A feature article in our 2020 Winter issue written by Katie Schmitt.
Tucked in the northwestern corner of Wisconsin lives a Guernsey herd most have probably heard of by now. Valley Gem Farms, owned by Roy and Gina Grewe and Brandon and Kim Grewe, found themselves under the spotlight not only at World Dairy Expo last year but again this fall at the North American International Livestock Exhibition as all eyes fell on their homebred cow, Valley Gem Atlas Malt.
To understand the story of Valley Gem Farms, we have to look to Washington and Missouri first.
The Coastal Effect
Valley Gem Farms’ story begins in 1921 when Brandon’s great grandfather started a herd of Registered Guernseys in Arlington, Washington – then just a small town 45 minutes north of Seattle. As decades past, the city grew and a lack of access to the family farm left Brandon’s parents, Roy and Gina, looking for a place to dairy.
After Roy attended the 1993 National Guernsey Convention in Dubuque, Iowa, he toured across Wisconsin in his search for a new farm site. What he found was a community of guernsey producers.
“My mom wanted Idaho, but Dad fell in love with Wisconsin and this area,” shares Brandon.
The following year, the Grewe family loaded up six-year old Brandon, his brothers, their 90 milk cows and equipment and moved halfway across the country to Cumberland, Wisconsin.
An 80-stall barn sat on the farm they purchased, but in the first year, Roy and Gina opted to build a new freestall barn and a double-eight parallel parlor for their herd. A few years later, a dry cow barn was added followed by a second farm site for heifer facilities.
Mi Wil in Missouri
Meanwhile in Missouri, Kim Wilson was growing up at Mi Wil Farm, owned by her parents Mike and Tina Wilson, with a herd of Holsteins, Jerseys and just a few Guernseys.
“I wanted to have something different. I fell in love with the breed [Guernseys], the cow and the association. It was just one of those things that stuck,” recalls to Kim.
It was Kim’s Guernsey, Mi Wil Tiller Malibu, that eventually brought her and Brandon together. In 2010, Brandon reached out to Kim about purchasing Malibu.
“She looked like a cow that would show and make a good brood cow – the kind of cow that would be fun to work with and breed from,” remembers Brandon.
The conversation about purchasing Malibu soon sparked a romance and just a few short months later, Brandon proposed to Kim at World Dairy Expo under the willows. Brandon saw Expo as a logical place to pop the question since showing cattle was such a strong influence in both of their lives and he knew it would have a leading role in their future, too.
Two years later, Brandon not only got the girl, but the cow, too, as Kim and Malibu made the move to Wisconsin. Malibu, an EX-94 Tiller daughter and the 2012 All American Total Performance Cow, produced 14 daughters in her lifetime who have an average classification of VG-87. Amongst her offspring are numerous All American nominees and winners, and none other than Valley Gem Atlas Malt.
Today, there is no shortage of Mi Wil influence at Valley Gem in the Guernsey herd, thanks to Malibu, but Mi Wil is also the source of Valley Gem’s Jersey genetics. While Roy expanded his herd of Guernsey cows with about 50 Holsteins in 2000 following low heifer birthrates, Kim introduced the family to Jerseys by bringing about 30 cows with her and expanding the Valley Gem herd once again. At the time of the Mi Wil dispersal just a few years ago, Brandon and Kim once again made plans to move one more Mi Wil Jersey north. That one cow soon turned into another full semi load of 40 cows that continue to by owned by Kim’s dad, Mike, and sister, Shannon, in partnership with Valley Gem.
Valley Gem Farms
The milking herd today at Valley Gem Farms consists of 85 Guernseys, 50 Holsteins and 50 Jerseys. They continue to be milked in the parlor and housed in the freestall that Gina and Roy built in the ‘90s. The show cows and dry cows have a new pack barn to reside in that was built in 2016.
“The pack barn we had before was getting small for the increase in cattle that needed and deserved to be on a pack, so it was time to expand that for the quality cattle,” offers Kim.
Beyond working extensively with Malibu’s family, Brandon and Kim have also spent a lot of time developing their Valley Gem Hulk Faith family. Brandon was gifted the matriarch of Faith’s family at his birth and after a handful of generations, Faith herself became a top CPI cow, classified EX-94 and produced more than 30,000 pounds in a lactation.
Show accolades for Faith’s daughters are somewhat limited, but daughter, Valley Gem Duallys Fierce, EX-92, played a pivotal role in the Grewes’ twice-nominated Senior Best Three Female group with her fifth-place finish at World Dairy Expo in 2018. Where the Faith family really proves itself though, is in the barn at home as well uddered cows with strong feet and legs.
“We’ve had other daughters from this family that are just nice solid cows that stay home and do the work,” remarks Kim.
The Breeding Program
Unlike for Holstein, Red & White or Jersey breeders, Guernsey breeders like the Grewes don’t have endless sire options from semen companies. Instead, bull selection for Valley Gem is a more personal endeavor that includes breeder tours and regular calls to breeders on the east coast.
“Every spring we make a little trip around Wisconsin going through herds and seeing what bulls we like the daughters of and what cow families we would maybe want bulls out of,” shares Brandon.
From these trips, Brandon and Kim purchase young bulls, make notes about bulls to ask about in the coming year, and get to see daughters and dams of bulls they might work with in the future.
“For the last couple of years, a lot of the bulls we’re using have either been bred by us or by breeders of other cow families we feel will improve what we have here,” comments Kim.
Some of those breeders include Steve Van Doorn at Flambeau Manor, Kevin Stoltzfus at Warwick Manor, and the Andersons at Up the Creek.
This more hands-on and personalized bull and genetics procurement plan at Valley Gem has been quite successful so far. Balancing privately collected semen purchases from other breeders with raising, purchasing and collecting their own bulls, the Grewes are able to create an additional source of income from their genetics program.
Semen they collect is used on their own herd, but also marketed through Facebook and jockeyed at shows. A benefit to selling their semen at shows is the first-hand daughter testimony the show string provides buyers. Cows like Valley Gem Hit It Devora, winning Junior Two Year Old at NAILE in 2020, and Valley Gem Luck Deidra, fifth-place Junior two-year-old in 2018 and second-place junior three-year-old in 2019 at WDE, and the first-place four-year-old and reserve Senior Champion at the 2020 NAILE, are both offspring of bull purchases made by the family.
The overarching goal for Kim and Brandon’s genetics program is to breed cattle that can remain competitive with other elite animals in the showring while breeding multiple generations of excellent cows and developing cattle from various families to which will influence the Guernsey breed.
With an exciting group of young bulls that meet these goals, both bred by Valley Gem and purchased from other breeders, their influence in the breed is only going to get stronger.
Valley Gem Atlas Malt
Also a daughter of a bull privately collected by a fellow breeder, Valley Gem Atlas Malt made waves last year at World Dairy Expo when she was named Grand Champion of the International Guernsey Show. It was an honor made sweeter by the fact that she’s homebred and from Kim’s cow, Malibu. Malt repeated her Grand Champion title a month later at the 2019 North American International Livestock Exhibition and capped-off a year of celebrating show days with milkshakes for Malt.
Fresh again in September this year, Malt hit the limited tanbark trail with a purpose. She dominated Cattle Congress in Waterloo, Iowa only days fresh and arrived at the 2020 NAILE with a goal in mind, to win it all. And she did, becoming the first Guernsey to win Supreme Champion at the North American International Livestock Exposition.
As Malt and her string-mates, who also secured titles at NAILE as Intermediate Champion, Reserve Intermediate Champion, Reserve Senior Champion, Reserve Grand Champion, Senior Best Three Females, Premier Breeder and Premier Exhibitor, made their way back to Wisconsin from Kentucky, the dairy world was a buzz.
Outside breeders who normally wouldn’t give Guernseys a second look couldn’t hep but give Malt a second look.
“Malt hits a standard for the Guernsey breed. She’s an example that this breed has the potential to look like this and still produce and really be the complete package,” offers Kim. “Having her and the success that she’s had in the past few years will hopefully help outside breeders realize you can get this type of cow in the Guernsey breed.”
“The Guernsey breed has come so far in the last five to seven years and a cow like Malt makes people turn their head,” echoes Brandon. “She’s the kind of cow that will help the breed receive the recognition and respect it deserves.”
Beyond the Barn
Brandon and Kim’s influence in the Guernsey breed reaches beyond their genetics program and into the American Guernsey Association as well. Last year, the couple teamed up to co-chair the national convention and sale held in Wisconsin. After five years as the state youth advisor, Kim took the next step and currently serves as the National Guernsey Youth Advisor. Meanwhile, Brandon is a District Association President, Wisconsin State Board Member, and serves on the American Guernsey Association’s Type and Show Committees.
As younger breeders who will undoubtedly play a role in the future of the breed, the Grewes are grateful for the opportunity to be involved in the association both locally and on a national level. With exceptional mentors as youth themselves, they also feel this is their chance to give back.
Last year, the American Guernsey Association recognized Kim and Brandon as the National Outstanding Young Guernsey Farmers. An award that highlights the impact on the breed the Grewes have had already as they build a name for themselves.
At the end of the day, what keeps the Grewes engaged in and excited about what they do though is simply the Guernsey cow.
“We love the Guernsey cow,” shares Kim. “It’s what brought us together. It’s what we work with every day. There are a lot of great things happening with her right now and I think that’s astonishing. I hope we can keep it up and continue to influence the breed for years to come.”