A Tour of Kilgus Farmstead
An hour northwest of Urbana, tucked far into the country, you will find Kilgus Farmstead. The first thing you see is their incredibly charming country store that offers a variety of cheese, milk, meat and local products from other vendors. Not to mention their soft serve ice cream machine. All you have to do is walk around the side of the building and you are right on the farm! Common Ground has been selling Kilgus products for years and it is unbelievable the superior quality their milk has compared to national brands. A small group of staff got to tour the grounds, meeting the family and all of the animals that make their farm what it is. Kilgus is very transparent about their practices - what they do and why they do it, so they were happy to show us around, and welcome any questions from their customers.
Kilgus Farmstead has been around since the 1950's and is currently a 4th generation family farm. Our tour guide for the day was Jenna Kilgus, and it was her husband's grandparents that started the farm. We were also accompanied by one of Jenna's daughters, as well as their farm dog Snickers, who was excited to show us around. Running a dairy farm is truly a 24 hour, around the clock operation. As Jenna puts it, "it's a lifestyle, not a job". For example, the milking schedule is extremely precise and has to be done 12 hours apart, so they typically milk the cows at 3pm and again at 4am. While that may sound exhausting, there are many different people that put time in which allows them to alternate work, and spend plenty of quality time with their family while they are working the farm. There are 4 related families that are all responsible for various aspects of the farm, such as bottling, managing the dairy, taking care of the show cows, and overseeing meat production. Jenna's children already know the lay of the land and have their own duties on the farm. They also have their own cows that they raise and sell, allowing them to get experience and start building capital on the farm.
As our tour continued, we got to see all the distinct areas of the farm starting with the milking parlor. Twice a day, the cows are led into the milking parlor. The cows are all so familiar with this process that they naturally filter in the same arrangement everyday, having their preferred station to be milked. A lot of care goes into making sure the milk is clean and not contaminated, and that starts here. The milking machine gets cleaned periodically, and the cow's udders are sanitized before milking. It takes about 6-8 minutes to produce 4 gallons of milk, per cow. It is important to monitor the level of milk production - if the cow is under milked, her production goes down and if she is over milked, her udders will become sore. A lot of farms are switching to robotic milkers to increase efficiency, but the owners of Kilgus want to maintain the personal interaction they get with their cows. The milk then gets run from the milking parlor through a processing line to a tank, where the milk is cooled down and pumped with a stirrer to keep it from separating.
There are different areas where animals live on the Kilgus farm. Cows that are pregnant and are going to give birth soon are separated from other cows because they maintain a special diet. Cows are pregnant for 9 months, and take their 2 months of maternity leave before they have their calves. All of the cows at Kilgus are artificially inseminated. This process negates the risks posed by aggressive steers, and allows them to diversify the genetics on the farm. Each cow on the farm has three names - their first name is where they were born, their middle name is their father's name, and their last name is what they are called on the farm. One cow we met was named Kilgus Fizz Deborah. The last names are chosen by the owner or workers on the farm, and according to Jenna "the sign of true love on a dairy farm is when your boyfriend names a calf after you".
We then headed over to see the pig barn and the baby calves. Some of the calves we saw were only 2 or 3 days old, but were already huge! Baby cows are fed milk through a bottle that was milked separately from its mother. After 1 week, they switch from milk to eating a food blend of pellets, hay, and tiny bits of corn. After 80 days, the calves move out of the barn and join the rest of the cows.
Finally we headed over to a large barn where the working cows hang out during the day when it is too hot outside. These cows have access to a 70 acre pasture. The pasture used to be a corn field, but 20 years ago they converted it to pasture to give the cows a better quality of life. The cows spend a lot of time grazing in the pasture and eating the grass available to them. In the spring, you may notice that the milk tastes a little bit sweeter, and this is a result of increased grass ingestion. You can really start to get a sense of the full circle of nature on Kilgus Farmstead when talking about their feed production. The barn where the cows take refuge from the heat is called their composting barn. The cow bedding and manure mix together, gets sterilzed by their urine, and is then composted. The compost gets spread over the corn that they grow on the land, and the corn is fed right back to the cows. The compost is also spread over the pasture, serving as an amazing fertilizer to replenish the land for future grazing. They also grow soybeans and wheat on the farm, and have over 100 acres of land designated for food production.
Our very last stop was back in the country store to sample some ice cream and learn more about what makes their milk so special. Kilgus milk is as fresh as it gets - the typical turnaround time from milking a cow and the milk hitting the shelf is 24-48 hours. Kilgus uses HTST (high temperature, short time) pasteurization, which leads to a very short shelf life. Their milk is also not homogenized, which is why you see that thick layer of cream on top of every bottle of milk. Jenna explained that most younger generations now are not familiar with seeing this, and often think the milk has spoiled.
The creamery bottles 6500 gallons of milk per week! All the milk begins at full fat, which is 5-6%. In the state of Illinois, you cannot legally sell milk that has a fat content of more than 3.25%. Their pasteurization machine separates the milk from the cream, and then some of it is put back depending on the type of milk (whole, 2%, skim). While they aren't allowed to distribute raw milk, they are allowed to sell it at their country store because it is produced on sight. So, for the first time in my life, I tried raw milk and I have to say it was a game changer. It was so incredibly rich and smooth, and unlike anything I had ever tasted before.
Common Ground is so happy to have a long-standing relationship with Kilgus, and our customers absolutely love their products. We sell their milk, cream, half & half, meat, and even have pints of their ice cream in our frozen section. We had such a wonderful time on their tour, and encourage you to check out their country store in Fairbury, IL! In the mean time, enjoy this coupon for $1 off any Kilgus products.