In 1931 the population of dairy cows in McHenry County totaled about 85,000 – the second largest in the country. The most recent agriculture census from 2017 showed about 3,000. That number decreased again in April when the owners of Kooistra Dairy Farm sold their entire herd of 280 milk cows, the last remaining large dairy herd in the county.
Joel and Linnea Kooistra were born into Woodstock-area farming families that were in business during the heyday of dairy farming in Northern Illinois. Their families spanned three generations of farming near Woodstock and a long family history of farming in Netherlands and Sweden.
“All I remember ever wanting to do was farm,” said Joel Kooistra, who grew up in his dad’s shadow on Kooistra Dairy Farm on Thayer Road.
In 1980, he and his wife bought out his dad and made the business their life. The couple proudly carried on the family tradition of caring for the earth and their cows and valuing their family, employees and community.
Joel describes dairy farming for him as very intense – something he needed to be on top of at all times. As a person who loves a challenge, Kooistra thrived in this environment.
“I live and breathe it,” he said. “You see a new life every day.”
While Joel is primarily in charge of the production segment of the farm, Linnea handles the business portion of the partnership. A son, Danik, works full time on the farm.
As a result of her active involvement in the business, Linnea’s been the first woman in many circles.
She not only participates but also has been a leader in many arenas. Her business savvy has kept the family business competitive and led to the distinction of being one of the first farmers to use futures trading for milk, something she has helped teach other farmers.
She has been involved locally on the Zoning Board of Appeals and as a member of the Farm Bureau. Serving on the U. S. Dairy Sustainability Council has given her an opportunity to educate colleagues on modern dairy practices.
Both Joel and Linnea have been awarded the distinction of being named Prairie Farmer Magazine Master Farmer.
Continually educating themselves through University of Illinois Extension services and seminars, the Kooistras have worked to stay on the cutting edge of best practices for dairy farms, including conservation efforts.
“When the cows left, it was difficult for all of us.”
– Joel Kooistra
The decision to sell the herd and discontinue milk production was not easy for the couple. Reaching retirement age was one consideration. Linnea also named the economics of the industry as another factor, pointing out that dairying was in the third year of a down cycle.
She noted that large-scale animal agriculture has been leaving McHenry County because of a spreading population and lack of infrastructure; however, niche farming seems to be thriving.
An important condition of the sale was that the entire herd be sold together. Like other herd animals, members of a dairy herd are a cohesive group of individuals with an established hierarchy and intricate relationships. Splitting the herd would have greatly disrupted the herd dynamics and unreasonably stressed the animals.
“We always treated our animals well,” said Joel, explaining how the buyers who purchased their cows agreed, saying they’d never seen such a tame, relaxed herd.
The new owners are just a few miles away in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. The herd of 280 will boost their total milking animals to 2,000, a quantity of animals that reflects the current trend.
“Having them stay together meant a lot,” Linnea added. “We wanted the best for them.”
Joel found it hard to put into words how much the sale of the herd affected him. “When the cows left, it was difficult for all of us,” he said.
Beyond the animals and the responsibilities that went with them, he misses his employees, who he worked closely with every day and whom he considered practically members of his family.
“Everybody did every job,” Joel said. They were so well-rounded.”
Joel also named the veterinarian who visited once a week and the milk hauler who frequented the farm on a daily basis as another facet of the daily life of a dairy farmer that he’ll miss.
While they’ve sold the dairy herd and ceased milk production, they retained 280 young animals – up to age 2 – that they will continue to raise. Once mature, these animals will be sold and added to the farm that bought the original herd.
“We’re slowly weaning ourselves off animals,” Linnea said.
As crop farmers, the Kooistras will continue to run about 800 acres of grain. Joel will keep all the equipment running properly while Linnea will pitch in driving the combine and hauling grain.
Regarding what she’ll do now that some of the responsibilities of the farm have been lifted, Linnea said, “I’m looking forward to time to do more things locally and enjoy our home and back yard.”