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No Shortage of Work to Do at Argos Holstein Farms

by Jerry Goshert

Published: Friday, June 1, 2012

Argos Holstein Farms near Argos is a place with many wheels in motion at the same time. On May 9, the farm was a bustling place, with owner Mike Heckaman splitting his time between leveling off freshly harvested rye and helping to repair a busted hose in one of the tractors.

Mike, son-in-law Max Bollenbacher and their team of 12 workers were busy accomplishing multiple jobs on that day. Some were chopping 200 acres of rye and trucking it to the open bunker, where two more workers were leveling it off and packing it.

Another work crew was making repairs to the floor of the milk parlor, while another was pumping manure into the farm's large storage lagoon.

And, of course, there were people coming and going to serve the 640 cows in the milking herd. Milking takes place three times a day, with just one hour in between each milking.

Besides these activities, there were the things which Mike wanted to do, such as plant corn and lay down tile in a field, but had to put off until another day.

A quick count showed seven pickup trucks, two skid steers and multiple tractors all parked at the farm that day.

Argos Holstein Farms is a busy place, and Mike is thankful for the help.

The dairy, located along 18B Road, is run by Mike and his wife Jan and their daughter, Carrie Jo, and her husband, Max. The Heckamans also have two other adult children, Matthew and Doug.

As the name suggests, the herd is primarily made up of black and whites, but there is a good representation of Jerseys as well. Max, the herd manager, formerly worked on a Jersey farm near Berne, and brought 30 head with him to Argos when he and Carrie Jo got married 14 years ago. They own about 120 Jersey cows as well as some Holsteins and young stock.

The Bollenbachers live just a couple miles away from the home farm, where Mike and Jan, married for 40 years, currently reside. Mike's father, Pete, now age 90, started the dairy in 1959, and both he and Mike were partners for many years.

To bring Max and Carrie Jo into the current partnership, Mike and Jan gave them a chance to work at the farm and eventually buy equity. Their accumulated equity provides them with a steady income as well as giving them needed cash with which to purchase additional cows.

The Bollenbachers are active on the show circuit, taking cows to local, state and national events. Their four children include Drew, Lane, Sophie and Ellie.

The Heckamans and Bollenbachers operate a closed herd, with all of the replacement heifers coming from the farm's young stock. This has helped save money over the long run.

"If you have to borrow money to build buildings and then borrow money to buy cows too, the next thing (is) your debt load can get out of control," Mike said.

The rolling herd average, with the Jersey numbers included, is around 25,000 pounds per year. All the cows are housed in groups, with the Jerseys in one group and the Holsteins grouped by age. Most cows remain in the herd for an average of three lactations, although there are some cows as old as 13 years.

Mike said one goal of the farm is to grow the herd by 10 percent every year, and the Heckamans have so far followed through with executing that plan.

Jan serves as the farm's bookkeeper, and said last year was a profitable year for the dairy. But, she added, the rebound was overdue after a disastrous 2009. She believes exports are the key to maintaining steady demand. That can help support prices when the milk supply domestically is greater than demand.

The rye harvest earlier this month is one example of the Heckamans' desire to become more efficient. The forage crop was planted last fall after silage harvest. This spring, the rye was removed and manure applied before those fields were planted to corn. This enables the Heckamans to increase the amount of forage harvested without adding more acres. The rye will be fed to the heifers and dry cows.

Mike serves on the board of NorthStar Cooperative, a Lansing, Mich.-based cooperative that provides AI (artificial insemination) products, herd management software and DHI (Dairy Herd Improvement) services to dairymen in Indiana, Michigan and other Midwest states. Mike also serves on the board of Select Sires, based in Columbus, Ohio.

"Right now, the new thing in the AI industry is genomics," he said. "They can do the DNA testing of bulls and they can tell how good the bulls are going to be" in terms of producing high quality heifers.

On any given day, one of the many vehicles parked at the Heckaman farm will be a NorthStar truck. Mike said a NorthStar technician comes to his farm every morning to look for cows that are ready to breed. When he finds a cow in heat, he proceeds with the artificially insemination.

On a very busy farm, that's one less thing Mike has to worry about.

The Argos dairyman and his wife were asked how dairy farms should position themselves for a downturn in the market, which appears to be the direction prices are currently headed.

Mike said two keys are to keep one's debt load as low as possible and to reduce the cost of production as much as possible. Other suggestions include buying corn and soybean meal on forward contracts, chopping extra feed like rye, raising steers for the beef market, and managing the dairy with an eye on efficiencies. As an example of the latter, Mike said it is important to cull low producing cows.

The farm also hosts a feeder calf sale each spring, feeds out about 40 steers a year and sells breeder bulls, all of which bring in additional income.

As for industry issues, both Mike and Jan say they are cautious about legalizing raw milk for on-farm sales. The issue is currently being studied by the state Board of Animal Health, and although the Heckamans grew up drinking raw milk, they feel that the risks to the public outweigh the potential benefits.

Looking to the future, the Heckamans said they are weighing the possibility of building a dry cow barn that would accommodate up to 200 cows. A new barn for those animals, Mike said, would free up space for additional milk cows. Otherwise, the farm is limited from expanding due to the amount of acres that are being farmed.

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