The calf barn features four 11- by-80-foot pens that each hold 18 calves. The barn includes positive pressure tubes, side curtains and deep bedding that create high quality ventilation and comfort for the calves.
PHOTO BY CASSIE OLSON
The calf barn features four 11- by-80-foot pens that each hold 18 calves. The barn includes positive pressure tubes, side curtains and deep bedding that create high quality ventilation and comfort for the calves. PHOTO BY CASSIE OLSON
    STRATFORD, Wis. – With a rich history in the industry dating back to 1870, dairy runs in the Leick family’s blood. Jim Leick and his cousins, Chris and Steve Leick, are the fourth generation in their family to milk cows near Stratford, Wis. After years of operating two dairy farms separately, the Leicks decided to merge their herds, modernize their dairy and internally expand to the 950 cows they milk today.
    Their farm, Night Hawk Dairy, shares a name with a unique family story. Before hooves ever hit the tiestalls, shoes hit the dancefloor in the farm’s very own dance hall: the Elmwood Ballroom.
    “Our great grandfather bought the land across the road from [our dairy farm], with the idea of building a tiestall barn,” Jim said. “The barn would also be a ball room – the Elmwood Ballroom – where our grandfather’s orchestra, the Night Hawk Entertainers, would hold barn dances on Thursday nights. The barn still stands, and we honor the orchestra with the name of our dairy.”
    The barn was strictly a ballroom for five years in the early 1900s, but the barn dance tradition ultimately faded with the addition of cows. The cousins’ grandfathers, Archie and Lawrence, farmed together before Jim’s father, Richard, and Chris and Steve’s father, Gilbert, parted to create two separate dairies.
    Through the ‘90s and early 2000s, the farms shared equipment while Jim milked 200 cows and the brothers milked 250 cows on separate locations. Over time, both dairies had significant needs; Chris indicated a need for a new parlor, Jim needed a new barn. These needs ultimately led the family to remerge together in October 2013, starting with 450 cows.
    “We found ourselves in the situation of either we get in and modernize or we get out and find something else at the time,” Chris said.
    The Leicks converted the naturally-ventilated, four-row barn to a tunnel-ventilated, six-row barn with sand bedding and added a new, double-12 parallel parlor. As both herds raised their own heifers, they were in a good position to begin growing the herd.
    “We had a lot of heifers, so we grew into the facility; it was a three-year growth,” Jim said. “And as one may recall, that following January struggled to find a day above zero; we were raising our calves in hutches at the time.”
    The cousins shared a common goal to modernize the dairy. In the summer of 2014, construction began on a new calf barn that would alleviate some of the challenges that come with a harsh Wisconsin winter. The Leicks toured calf barns with automated feeders and determined it was the best avenue for the next venture.
    The barn features four 11- by 80-foot rectangular pens with two automatic feeders for calves up to 6 months in age. The south end of the barn is a dedicated nursery with 18 individual pens. Calves spend seven days in the individual pens before they are introduced to the automatic feeder pens. Each pen holds 18 calves in an all-in, all-out rotation. The barn features positive pressure tubes, curtains and deep bedding to provide high quality ventilation and comfort. Jim, whose primary role on the farm is calf care, said the calf barn has become a valuable asset.
    “Before, you spent 90 percent of your time feeding and 10 percent of the time managing; now it is the other way around,” Jim said. “A computer system tracks feed intake and [feeding habits], which helps us identify sick animals way faster. Here you know almost instantly when something is off.”
    The Leicks began to utilize genomic testing when the merger took place. All heifers are genomic tested to determine which heifers will be raised for replacements. Jim said the family primarily uses net merit and dairy profit dollars benchmarks to determine which calves to keep or cull. The herd calves, on average, 30 calves per month; the top 25 are finished out for replacements.
    “We only raise what are needed for replacements,” Jim said. “We are trying to age the herd by using the best genetics.”
    Animals with lower genetics in the herd are bred to Limousin-Angus semen and calves are sold at 3-4 days old, bringing in three to four times the value of Holstein calves.
    “We made a significant investment with this calf barn, which is why we genomic test and use beef semen to get the most value out of our animals,” Jim said.
    The Leicks continued to update the dairy in 2015, adding a heifer barn for 6- to 12-month-old calves in the spring, and a tunnel-ventilated, four-row transition barn with a single-6 hospital parlor in the fall. The transition barn is also home to sick cows, springing heifers and four calving pens, providing spacious comfort for the cows who need them.
    Chris’ primary role on the farm is managing the milking herd. He said the investments to calves, heifers, transition cows and breeding have paid off in the parlor, as well.
    “We are calving cows earlier, getting them into the milking herd faster at a good size,” Chris said. “When we merged, we thought it would be nice to get to the size where we were milking around the clock to get the most out of our investment.”
    The Leicks are milking three times per day in three, eight-hour shifts: 4 a.m., noon and 8 p.m. The herd is averaging 94 pounds per cow per day with 4.05 butterfat and 3.26 protein, and an average somatic cell count of 85,000. The milk is directly loaded from the parlor to tankers.
    The changes to the dairy have benefited not only their production, but also their workforce.
    “Having a new and modernized facility combined with the opportunity to offer eight-hour shifts has made it easier for us to find help,” Chris said. “We offer every other weekend off to those who work here, too, which is an added benefit.”
    Since merging, Jim admits there are benefits as well as minor drawbacks to working as a family.
    “Sure, we have our challenges as cousins merging two management styles, but all three of us have our interests; I’m interested in the calves, Chris has the cows and Steve enjoys the breeding,” Jim said. “The advantage to our size is that we each have areas that we are in charge of that we each enjoy.”
    With tight margins, a quarterly meeting with all the key members of the Night Hawk Dairy team helps to keep everyone on the same page.
    “Every four months, we bring in our banker, genetic representatives, nutritionist and veterinarian so everyone knows what is going on,” Jim said. “Having a good relationship with your lenders is key.”
    Jim said that in the tight margins being faced today, it’s important to keep your eyes open and vision clear.
    “Trust the way you farm; it is not easy when the checkbook is tight, but also be careful where you make your cuts,” he said. “Cow comfort and health is the most important factor on a farm. Keep an eye on the management, give your cows a well-mixed, consistent diet and step back to make sure what needs to get done gets done right.”
    Five years after the merger, the Leicks could not be happier with their decision to merge their herds. Innovation, modernization and organization led them to the productive, healthy herd that allows them to continue to do what they love most: dairying as a family.