Milk First, then Breakfast


It’s touted as the most important meal, and is widely accepted to eat any time, day or night. From coffee in a paper cup to a full-fledged meal around the table, breakfast is arguably the best part of a morning routine. Everyone has their own special morning method, but for most dairy farmers, it’s milk first, then breakfast. For Templeton Farms, Si-Ellen Dairy and Rollin’ Green Dairy Farm, the morning routine is much the same from day to day, and breakfast plays a key role.

Sunrise Sessions

The tranquil morning air is punctuated by cows calling for their breakfast. The calf barn and the milking parlor shine bright in the midst of a dark morning, while the busy figures of Emily, Don and Rich Templeton can be seen hard at work. There are cows to be milked, calves to be fed, rations to be mixed, alleys to be cleaned and all the other daily chores of life on the farm. The day starts long before sunrise and ends long after the sun leaves the sky.

I’m grateful I have the opportunity to spend an hour here each morning.
— Emily Templeton

The family milks about 150 cows three times per day on their century farm in Evansville, Wis. They also farm 1,100 acres, which means during harvest and planting time, they are especially busy. There are three full-time farm employees — all Templeton family members. Rich Sr. and Shirley have nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild, and each plays a part on the farm from time to time. 

For Don and Rich Jr., twin sons of Shirley and Rich Sr., the morning starts about 3:30 a.m. They meet at the farm, after a mile or less commute for each of them. With a staunch sense of fairness, the brothers adhere to an every-other-day rotation for completing outside chores: True for the lovely summer mornings as well as the bitter wintry ones.

Don’s daughter, Emily, rolls in at a luxurious 6 a.m. to feed calves before she heads out an hour later to begin her day as a field representative for Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) — the same cooperative her family farm’s part of. As the sun peeks over the trees in a sky full of muted shades of pinks and purples, calves in the pasture follow Emily as she pours their breakfast into a trough. While she works, she says, “I’m grateful I have the opportunity to spend an hour here each morning, but in the winter, I’m also happy I’m not the one spending 10-plus hours out in the cold! I really respect my dad and uncle for that.”

While Don and Rich Jr. eat the same breakfast every day at the farmhouse with their parents, Emily, an avid cook and baker, has been known to indulge in one of her leftover sweet creations for breakfast. If she doesn’t have any cake or pie around, though, she keeps breakfast exciting by varying the menu. There is one mainstay: a steamy mug of coffee.

Depending on the weather, the plan can change 10 minutes after we make it.
— Rich Templeton

As Emily leaves to construct her own breakfast and start her other job, Don, Rich Jr., Shirley and Rich Sr. gather around the farmhouse dining table. While they pour milk fresh from the farm into their cereal and spread peach and strawberry jam on their toast, they talk of the day’s work.

Don says, “We come in for breakfast and discuss the plan for the day with the boss.” Rich Sr. and Shirley are still clearly a big part of the everyday routine.

Rich Sr. quickly explains that while they always have a plan, they often have to revise it. “Depending on the weather, the plan can change 10 minutes after we make it,” he says.

As the family discusses the day ahead, a red-headed woodpecker climbs the massive tree just outside the dining room picture window. It takes flight as Christopher, Rich Jr.’s son and the other full-time employee on the farm, takes a seat at the table. As plans are laid and breakfast finished, the crew heads
back outside.

But First, Coffee

Morning on a dairy farm tends to be a pretty regimented affair, especially when there are 7,700 cows to care for. The milking on Si-Ellen Dairy, which is owned by Mike Roth, his seven siblings and his mother, begins at 6 a.m. and continues all day with only about an hour break twice daily to wash the pipeline through which milk travels on its journey from cow to milk tank.

“The mornings unfold differently depending on the weather, meetings, the cows or where you work on the dairy,” says Mike. “Employees in the calf department show up around 5 a.m., the herdsmen arrive around 6 a.m., and the office opens at 7 in the morning, which is when the coffee really gets brewing.”

As the sun rises, it illuminates a dairy abuzz with traffic through the feed lanes, cows moving in and out of the parlor and folks visiting the office for meetings, coffee or breakfast.

The mornings unfold differently depending on the weather, meetings, the cows or where you work on the dairy.
— Mike Roth

As for Mike himself, he’s been known to grab a coffee with cream and a muffin on his way to work. He also likes to stop for donuts or breakfast burritos to leave in the office for his employees. People are priority for Mike’s family, and an occasional breakfast at the office is one of the many perks employees at Si-Ellen
Dairy enjoy.

“Food is a really important way to show your appreciation,” Mike says. “As a family operation, we try to instill a workplace culture where the employees know they are part of our family and part of our team. The occasional breakfast is an easy way for me to help reinforce that culture.”

In 1921, Mike’s parents, Simon and Mary Ellen, moved from Switzerland and founded a 100-cow dairy in Washington. That’s where Mike and his seven siblings grew up and how they learned the dairy business. Today, the family farms in Idaho, and even with multiple dairies and thousands of acres to farm, Mike gets to spend time with the cows.

“My pickup is my office,” Mike says. His mornings always start in the truck. “I make my rounds of the three dairies and two feedlots. With family members and good employees, I’m able to be outside, which is where I need to be, sorting cows, checking feed and finding any cows that may need attention. Generally, just out making sure things are done how they should be.”

All eight of Simon and Mary Ellen’s children have worked on the dairies in some capacity. Even at 95 years old, Mary Ellen still enjoys being involved in the farms. Although Si-Ellen Dairy, as well as the Roths’ other operations, employs more than 200 people, they are still family farms. And a morning routine with free-flowing coffee and warm breakfast helps reinforce just that.

Egg Sammies on the Run

Each morning, members of the McNeely family are awake early enough to see the dew as it’s burned from short-cropped blades of grass and feel the sun as its rays fill the freestall barn where the milking cows eat their breakfast — although most days it’s safe to say they are too busy to take particular notice as these daily occurrences take shape. 

Jeffrey manages the 190-cow dairy on his family’s operation, with help from one full-time and several part-time employees. His brother Jamison handles the feeding: mixing the ration twice per day and feeding all the girls. Jeffrey and Jamison’s father, Jim, manages the 1,700 acres of cropland and their mother, Jennifer, helps out anywhere needed and also babysits Jamison’s daughter, Adalyn. With milking and cropland, there’s plenty of work to go around.

I’ve had former employees make special requests for these egg sandwiches — they’re that good.
— Jennifer McNeely

To ensure each cow is properly milked each morning, Jeffrey is up at 3:45 a.m., brewing fresh coffee to take with him on his short walk up the hill to work. This is Jeffrey’s favorite time of day. It’s peaceful, just him and the cows — no sales visits, no phones ringing. Then, around 9 o’ clock, after the coffee in his thermos runs dry, the cows have been cared for and the other morning chores completed, Jeffrey heads to his parents’ house for a quick breakfast — usually cereal with a splash of milk or a quick yogurt and granola bar. Then, it’s back to work.

Thursdays are a special treat, and popular with family and employees alike. Patricia, who along with her husband, Robert, founded the farm in 1973, makes mouth-watering egg sandwiches wrapped in tinfoil and delivers them to the milking parlor at 6 a.m.

Jennifer says, “I’ve had former employees make special requests for these egg sandwiches — they’re that good.”

And while Patricia wraps the sandwiches for munching on the go, collecting them offers those in the parlor a brief respite from work and allows a quick glance around. The parlor and freestall barn sit atop a big hill with acres of rolling green cropland below. As the sun comes up, shadows reach long and colors transform the sky. This hilltop aery not only offers magnificent views of the valley below, but of Patricia’s driveway, which is convenient for Jeffrey and Jamison.

“The view’s nice because you’ve got a five-minute warning before the boss shows up,” Jeffrey says of his grandmother. “Because let’s be honest, she’s still the boss around here.”

The view’s nice because you’ve got a five-minute warning before the boss shows up, because let’s be honest, [Grandma is] still the boss around here.
— Jeffrey McNeely

Patricia makes Thursday mornings a treat with her portable egg sandwiches, but Sundays for savoring. Cows still have to be milked, but afterward, the McNeely family can be found around the breakfast table. Sunday family breakfasts are used for planning the day and the week ahead and generally taking things a little slower than the other days of the week. Not to say this is a day of rest; after all, by the time breakfast is served around 9 a.m., the chores have already been done and the cows milked. Sunday breakfasts, however, are a little more leisurely.

Breakfast fare ranges from over-easy eggs to French toast or omelets. Jennifer tends to rotate the options from week to week as keeping her husband, two sons, daughters-in-law and grandchild satisfied can be tricky. So maybe Sundays for Jennifer aren’t quite as leisurely as for everyone else.

Whether it starts in a truck, the kitchen or a milking parlor, the morning routine is always better when you add milk.