My Midwest relatives are probably shaking their heads, but I just had a weekend vacation to an Iowa dairy farm and I loved it. Yes, people will pay to stay at a farm. Read on to learn about New Day Dairy GuestBarn and the nearby farms we visited while there, Hawkeye Buffalo Ranch and Rector Llamas.
Disclosure: New Day Dairy Barn hosted my stay at the cow barn. I received some discounted experiences and paid for price for others. This post may contain affiliate links. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own.
Where to go for an Iowa farm experience
The rise of agritourism is an exciting thing for the Midwest. Iowa farmers are leading the way in creating some unforgettable experiences for visitors. For city folk like me, it’s eye-opening and a refreshing change from go-go-go of my typical travel blog weekends.
We spent a summer weekend in northeast/north central Iowa, with our home base in Clarksville, home to the New Day Dairy. Over the course of two days, we spent a little time in the nearby towns of Fredericksburg, Charles City and Denver.
Where to stay for an Iowa farm vacation
Our hosts for the weekend were Dan and Lynn, the owners of New Day Dairy GuestBarn. The GuestBarn is a fabulous bed & breakfast type accommodations connected to their dairy barn. And when I say connected, I mean it. We had windows overlooking the 120 cows!
There were three bedrooms, which worked out perfectly since my dad joined us on this trip. The kitchen was spacious and fully equipped with all we needed to make our own dinners.
A continental breakfast was included, which included the absolute best Dutch letters made on a nearby farm. I’m not exaggerating. I’d stay overnight again just for those Dutch letters.
The dairy farm is a working farm, so there were clear guidelines on where to go and where not to go without a farmer to accompany you. This was hard for my daughter in particular to understand, so just know that if you have an animal lover in your family, keep an eye on them. My daughter would’ve slept in the calves’ area if she could get away with it.
If you plan on staying at a farm like this, I highly recommend leaving the flip flops at home. Let’s just say, the tours so you every aspect of a dairy farm. I’ll explain more of that side of the full experience in the next section.
All activities I planned for our family were at least a half-hour drive away, so factor that in when planning. That’s just the nature of staying on a farm.
What to do in northeast Iowa
You could very easily plan a getaway to just the New Day Dairy GuestBarn and love it. The beautifully decorated rooms encourage relaxation, as does the fire pit outdoors. Just chill out, read, watch cows. You get the idea.
A lot of the art throughout the rooms were handpainted by Lynn’s mom.
Every guest receives two short tours, one at the beginning and one at the end of your stay. These tours are thoughtfully planned around the farm schedule, so you don’t feel like you’re imposing or are in the way (too much).
Our introductory tour in the early evening led us into the barn (wearing booties are a must), where we got a glimpse of the robot that milks the cows, as well as learned about the feeding schedule of the cows.
The farewell tour was in the morning, and that was when we got to see the calves up close.
Those tours are all a part of the experience, but you can opt for the ultimate farm experience for an additional fee: The Dairy Farmer Challenge. If time and budget allows, and if you don’t mind a little bit of poop (OK, a lot of poop), this is highly recommended!
Dan gave the farmer’s challenge tour. Dan’s grandparents started the farmstead, and so it’s great to hear his perspective on how dairy farming as changed over the years.
First, we took turns riding in a tractor with Dan to see where they store the food for the cows. Side note: These cows eat 12 times a day.
Anyway, after the tractor ride went into the cow barn for some hands-on work. In a way, it’s funny that guests pay for this experience. But it’s also wonderfully important to see the work that’s put in to create the food and products we use each day.
Dan and his family know all the cows and their personalities and if you stay for even just a day, you start to notice it too.
For instance, Abbie the cow loves her head scratched and will follow you around if given the chance.
New Day the cow has the most mesmerizing underbite.
And while not a cow, Snaggletooth the cat is not to be touched. But Gus the cat is totally cool.
Anyway, back to the challenge and the “I can’t believe I’m doing this” experiences.
First we went to the milking station. With 120 cows, the process is fully automated and all the data is tracked closely by computer. But, still, we learned how to milk a cow by hand and had a chance to try it ourselves.
Then, the gross part…we scraped poop. If you had any sort of idealized vision of dairy farming, this will erase it. Cows poop a lot, and farms like New Day use that poop to fertilize the land where they grow the corn that will feed the cows.
There are automated scrapers to get most of the poop to its eventual destination, but there are areas the scrapers can’t reach, so it becomes the job of people to scrape the rest. And as guests on the Dairy Farmer Challenge, we were give shovels and put to work. Briefly. Thank god.
Our reward for poop duty was the chance to feed the calves, including bottle-feeding the 36-hour-old calf named Egypt. My kids absolutely loved this part of the tour and quickly forgot about the poop part of the tour.
The slightly older calves (like 2 weeks old kind of “older”) were on a grain mixture diet and we were able to hand-feed those sweeties.
Both nights we stayed on the farm, the five of us played a boardgames well into the night. Typically, we watch a movie at night on trips, but I’m glad we had a fun dairy-themed game my kids enjoyed playing with us.
Lynn is full of information about things to do in the area, and before our visit, I read through the farm’s website to see what nearby activities we could possibly do. It’s a great resource!
On Saturday morning, we went to Hawkeye Buffalo Ranch for a tour. It’s starts out with Dan McFarland, an 88-year-old farmer who quickly became one of my favorite people in the world, telling us about the history of buffalo in the U.S. and what it’s like raising them. He was quick-witted with a gentle kindness that just made us want to linger around him.
After our intro to the ranch operation, our group boarded a trailer pulled by Dan and his 1958 tractor. We were with one other family, so there was plenty of space for us. Dan’s ancient dog, Ben, joined us.
We were driven out to the pasture where dozens of buffalo roam – young and old. They came trotting over as soon as they spotted us because they knew what our presence meant: Feeding time.
I was an awe of the gentle giants, who scarfed down the corn we fed them cob and all. I took about 200 photos and videos because it was so amazing being surrounded by them.
In all, the tour is about an hour long, but we stayed a little longer to walk with Dan over to the chicken coop where he let my daughter gather any fresh eggs she could find (one egg, it turns out).
I think my dad could’ve talked to Dan for the rest of the day, but at this point, it was well past lunchtime for all fo us.
On Sunday morning, we met up with Amanda and Matt at Rector Llamas, who made a special exception for us to hike with their llamas in August.
See, llamas don’t handle heat and humidity well, so they typically only have llama hikes in the fall and spring. Luckily, the weather cooperated and it was a coolish morning for the 1-mile hike.
Rector Llamas is the oldest continually operating llama farm in the U.S., and this hike experience is something fairly new that came out of the pandemic last year. They show and breed llamas mostly.
It’s a pretty walk around the Rector property with the llamas, who are trained to do these hikes. Their soft humming only made the serene landscape even lovelier.
Check the Rector Llamas website to see when they resume the hikes this fall, and if you’re in the area when they have their Llamaween event, you’re kids will love it.
Where to eat during your Iowa farm getaway
Breakfast was included with our stay at New Day Dairy GuestBarn. A large continental selection of food include fresh fruit, those amazing Dutch letters I mentioned earlier, bagels with cream cheese from the New Day’s cows, granola and oatmeal.
Lunch will depend on how you plan your weekend. After our buffalo tour, we drove north to Charles City, where we had lunch at Pub on the Cedar, a restaurant next to the Cedar River.
I love every chance I get to try local food and drinks, so I ordered a pint of the brown ale from the Charles City brewery, Tellurian Brewing. If microbreweries are your thing, this one is located very closes to Pub on Cedar.
We had dinner on both nights back at New Day Dairy. On the first night, we pre-ordered DIY pizza kits from Lynn. The kids had fun taking our orders and making the pizzas for us.
I’m glad I pre-ordered that food because we did not want to drive to a restaurant after the long road trip to the farm.
The second night on the farm, we grilled out. We picked up potatoes and steaks (sorry, cows), from Fareway in Charles City, and fresh sweet corn from a farmstead.
Dessert was another pre-order thing I purchased ahead of time: DIY ice cream. Lynn made sure we had all the ingredients, plus some toppings, to make some delicious vanilla ice cream.
I’d also recommend bringing snacks that you and your family enjoy just because it’s a bit of a drive otherwise to go seek that stuff out.