’t feasible in the current dairy economy, Sarah Winker said. But when a used system came up for sale, she and her husband decided to go for it.

“The bottom line is we got a good deal and we got zero-percent interest,” she said. “If we had to take out a bank loan to do this, I can’t say that we would have done this because I don’t like paying interest.”

The Winkers are pouring their hearts into efficiency on the farm. They were recently recognized for their progressive reproductive work by being nominated through the Dairy Cattle Reproduction Council. They earned the bronze award.

“The Dairy Cattle Reproduction Council recognizes North America’s top herds for dairy-cattle reproduction,” said Corey Geiger, awards-committee chair. “The platinum, gold, silver and bronze winners, 24 herds in all, achieve incredible pregnancy rates from 30 to nearly 50 percent.”

Progressive farming is how they operate, Winker said.

“(But) bad milk prices not only hurt us, they hurt the cows too,” she said.

When the milk price is better, farmers tend to spend their money on their cows to make them more comfortable.

“If the cows aren’t comfortable they’re not going to produce as much milk,” she said. “And then we’ll be wondering why we’re even doing any of this.”

Geiger has nothing but praise for the Winkers, who remain progressive despite the difficult economic times.

“The Dairy Cattle Reproduction Council awards committee looks for repeatable practices that will consistently lead to top-notch reproduction in dairy herds,” he said. “Matt and Sarah Winker and their Red Line Dairy in Belgium definitely do all that.”

Mary Hookham is a freelance agricultural journalist and photographer from Janesville, Wisconsin. She grew up near Footville on a 140-acre beef and chicken farm. She graduated from University of Wisconsin-Whitewater with a bachelor of arts degree in print journalism and a minor in English for writers.