September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.
"If you want to survive in farming, you have to be able to adapt," said Cy, the younger brother in the family partnership.
Adaptability has been a recurring theme not only for Cy and Adam, but for their parents, James and Jane. They moved from Illinois and purchased this farm near Mineral Point, Wis., in 1983.
In the intervening years there have been more adaptations for Peacefull Valley Farms. Chief among them have been a move to grazing and a switch to organic production.
The Heisners began grazing their dairy herd almost right away - 1984.
"Grazing is very adaptable year to year," said Cy. "We get cheap feed, and we're not driving a tractor to feed our cows. Cheap feed has to be the biggest thing about grazing. The animals go out, self harvest, and haul their own manure."
In a good year, with plenty of rain and good pasture growth, the Heisners adjust their paddocks by moving electric fences to give the cattle a smaller area. In a dry year, like this one, they enlarge the paddocks. Or, as the brothers recently did, they pull the cows off the pastures and rely on stored feed until rain arrives.
Another major adaptation took place in 2000, when the Heisners began shipping organic milk to Organic Valley. The transition to organic farming played a large role in the farm's success and in the way the family farms.
"We could either become a 1,300 to 1,500-head dairy or we could make what we had more valuable," Cy said, explaining their thinking in 2000. "At that time, the partnership was being talked about, and the milking parlor was being considered. But the main reason for organics was to improve our income."
They did build that milking parlor - a swing-12 that's retrofitted into the old barn. He wonders why they didn't go to a parlor sooner.
"My father could not have kept milking if we had not put in a parlor," said Cy. "His knees and back were bothering him already. When this parlor was put in, he was like a new man."
James Heisner hasn't milked since February, when Adam and Cy officially took on more responsibility. Instead, Cy and Adam like to be hands-on and milk much of the time so they can keep tabs on how the cows are doing.
They're assisted with milking and other work by employee, Efraine Ortega.
"He has been a godsend," Cy said. "He does a heck of a job. He milked in Mexico and came to the United States and almost has his citizenship. He just loves being here."
The Heisners milk 114 Holsteins, Jerseys and crossbreds twice a day, year-round. They're on DHIA test and have been averaging 42 pounds of milk a day lately, with a somatic cell count of 86,000 for the first few months of this year.
Cy figured their base milk price at about $26 per hundredweight, rising to $27 to $28 when premiums are factored. The higher milk price has been helpful.
"Going organic has allowed us to do more to better our farm - buildings and equipment," said Cy. "We've been able to update our tractors and haying equipment. We're constantly updating."
Updating is a component of adapting, for the Heisners. Cy used the examples of buying more fuel-efficient tractors and getting baby calves out of an old building and into hutches.
Adam added that farming organically has made them better at what they do. He said, "Organic makes you a manager who pays attention to the solutions to problems, not just ways to deal with problems."
For example, the Heisners were having trouble getting heifers pregnant. Farming conventionally, they would have been allowed to try all sorts of additives and other products to remedy the problem. But being organic, they had to sniff out the source of the difficulty and fix that.
It turned out that their Iowa County farm's water is high in iron. That makes it difficult for cows to use the copper that's in their feed. That copper deficiency interfered with reproduction.
Adam offered another example: mastitis. Organic farmers are not allowed to use the dry treatments other farmers do.
"So that makes you step back and really look at the (cow) environment," Adam said. "They say, 'An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Well, when you're organic, an ounce of prevention is worth five pounds of cure."
To cut down on calf deaths, the Heisners use the prevention credo. They simply don't breed their cows to calve during the harshest conditions - January and February and July and August.
"Last year, people told me that when they were calving in July and August, they were losing animals. We didn't lose any - knock on wood," Cy said.
The Heisners own 480 acres and rent 225. Their usual crop rotation is alfalfa, corn, soybeans and barley with alfalfa. They grow all their forage, but end up buying 1,000 to 3,000 bushels of corn, wheat or barley a year. That grain has to have been organically grown, meaning it commands a higher price. That higher grain cost bites into the higher price the Heisners get for their organic milk.
Would the Heisners consider going back to conventional dairying? That would be another adaptation.
"I like the way I farm," Adam said. "I would like to stay organic. If it came down to spending whatever it took to stay organic, and go that route, I'm skeptical. I don't know if I can go through that. Our decision to stay organic is going to remain flexible. I will say I like the way I farm."
For the future, the Heisners need to build a heifer facility. If they do grow their herd to perhaps 200 cows, they will need more land. Adam said the farm is overstocked by about 25 head as it is.
Adam and Cy took over partial ownership of the operation this past February. Their parents own the land and most of the buildings, and the brothers pay them rent.
An older brother, Ben, was involved in the farm until a few years ago. He and his wife, Debbie, and their children, Eric and Sara, live nearby.
Adam and his wife, Amanda, have two children, Austin, 12, and Andrew, 11. Cy and his wife, Joni, have three children - Emily, 3, and the twins, Lily and Rachel, 18 months. Some of those children might be interested in becoming part of Peacefull Valley Farms. Cy said Eric is already showing an interest.
"One of my big philosophies," said Cy, "is that you've got to be prepared for the next generation to come in. If you don't have a viable business that's successful, the next generation isn't going to be interested."
That's where a partnership or corporation can be useful, according to Cy.
"You don't have to take on the full cost, as if you were starting your own operation," he said. "That is very tough to do these days. I know people who have done it, but they have long roads ahead of them."
Turning to this year, Adam addressed the spell of dry weather. "This is going to be a challenging year," said., "There's no doubt about it."
But, once again, the Heisners will, no doubt, adapt.[[In-content Ad]]
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