Henk Van Dyk hasn’t decided yet if he’ll watch his prized herd of registered Holsteins cross the auction block later this month.
“It’s not easy, that’s for sure,” said Henk, 71. “I hope they go to good homes.”
Henk and his wife, Bonnie, will sell their Willow’s Edge herd — one of the top-ranked for their breed in the U.S. — in a complete dispersal at the farm on Saturday, March 18. The Van Dyks milk more than 100 cows.
The couple’s decision to sell this spring came down to timing. None of their children are interested in farming, and Henk said his body can’t take the pace of dairying much longer. Also, milk prices are recovering, and a lot of their show cattle are dry and due to calve in early April or July.
“The timing is right,” he said. “We prefer they buy some of the show cattle dry so they get them acclimated; that’s done intentionally.”
The Van Dyks, who are managing their own sale, spent a recent afternoon at the kitchen table, stuffing black-and-white hair samples from members of their Flicker cow family into envelopes to be mailed off for genomic testing. While they’ve hosted several sales over the years, the difference this time is that the Van Dyks will sell almost their entire herd, a total of 190 heifers, cows and calves. Only some older cows will remain on the farm.
“We know those 8- to 10-year-old cows don’t transition that well,” Bonnie said.
The Van Dyks aren’t sure what the future holds, but they’ve received various offers, including inquiries about renting their barn.
“Lots of people contacting us say a barn shouldn’t sit empty,” Henk said. “We’re not sure at this point. We’re taking it one step at a time.”
Bonnie, who is several years Henk’s junior, doesn’t rule out re-filling the barn with another bevy of bovine beauties: “I like putzing around with (the cows) yet. We’ll see where that leads.”
The Van Dyks also aren’t selling their machinery, keeping their options open for possible cropping. They’ve considered renting out the land.
But as they consider the future, they’re also reflecting on decades of successful dairying. More important than all the accolades, Bonnie said, are the people they’ve met and memories they’ve made.
“We did it as a family,” she said. “We raised our daughters going to those shows.”
Farming bug bit hard
Born in Holland, Henk was 10 when he came to the U.S. with his parents and siblings. His father worked for the Dutch agriculture department but wanted to farm. Farms in Holland were small and mostly owned by the church, so he looked to a colleague who was as a professor at the University of Minnesota, who helped them find a farm near Anoka, Minn.
“My dad couldn’t get used to the sandy soil there. Holland has clay soil,” Henk said.
They rented a farm near River Falls, then moved a couple of years later to New Richmond, where they ran a few thousand acres. Henk pursued a career as a lawyer, while his brother, John, was the Polk County UW-Extension agriculture agent. Neither could get farming out of their system.
“The bug was kind of getting me again,” Henk said.
In 1976, the brothers bought a 500-acre farm with 300 tillable acres near New Richmond, plus all the machinery and a respectable Milking Shorthorn dairy herd. Within a couple years, the Van Dyks had transitioned the herd to Holsteins, buying lower-quality registered cattle at auctions. John later struck out on his own.
“We were looking for a little hobby farm. Obviously, it got a little out of hand,” he said.
For many years, the Van Dyks have successfully juggled the farm with off-farm employment. Henk recalls working from 5 to 8 a.m. at the farm, putting in a full day at the office and coming home to evening barn chores. Bonnie worked in farm credit while overseeing the show string and marketing.
Henk retired five years ago from his law career but said he’s still the first one to the barn most mornings. Bonnie works at Land O’Lakes in Arden Hills, Minn. The farm employs two milkers and a full-time crops manager who handles the 960-acre farm’s 600 tillable acres. They also hire UW-River Falls students to help part time with calf chores. The cows come first, according to Henk.
“Our cows have it good,” he said. “My interest in the farm has always been the cows, not the crops.”
Bloodlines run deep
The Van Dyks say they have never changed their philosophy of breeding cows that stand up both in the barn and in the show ring. Some pedigrees can be traced back 11 generations, and the Van Dyks know each animal by name.
The numbers speak for themselves: Willow’s Edge has bred 351 homebred Excellent cows, among the most in the nation. They also have collected 42 Premier Breeder banners, including a very special one from World Dairy Expo in 2003.
“We didn’t expect it,” Henk said. “Winning Premier Breeder is very satisfying.”
Most of the herd carries the Willow’s Edge prefix, but they’ve added a few outside animals with good pedigrees each year. Their rolling herd average with 125 cows milked twice a day is 24,443 pounds. For many years, Willow’s Edge had the top Breeding Age Average among farms with similar herd sizes in the U.S. Their BAA, achieved through numerous high-scoring older cows, has gone as high as 112 and currently ranks second in the country, at 111.6 percent.
“It’s nice, but it’s still the individual cow that counts,” Henk said.
The Van Dyks say they’ve carefully deliberated over cattle matings through the years and still mate each female themselves, although “sometimes, we disagree,” Bonnie said.
They continue to follow the Holstein Association’s prescription for the “model cow.” Henk said they mate according to how animals look, stacking sires with high type and high butterfat levels.
“We’ve never lost sight of that high butterfat,” Bonnie said.
Henk argues that the dairy industry puts too much focus on production: “Genomics is great, but the formula used to evaluate or tell us (which are the most valuable or best cows) is off,” he said. “For a cow to produce and last, they need strength in the front end and width in the rear end.”
The market is changing, and that’s clear at many larger dairy shows, where so-called over-conditioned animals often are marked down in favor of thinner cattle, Bonnie said. “We don’t believe in extremely thin pregnant heifers. We want healthy animals.”
“We’re too stubborn to do what judges want,” Henk said, so “we sacrifice some placings at bigger shows.”
The Van Dyks and their daughters, Claire and Jordan, have been regulars on the show circuit, sometimes bringing as many as 20 head to an event.
“That’s when we were foolish and ambitious,” Bonnie joked. “We’ve gotten smarter the last few years.”
Showing has been very much a family affair. Bonnie recalls being late to enter a class and running to the ring with baby Jordan under one arm and a haltered spring yearling in her other hand. Seeing her predicament, a fellow exhibitor stepped in to take the baby. In later years, competition was fierce between the Van Dyk daughters.
“They were used to doing well, even when they were little,” Bonnie said.
Years ago, the Van Dyks initiated a class for ages 10 and under at the district and state Holstein shows so their daughters and other youngsters could show, and they still sponsor it.
Claire works at Morgan Stanley in New York City, while Jordan is employed in medical sales for Owens and Minor in Minneapolis. Henk also has two older children — Dan, who is a lawyer in Minneapolis, and Allison, a teacher in St. Paul.
Every couple of years since 1996, the Van Dyks have hosted a sale in an effort to keep their herd, with its low cull and death rates, at a more manageable size.
“(Buyers) know that they’re getting honest cattle,” Henk said.
Last year, when milk prices and replacement prices were low, they sold a few animals privately but retained many that they otherwise would’ve sold. The result has been overstocked facilities and switching cows at milking.
“The calf pens are shoulder to shoulder, as well,” Bonnie said. “We were too proud or too stubborn to sell those good pedigrees at those prices, so we hung on to them all year.”
Bonnie said there’s a tremendous up side to the group of 2- and 3-year-old cows currently in their barn. The average age in the herd is three years and eight months, with 43 Excellent and 33 Very Good first-lactation cows.
“We’ll classify one more time, and a bunch not scored will go Very Good,” she said. “This group of young cows that we have is very comparable to the group when we had a barnful of 93- and 94-point cows.”
“It’s better,” Henk adds.
Willow’s Edge sales have drawn not only registered breeders in search of elite animals but producers with grade herds seeking that one special addition, and that likely will be the case in this complete dispersal.
“My thinking has always been registered is just the paper,” Henk said. “They’re purebreds. You can use the information you have to breed the next generation. You can do that with grade cattle, too.”
Like a fine wine, Willow’s Edge cattle tend to get better with age, she said. “We have some 2- to 4-year-olds that, in the right homes, will do very well.”
The Van Dyks say they’ll continue to contribute to the dairy industry, volunteering with the Wisconsin Holstein Association, where Henk has served as district show chairman for more than 30 years. Bonnie serves on the audit committee, the national Red and White Dairy Cattle board and the local dairy promotion committee.
Henk said he’s “nervous” about how he’ll fill his free time after the cows go — Bonnie has lawnmowing on his honey-do list — but he’s sure of one thing: “I’m looking forward to that alarm clock not going off at quarter to 4.”
By: Heidi Clausen
Source: The Country Today