Real Faces of Dairy: Pagel's Ponderosa Dairy

May 30, 2017 09:10 AM

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of fatalities among ag workers are on the rise. Roughly 180 deaths happened on the farm with ag workers in 2015, a 22 percent jump from 148 workers in 2014. 

Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy in Kewaunee, Wisc. is doing what it can to reduce that statistic by caring for and treating employees like their own family. 

Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy is bustling, day in and day out. The family-owned dairy has expanded significantly since it was first established in 1946. 

“When I took over the farm from my parents, we had 65 cows and 320 acres,” said John Pagel, CEO of the operation. “Now, we’re cropping a little over 8,500 acres and we’re milking over 5,000 cows at this operation.” 

With more cows comes the need for more people. 

“We learned that we were going to have to do something different than just pay a good wage,” said Pagel. 

John’s daughter, Jamie Witcpalek is the Chief Operating Officer and heads up the human resources department. 

“It is a lot easier to manage the 5,000 milking cows than it is to manage the employees that we have,” said Witcpalek. 

Today, the dairy operation requires several hundred people to keep things running smoothly. 

“Once the employees are here one year and beyond, they usually stay,” said Witcpalek. “We have a lot of long-term employees but the newest employees who join the team are by far the hardest to keep.” 

That is why they now offer new hire items, care packages and training. 

“We’re into long-term employment,” said Pagel. “We’re not into people who want to come in and then go and look for another job. We try to take care of our people so they can be the most productive for us as we want them to be.” 

The family took notes from others and developed its own employee program is about communication, accountability, respect and sustainability, also known as CARS.

“It’s a program to educate the new employees on who we are, what we’re about, what the family is about and why you want to work at Pagel’s Ponderosa,” said Witcpalek. “[We talk about] what benefits we offer. We’ve been trying to do a better job to let the employees know why they should work here.”

“I’ve got eight managers that I meet with every morning,” said Pagel. “I give them the tools that they need to do their job. As long as I can do that and I can keep them going, that keeps them as highly productive as I can make them.” 

It lays out expectations but also helps the dairy understand employee’s needs as well. It’s about getting the person in the right position to succeed for the safety of themselves and the animals. 

“They learn what’s expected of them as an employee and they get a full job description. So, that they understand what to do,” said Pagel. 

Communication goes both ways. The operation audits and follow-up with documentation. If it’s not written down, it’s as if the training didn’t happen. 

Beyond the business, they also check-in to make sure employees are enjoying their job. 

“We talk about culture and ethics and the right way to treat people,” said Pagel. “It’s not just about the job itself. It’s about how you’re treated and how you want to be treated.” 

“I love our employees, our employees are like family,” said Witcpalek. “I know our employees, their spouses and their kids are like my kids.”

The family hopes the ever-moving dairy will continue its growth but knows the success of the operation isn’t just built in the barn, but with employees and family who do the work and make it all possible. 

As part of the employee program, the Pagel family makes sure employees are training on which chemicals they’re working with and where safety sheets are located. Employee care and training is always top of mind at Pagel’s Ponderosa. 

The dairy bought a cheese store with a distribution company. They also built a restaurant and have a ‘farm to table’ restaurant in downtown Green Bay, Wisc. The chefs who work in the restaurant visit the farm and vice versa.

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