3/13/2017 9:00:00 AM Saying goodbye to a legacy Willows Edge complete dispersal on March 18
Bonnie and Henk Van Dyk, of Willows Edge Holsteins, are hosting a complete dispersal sale on March 18. With a breeding-age average (BAA) of 111.6, the Van Dyks’ herd is well known, nationally and across the globe, for outstanding type and components. PHOTO BY BRITTANY OLSON
Bonnie Van Dyk goes through one of the many lots up for bidding at the Willows Edge’s complete dispersal on March 18 at their farm near New Richmond, Wis. PHOTO BY BRITTANY OLSON
NEW RICHMOND, Wis. - While Henk and Bonnie Van Dyk are counting the days until March 18, they'll readily admit they aren't particularly looking forward to the day. The couple, who own and operate Willows Edge Holsteins south of New Richmond, Wis., are hosting a complete dispersal of their herd, March 18 at 10 a.m. Their herd of 110 cows, with a BAA of 111.6, is one of the highest-scoring registered Holstein herds in the nation. The farm also boasts 351 homebred Excellent cows over several decades. "We've got 85 cows going into the sale, with blemished and three-quartered cows staying back," Bonnie said. "Many of the animals go back to Willows-Edge Bolton Flicker, Excellent-94." Henk and Bonnie are managing the sale themselves, and admit it's been stressful trying to put it all together. "Everything in the sale is an exceptional animal, especially the 2 and 3-year-old cows," Henk said. "Many of them have five or six generations of Excellent-scored cows behind them, and they remind us of a group of cows from years back that went 93 or 94 as older cows." Despite selling anywhere from 50 to 70 young cows every couple of years, the herd's low cull rate and death rate contributed to the cow numbers outgrowing the facilities. "We've got cows that live to be 14 to 18 years old," Bonnie said. "They're just healthy, aggressive cattle." Another factor in deciding to host a dispersal was age, particularly Henk, who is several years Bonnie's senior. "Henk thinks he's getting old," Bonnie said. Henk nodded, acknowledging that decades of dairying and working off the farm as an attorney have taken their toll. "I'm feeling it in my knees and shoulders," Henk said. All in all, 185 live lots are hitting the auction block as well as embryos. While the Willows Edge prefix, aptly named after the Willow River that cuts the farm in half, is known nationwide for show-type cattle and high butterfat tests, it was a lot of work for Henk and Bonnie to get where they are now. "We first classified in 1979, and Les Terpster was our classifier. We had a BAA of 98.3, and he told us to start buying better cows," Henk said. "Fortunately, bulls like Sexation and Valiant came out shortly afterward and helped get our BAA to a point where it wasn't embarrassing." In fact, it was one of those Sexation daughters, Willows Edge Sexation Piper, who went on to be their first 94-point homebred cow. "We use a small battery of bulls to keep it consistent, like Golden Dreams and Atwood," Bonnie said. "You'll see a lot of wide rumps and chests on these cows, and they last longer." In addition to astronomical type traits, one will also notice the Jersey-level components coming from the Van Dyks' very much-Holstein cows when flipping through the sale catalog. "We mate cows individually and breed for high type, and we're cognizant of udders, but we also breed for butterfat. It's hard to find sires with high butterfat, but our maternal lines carry it," Bonnie said. "We've got too much milk on the market and 60 million pounds were dumped last year, so milk with butterfat levels over 3.5 percent is more valuable." Their matriarch cow, Bolton Flicker, had a lifetime butterfat of 4.7 and, in her fifth lactation, a 4.9 butterfat. Henk fondly recalled another foundation cow, Willows-Edge Linjet Icon, who was scored Excellent-94 with a lifetime butterfat percentage of 5 and, in her sixth and final lactation, a 5.3 butterfat. "Just generation after generation of butterfat producers," Henk said. Willows-Edge prefixed cattle have also done well in the show ring, with numerous ribbons and plaques from fairs, district shows, state shows and World Dairy Expo. Winning the prized premier breeder banner at World Dairy Expo in 2003 is still a highlight for the couple. "Anyone can buy cows, but breeding them is another step," Henk said. "We were told that we were going to win premier breeder, and we said, 'With two cows? You're nuts.' But we did." Bonnie would take an entire string of show cattle to Madison for Expo, while Henk stayed on the farm to get chores done, with fitters, chore hands and their two young daughters, Jordan and Claire, in tow. "In 2007, we took Willows-Edge Lee Velcro as a junior 3-year-old to Madison and Steve Van Doorn, who went on to breed the grand champion Guernsey at Expo some years later, was doing nightline for us," Bonnie said. "It's interesting to watch where all of our fitters and such go in the industry after their time ends with us." Willows Edge has also been credited with bringing grade Holstein herds into the registered fold, as well. "Our advice to people looking to buy animals was to buy a whole cow family so they know what they're getting," Bonnie said. Life after the sale is a mystery, with many unknowns ahead for the Van Dyks. "Our daughter, Claire, is a financial advisor and she keeps saying I have to have a plan," Henk said. "Well, my plan right now is not to have to get up at quarter to 4 in the morning." With a mostly-empty barn on the horizon, they've received inquiries regarding partnership from farmers coming into the industry and looking to fill up a heritage-laden barn with a herd of their own. Henk and Bonnie were overcome with emotion, and both choked back tears at the thought of saying goodbye to the cows. "Saying goodbye to the cows is terrible," Henk said. "You're there every single day from the moment they're born. Some people get attached to their dogs and cats, and we've got the cows. I'll miss going up to them and petting them every day." Bonnie agreed. "You've got their best care in mind from the day they're born," she said. "We know who their mothers and grandmothers are. They're not a number, but a name."