Metro-East Living

Aviston students, cows get up close and personal at Thole Dairy Farm

Aviston Elementary fourth-graders took the Thole Dairy Farm pledge.

Led by Marge Thole, they repeated: “I will stay with the group today. I will listen and learn something. I will be nice to Gus the dog. I will not walk in the mud. I will eat all of my ice cream.”

Eyes grew big at the mention of ice cream.

The dairy farm was the last stop on their field trip where Marge helps her husband Dan and his brothers, Dale, David and Darrel run one of the biggest dairy farms in Southern Illinois. Its 600-plus cows produce an average of 5,000 gallons of milk a day. They also farm 550-plus acres.

The 43 fourth-graders started at Behrmann Meat & Processing in Albers, where they observed the entire process, from pigs and cows getting stripped of fur and skin to being packaged and ready for the customer. At Top Ag Co-op, a granary in Trenton, they followed a load of wheat’s trip from farm to granary to barge.

They had spent the school year studying the country’s five regions and their resources. They learned how climate and landforms affect which resources thrive.

“It’s taking that a step further,” said fourth-grade teacher Lisa Niemeier, who grew up on a farm in Damiansville. “How agriculture drives the economy in our area. ... It all began (several years ago) when the Farm Bureau offered grants and I applied and received one. Transportation is covered. We have just varied what we do each year.”

First stop at the dairy farm? The calf barn where the newest arrival was just one day old. Each kid got a chance to pour enriched pellet grains into a bucket for the young calves. Made with oats, crushed corn, protein and minerals, it’s the first grain their bellies can handle.

“These are called heifer calves,” said Marge, using a speaker so she could be heard above the mooing calves. “Does anybody know what a heifer calf is?

“A girl.”

“Let’s think this through a little bit, guys,” she said. “You little girls would be considered heifer calves. What would you boys be called?”

“Bulls,” came a proud chorus.

“Me and (teacher) Mrs. Niemeier, we had children,” Marge told the fourth-graders. “We would be considered cows because we’re moms. Once you give birth, you’re a cow.”

The kids gathered around to hear that a newborn calf weighs 75 to 80 pounds, 10 times the weight of a newborn baby. Adult cows weigh 1,500 to 1,700 pounds.

“A calf, when born, doesn’t have a mother who stands there and kisses it,” said Marge. “A cow licks the baby calf. If it doesn’t, its nervous system doesn’t get stimulated. It won’t get up and walk like it should. It has a slower start. If the mom licks the calf, it will get up and start walking within one hour.”

Then she asked them: “How many know how old you were when you learned to walk? What you did in one year a calf does in one hour.”

Marge packs a ton of information into the hour-long tour.

“Our kids went to Aviston (Elementary),” she said. “They’re now 27 and 24. We always did give field trips here. Daycares, preschools. It’s free. This fourth-grade teacher taught my kids and several nieces and nephews.

“It makes me feel good that there are people that interested. A child or two will say, ‘We love your farm. We wish we could help you.’ One girl said last year, ‘This is the neatest farm.’ A lot haven’t seen a cow, let alone fed a calf. It’s not like years ago where everyone’s grandpa farmed. There are very few farms where there are livestock. You don’t find a farm that has cows, and pigs and sheep.”

Fourth-graders quieted outside the hospital pen as they looked in on cows that were under the weather. One was recovering from a fall. One had cystitis, an infection around its udder. Another, carrying twins, had lost a baby.

“Cows are supposed to be pregnant nine months,” said Marge. “Twins might come a couple weeks early. Last night’s new calf was only 7 1/2 months, too small to live.”

She pointed out the feed manger in front of the barn that held a mix of hay and silage.

“Cows love this. Did you know they are vegetarians? They love corn, hay, anything green. You wouldn’t see meat in there. If you go to McDonald’s and can’t eat all of your hamburger, they won’t eat it. Gus (the farm dog) will devour it.”

They learned how often a cow eats (five times a day), how many times it poops (at least five times) and how much the free-stall barn fans with the 8-foot blades cost (“Each is over $5,000. We have three of them. They keeps cows more comfortable.”)

Marge has a knack for keeping kids engaged as she goes from milking parlor to the milkhouse where huge tanks hold milk.

“You have to think like a 9-year-old,” she said.

Cows eat more when it’s cool and they produce more milk, she told them. “There are 31 days in January, and there are 35 to 36 pickups of milk, some days more than once a day. There are also more calves in October, November, December. Do you think they give a lot of milk after they have a calf?

“Right, they do. We make formula for the baby calves and sell the cows’ milk.

“Do you remember the extreme heat of 2012? It was 108 for several days. What do you think happens? The cows don’t eat much when it’s hot. If they don’t get enough to eat at 8 (in the evening), my husband Dan gets up at midnight and comes out and feeds the cows. Like us people, they are creatures of habit. Dan gets to sleep then till quarter to 6. His brothers get up at 4.”

“Dan is my cousin,” piped up Ranlyn Thole.

“Myron and Doris are your folks,” said Marge. “Wow, I didn’t realize you kids got so big.”

The class climbed on hay bales for a photo, then headed to the Tholes’ backyard where they washed their hands and Marge handed out fudge bars and souvenirs. Who could resist a milk-carton shaped eraser or milk moustache stickers?

Logan McDonald, 10, took the ice cream stick out of his mouth to say he thought the farm was “really cool.”

“I learned a lot of stuff about cows. That there’s all kinds of different type, heifers, bulls. ... I liked checking out where they milk the cows. At my grandpa’s farm, they do it by hand. They hold a bucket underneath, I tried once. It was cool, but kind of weird with the milk squirting out.”

Reid Spaeth, 10, liked seeing the pen where the sick or injured cows stayed.

“I didn’t know they got sick,” he said.

Some students had never been that close to cows. But Cole Buschmann had.

“It was awesome,” he said. “I’ve been to this farm before.”

He pointed to a smiling guy in a plaid shirt and an Agri-Gold logo cap.

“Dale Thole right there is my grandpa.”

Marge Thole’s Dairy Farm Quiz

  • 1. What colors are Holstein dairy cows?
  • 2. What is a girl calf called?
  • 3. What is a boy calf called?
  • 4. What type of doctor comes to a farm and works with sick cows and calves?
  • 5. A female Holstein is called a cow after she does what?
  • 6. The average weight of a new Holstein baby calf is (how many pounds)?
  • 7. When does a female Holstein start giving milk (and growing an udder)?
  • 8. How many months is a Holstein cow pregnant?
  • 9. What drink does a Holstein cow produce?
  • 10. What do Holstein cows really like to eat?


  • 1. Mostly black and white
  • 2. A heifer
  • 3. A bull
  • 4. A veterinarian
  • 5. Has her first calf
  • 6. 80 pounds
  • 7. When she has her first baby calf
  • 8. Nine months
  • 9. Whole milk
  • 10. Hay, corn, silage, molasses and water
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