A feature article in our Winter 2020 issue written by Kathleen O’Keefe.
He knew the stress and success of a career on Wall Street, sat on the Executive Board of World Dairy Expo, and was partners with some of the most successful people in the purebred dairy cattle industry, yet what might say the most about Mike Hellenbrand wa how he treated the kids in our business. Mike passed away after a long illness last summer, but he created a lasting legacy with some motivated young people.
The story behind City Slickers Farm, owned and operated by Mike & Linda Hellenbrand, has been pretty well documented. Both had high-powered New York City careers in the financial industry, but following the events on September 11, 2001, they looked for something different in life and relocated back to Mike’s native Wisconsin. With the same energy that had propelled them in NYC, Mike & Linda applied themselves to creating a new business in Cross Plains, WI.
“Our business model evolved over time,” recalls Linda Hellendbrand. “We didn’t necessarily think we would be involved with all of the breeds, but the Holstein market was pretty saturated and price competitive. Mike saw some opportunities to make an impact and build some value in the colored breeds.” They had a unique set up to take embryos from elite cows, get those calves on the ground, and take wonderful care of them. “Mike loved talking and connecting with people. We had more exposure with various breeders because we worked with several breeds. Those partners trusted us to raise those calves and nuture those genetics from their great cows of their breeds,” comments Linda. “People would come and look at calves that resulted from various matings from these outstanding cows. It was like a living catalog with the calves right in front of you.”
Sitting in an ideal location just a few minutes west of Madison, they soon had embryos and partners from some prominent breeders in the area. Brian Voegeli of Voegeli Brown Swiss and Clark & Joy Vilter of Four Winds Guernseys were early partners in the enterprise. With those genetics, soon there were show ring caliber heifers in the hutches and the pens that deserved to be seen and marketed, many of them carrying the farm’s City Slickers or Hillpoint Partners (HP) prefixes.
Their Fall for Colors ET Sale series began in 2006, and from the beginning, Mike and Linda involved young people in their ventures. Mike always wanted kids to present animals in the sale ring as well as helping prepare and train heifers for the event. It wasn’t long before he started enlisting some young dairy enthusiasts to present their cattle in the show ring as well.
David Sarbacker, working for East Central Select Sires, delivered some semen for a flush in the early days of City Slickers. He visited again with his daughters Lindsey and Ashlyn, and soon Mike was offering a heifer for Lindsey, who was in her 1st year of 4-H, to show. They started with an appropriate-sized Jersey calf, before eventually landing on Guernseys. “He really gave my kids and, and a lot of others, an opportunity with high-quality Guernseys. We were Holstein people, but Mike had top genetics from herds like Knapps and Chupps, so the kids had the chance to take heifers to State Show and World Dairy Expo,” says David. “He came and had a look around our place before he sent any heifers to us, but once he was satisfied, the trailer made regular trips between Stoughton and Cross Plains.”
David Sarbacker and Linda Hellenbrand both noted that Mike always got the permission of any partners before putting a young person on the halter. “The partners always agreed. The kids always worked hard in preparing and training the heifers for the ring. It was an opportunity to showcase some of the nicer heifers we had. Mike & I didn’t have the time to show, so he really enjoyed the giving kids a chance to show and to be really competitive at the highest levels. He certainly had a competitive streak, and he loved seeing the kids and heifers doing well together,” notes Linda.
Lindsey Sarbacker piloted one of those special heifers in 2011, as Millborne Hillpoint S Fiesta-ET was named the Reserve All-American Fall Calf. She returned in fine form in 2012 as the All-American Fall Yearling, now partly owned by the Sarbackers. David credits Mike for entrusting them with some of his best stock. His younger daughter Ashlyn really fell for the Guernsey breed as a result of their experiences with the Hillpoint Partners heifers. “The girls were really involved in the process. We would go to the farm and Mike would say ‘I see you brought the professionals to make sure you get it right!’ It always felt like a family thing with Mike and Linda. Mike always made a point to find the kids at the show and thank them for their work. He really made them feel at ease with it all,” remembers David.
That close relationship laid the foundation for a prominent Holstein cow. “We owned Budjon-JK Damion Eklipse-ET, a Damion daughter of Rolling-Spring G Escence EX-95. I was having trouble getting her bred and was to the point of getting rid of her. Mike told me to bring her up to the farm and, sure enough, he got her bred and we got eggs out of her,” according to David. Eklipse went on to score EX-94, be nominated Junior All-American Junior 3-Year-Old, and one of those embryos turned out to be Floydholm Mc Emoji-ET EX-94 – the Intermediate Champion of the 2019 International Holstein Show and All-American Senior 3-Year-Old!
With both girls now in college, the family isn’t making quite as many trips on the show circuit, but David reflects on the value of the Sarbacker-Hellenbrand connection. “We worked with City Slicker/Hillpoint heifers for ten years or better. I can’t say enough about the life lessons my kids learned while taking on the added responsibilities of taking care of someone else’s valuable animals. We have so much appreciation for the opportunities they gave us.”
David Sarbacker wanted someone else to have the same rewarding experience, so he directed Mike to the Lynn Harbaugh family. Lynn and Sara Harbaugh’s sons, Jacob and Logan, took on the challenge of developing some heifers from the Hellenbrand partnerships. Their efforts reaped big rewards on the biggest stage as Logan exhibited Nicleys HP GG Cordell Anne-ETV at World Dairy Expo in 2017 and took home Junior Champion banner in both the Open and Junior International Guernsey Shows. Owned by Hellenbrands, Dan Basse, and Morey Miller, Anne left a lasting impression on Logan, and has made him a real fan of the Guernsey breed. Jacob now has a soft spot for Brown Swiss after showing the Junior Champion at the 2018 Wisconsin State Brown Swiss Show – Cutting Edge T Frascati ETV, a fall calf owned by Ken Main and Peter Vail.
Mike passed away in July and didn’t get to see another big-time accomplishment for the Harbaughs with one of his heifers this fall. City Slickers Db Bon Voyage was the 1st fall calf and Reserve Junior Champion at the North American Open Holstein Show in Ohio and at the Midwest Fall National Show, and was just nominated All-American Fall Calf. Mike and Linda bred the heifer out of a VG-87 Sid daughter of 2019 International Holstein Show Grand Champion, Butz-Butler Gold Barbara-ET EX-96 3E, and the Harbaugh and Ryan families purchased her earlier this year.
Lynn relates the example that Mike set for his boys, “Mike had a lot of passion for high-quality cattle and he and Linda ran a meticulous operation at home. They had 150-200 head and everything was hand-scraped and immaculate. But even doing that kind of job, he would always stop what he was doing and talk with you. He was really good to my boys. Logan would sit side-by-side with Mike and watch the whole Guernsey show.”
Bob Hagenow was another person that first met Mike & Linda as they were establishing City Slickers. A sales manager for Vita-Plus Feeds, Bob was called to the farm to help establish a feeding program and to help establish some on-farm protocols. “It was a real pleasure to work with Mike & Linda. Their trademark became incredible care from embryo to getting a healthy calf on the ground that was ready to thrive at its next home. They were perfectionists when it came to sanitation and hygiene, and through that, helped the genetics express itself to its maximum potential,” emphasizes Bob.
Bob took his family there for a visit when his girls, Sarah and Ashley, were young. Sarah, in particular, had an instant bond and attraction to the heifers. “She was 8 or 9 and we set up a one-day ‘internship’ for her at the farm. She spent the day feeding calves, cleaning up, helping with some paperwork and she just fell in love with the whole thing. Our facility here at home is set up for horses, so Mike and Linda agreed to keep her project heifers at their place – just extreme generosity on their part. They always wanted to do the right thing – to give every young person who was willing to work hard an opportunity,” says Bob.
Sarah concurs, “I started helping them train heifers for their sales, then for the show ring. In 2016, Mike let me show a Brown Swiss heifer – Cutting Edge T Summer. We called her Sassy – she had broken her leg as a baby calf, but recovered. She was the first animal I showed at World Dairy Expo. We didn’t stand very high, but it was the 50th Anniversary year and I was so thrilled to be there. That heifer was so special to me, and they gifted me with part-ownership of her after my work with her that year. She was the start of my Brown Swiss herd – I had my first bred & owned animal from her.”
Now a senior at Rio High School, Sarah plans to pursue an International Ag degree at university. She is full of appreciation for the opportunities afforded to her, “Mike is at the top of the list of people who influenced me and helped me. Through him, I was able to meet so many highly successful people in our business. It’s kind of unbelievable – one little heifer created all of these amazing human relationships! The chance to connect to and form bonds with so many special heifers has really shaped my character over the years.”
Linda Hellenbrand knows that pleased Mike to no end, “He always wanted to make a difference, whether it was at the farm, at World Dairy Expo, or with our partners. He was always 110% all in to make it as good as possible.” She and a small group of Mike’s friends are working on the details for a youth project in his memory that can keep his legacy going. “Mike was always asking ‘What is the future?’ and wanted to be sure the youth were coming up behind the established generations. He always wanted to give back and hopefully this project will carry on that spirit.”