September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.

Menkes enjoy managing a diversified livestock, crop farm

Dairy cows, feeder steers, hogs fit together well on their Grant County operation
A dairy herd, feeder steers and hogs are all part of the Menke family’s Grant County operation in Highland, Wis. Here (left to right) Kurt and his father, Bob, along with Bob’s brothers, Jerry and Jim, show their open-sided beef barn and feedlot.<br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->PHOTO BY RON JOHNSON
A dairy herd, feeder steers and hogs are all part of the Menke family’s Grant County operation in Highland, Wis. Here (left to right) Kurt and his father, Bob, along with Bob’s brothers, Jerry and Jim, show their open-sided beef barn and feedlot.<br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->PHOTO BY RON JOHNSON

By By Ron Johnson- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

HIGHLAND, Wis. - It's called "Menke Swiss Farms." But the name doesn't even begin to say it all.
What about the Holsteins that brothers Jim, Jerry and Bob Menke milk? What about their feeder steers? And let's not forget the' farrow-to-finish hog operation on their Grant County farm, near Highland, Wis.
The Menke farm, consisting of three separate farmsteads, has something of the feel of an old-fashioned, diversified business. It hints of a time when most rural families kept a dairy herd and managed other livestock enterprises, too.
Bob Menke said he and his brothers drew their interest in beef cattle and hogs from their late father, Omer, and late brother, Alois. These days, Menke Swiss Farms milks 170 Holsteins and Brown Swiss, feeds out approximately 150 steers and markets about 400 finished hogs each year.
Those three enterprises fit together well for the Menkes. A key to making a dairy herd, beef cattle and hog operations work is having enough land so little or no feed needs to be purchased.
The Menkes own 1,100 acres and rent 160, growing alfalfa, corn, soybeans and oats. A new crop this year is winter wheat, since the brothers figured they might need to feed next year, due to the ongoing drought.
Another key to making the three enterprises work is having enough labor and management. Besides the brothers, Bob's son, Kurt, is a full-time employee. Jim's son, Matt, a senior in high school, lends a hand when needed.
Jim's wife, Nancy, works at Land's End, in Dodgeville, Wis., while Bob's wife, Jane, works at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. Jim and Nancy have a daughter, Adrienne, a senior in elementary education at UW-Platteville. She helps with the farms recordkeeping.
Bob and Jane have two daughters. Kaci is a dental hygienist and is married to Zach Spencer and lives in Madison, Wis. Daughter Kelsi is in nursing school at Rochester, Minn. Lorraine, the Menke brothers' mother, lives nearby, as does their aunt, Francis.
The Menkes have labor and management duties pretty well divvied up. Bob, Jerry, Jim, Kurt and Matt all help milk. Jim manages the feeder steers, while Jerry is in charge of the hogs.
A third key to fitting dairy cows, beef steers and hogs together on a farm is commitment, the Menkes agreed. Through the highs and lows of milk, beef and pork prices, they've stayed the course.
And, if it sometimes happens that one enterprise performs better when the others struggle.
Said Bob, "There's usually something that's a good price at the time, if the other two aren't."
Take 2009 as an example. Milk prices tanked, but "Pigs were a decent price then," Jerry said.
For the Menkes, the dairy cows generate the bulk of the income. They're followed by the steers, then the hogs, and finally the corn and soybeans the brothers generally sell each year.
The cows are milking about 70 pounds each, according to Jim. The fat test is 4.2 percent; the protein is at 3.3 percent; and the somatic cell count (SCC) runs between 100,000 and 150,000.
Twice daily milking takes place in a double-5 Surge Auto Flow parlor that was retrofitted into the barn in 1999, the year the brothers merged their two herds into one.
"Each cow comes in and goes out separately, so you don't have to wait for the whole side to get done," said Jim.
He estimated the farm's November mailbox milk price at slightly above $24 per hundredweight. "I think that's the highest we've ever gotten. We're making money at that, because we have our own feed."
Most of their alfalfa ends up as haylage and wrapped round bales. But the Menkes also make 1,000 small square bales annually, and feed them to calves.
The 2012 drought cut into their crop yields. Jim said they harvested about half the normal amount of corn, while the alfalfa yielded perhaps 80 percent of normal. But helping compensate was the fact that they were able to take an additional cutting.
It was also in 1999 that the Menkes built a three-row, curtain-side-walled freestall barn that has drive-through feeding along one side. Building that barn sparked a couple of changes at Menke Swiss Farms.
For one thing, it freed up land that had been in pasture. Having more land available prompted the Menkes to start feeding out more steers. And, because they needed feed for the additional dairy cows, they trimmed the size of their sow herd.
"We sold some hogs this year, too, because we didn't think we were going to have enough corn. So we're down to 30 sows," Jerry said.
The Menkes use a Yorkshire-Hampshire cross and get slightly more than two litters per sow, per year. They wean an average of eight pigs per litter. They're marketed when they weigh about 270 pounds.
Every three weeks, the Menkes market a batch of hogs, through the Equity sales barn at Richland Center. Tyson Foods buys them on a grade-and-yield basis.
If, for example, the price for live hogs is 60 cents a pound, the Menkes might get 76 cents a pound. Any premium is determined after slaughter and the amounts of backfat and lean meat are measured. In addition, the Menkes sell 40 or so hogs to people who want locally raised pork in their freezers.
None of the Menkes even hinted at exiting the hog business, even though it ranks third among their revenue generators. For one thing, said Jerry, the hogs only take about an hour of labor a day.
"We have a finishing building that's all enclosed. So all we have to do is grind feed and fill the bin. There's a manure pit under that building, so it doesn't take much to take care of them in there," said Bob.
The hog manure is handled like the dairy manure, as a liquid, and is applied in the same manner.
Also keeping the Menkes in the hog business is the fact that their 20-year-old finishing barn is all paid for. And the crates in the farrowing building are in "all-right shape," Jerry said.
As for the beef, the Menkes raise their own Holstein steers calves, and buy 500-pound feeders locally. Holstein steers are kept until they weigh maybe 1,700 pounds. Beef-breed animals are marketed a little lighter.
Their steers are on pasture part of the year. Their ration, consisting partly of corn and corn gluten, is supplemented with oats when the steers are pastured.
As with the hogs, the Menkes are paid on grade and yield. Ninety-five percent of their feeders are sold to a local buyer. The steers end up at Green Bay Dressed Beef or Packerland Packing. Like the hogs, feeding out steers adds value to the Menkes' corn.
Last year the Menkes invested in a new building for their steers. It's 120 by 70 feet, open to the south and has a feeding floor.
Five years ago, they constructed a barn for calves. The animals had been in old hog buildings. The barn has room for 40 individual pens that have crushed limestone floors instead of concrete. Jim said calves do well in the curtain-side-walled building.
Looking to the future, Jim's son, Matt, has expressed an interest in farming. He plans to attend UW-Platteville after high school and study agriculture.
Meanwhile, Bob's son, Kurt, is hearing wedding bells in the distance. He plans to marry his high school sweetheart, Carissa Wepking, in November.
As for the possibility of adding to the dairy herd - the Menkes left that question somewhat unanswered. Jim said there are no plans "at this point - unless Kurt wants to milk more."
Overall, Jerry, Bob and Jim indicated that they enjoy farming where they are at, partly because they have good neighbors. And, they enjoy managing their diverse blend of crops and livestock.
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