Transitioning to the future
Next generation of Kanes running farm
The Kane siblings – (from left) Rachel Kittell, Pat Kane and Jena Healy – milk 800 cows and farm 3,000 acres at Kane Dairy near Denmark, Wisconsin. The trio took over management responsibilities from their parents in 2015. PHOTO BY STACEY SMART
DENMARK, Wis. – Tim and Carla Kane’s three children knew exactly what they wanted to do after high school – be full-time dairy farmers. After graduation, they each entered into the role they would later take over from their parents and were so successful, it did not take long for management responsibilities to become theirs.
Today, siblings Pat Kane, Rachel Kittell and Jena Healy operate Kane Dairy near Denmark where they milk 800 cows and farm 3,000 acres. The trio officially assumed daily operations in 2015, but the farm is owned by their parents. Tim and Carla have handed over the reins and are letting their children run the day-to-day show.
“It’s nice knowing over the last 10 years how much faith our parents have placed in us,” Rachel said. “We’re thankful they gave us this opportunity and set us up in a good position to take over.”
“They had the ability to let go and gave us the chance to learn from our mistakes and grow,” he said. “They are very open to new ideas and trying new things.”
With Pat managing crops and Rachel and Jena managing cattle, the siblings work in sync to keep the farm thriving and self-sufficient. Rachel’s husband, Matt, also works full-time on the farm feeding cows and has been with Kane Dairy since he was 14. In addition to family members, the farm has 13 full-time employees.
Tim does the bookkeeping, and Carla helps where she can while also watching Rachel’s two children – Kolton, 4, and Kash, 2 – when Rachel is working on the farm. The Kanes have a home in Arizona and feel comfortable leaving their kids in charge for two to three months every winter while they get away.
“As we entered our teenage years, we were molded into our current positions, so we’ve been in our roles for a long time,” Jena said.
Involved on the farm ever since they could walk, the siblings are the third generation to farm at the homestead where their father grew up. Tim and Carla took over the farm in 1988 milking 80 cows. The farm continued to grow in increments, and between 2009 and 2011, when all three kids were out of high school, the dairy made a large leap in growth.
“We’ve always grown from within, but I don’t think my parents envisioned going to 800 cows originally,” Rachel said.
Within six years, they built five facilities to better house their cows, heifers and calves, and everything on the farm is built with the intention to grow bigger if the family decides to expand. Before the coronavirus pandemic, the family had plans to expand and proceeded to get barn proposals.
“We’re happy we didn’t go through with that,” Pat said. “Right now, we’re focused more on bettering the dairy rather than growing it.”
Cows are milked three times a day in a double-12 parallel parlor and housed in a sand-bedded freestall barn. Rachel said cows average 94 pounds of milk per day versus 100 pounds previously as milk production priorities on the dairy have shifted from a focus on volume to placing more emphasis on protein and fat content.
“We’re tuning in on what we’re good at and want to keep improving,” Rachel said.
From preparing the crop plan, to working with the agronomist, to getting crops planted and harvested, Pat makes all cropping decisions and takes care of tractor maintenance and fixing things on the farm. Rachel and Jena are in charge of cattle, with Rachel acting as lead herdsman. Jena is second in charge, and the sisters alternate feeding calves. The two women successfully manage 800 cows, and one of them can always be found on the farm.
“My mom came off of full-time cattle work when I was done with school, and I came into a leadership role in this area,” Rachel said. “I do a lot of organizing and delegating of jobs, but I like to be hands on too.”
Rachel trims feet in between the hoof trimmer’s regular scheduled trims and does the majority of the farm’s breeding. She learned how to breed cows in eighth grade and has been breeding for more than 15 years. The Kanes run a 30% pregnancy rate and use an ovsynch to presynch breeding program for milking cows.
“We each have our own spot on the farm and want to do the best job we possibly can,” Rachel said. “We like to be progressive. For example, right now we’re doing a three-month trial on an activity monitor for heifers and cows, and we’re always looking to do things better and more efficiently on the crop side too.”
Kane Dairy is part of the Lower Fox Demonstration Farms Network, and Pat was the one to introduce no till and cover crops to the operation.
“Now, we’re on the verge of doing all no till and are cover cropping as much land as possible,” he said. “You grow your own nitrogen when you plant cover crops. You’re keeping soil healthier and, in return, reducing input costs and chemical use, not to mention fuel and manpower. We use multispecies crops to benefit soil health, reduce erosion and provide extra forage as we use secondary crops for heifer and dry cow feed.”
Pat’s new way of working the land has resulted in labor savings for the farm. Kane Dairy used to require a four- to five-man crew for spring fieldwork and planting. Now, they are down to a two-man crew and have doubled the amount of land they farm. They also employ seasonal part-time help, who happen to be retired area farmers, for harvesting haylage and corn silage.
“When I took over cropping, I started taking over maintenance projects as well, and now there is very little we have to call other people for,” Pat said. “We do all of the preventive maintenance work too. Anything that moves, we take care of ourselves.”
The siblings’ system of checks and balances ensures the best decisions are made for their operation. Rachel said they’re not afraid to step on each other’s toes.
“We’ll ask, ‘Are you sure that’s going to benefit us?,’ she said. “It’s nice to have all three of us kids involved in the farm because I don’t know if I could trust anyone else as much as I trust my brother and sister.”
Rachel has a dairy management degree from Lakeshore Technical College, and Pat participates in a winter program offered through Northeast Wisconsin Technical College that focuses on current farming practices.
“Knowing what I know now, I wish I would’ve went to school for a business finance degree,” Pat said. “I think that knowledge could have helped a lot with the farm transition, which we’re in the middle of.”
The name of the farm was changed from Kane Farms to Kane Dairy LLC, which includes the dairy operation plus 80 acres. The family has also created a trust for the land. Pat and Rachel would like to be farm owners, but Jena is still deciding if farm ownership is right for her.
“We’re going to buy shares of the business, and the farm will eventually transition to us as the new owners,” Pat said. “The dairy then pays rent to the land trust and eventually pays it off. When we retire someday, we’ll get the trust. It’s not a buyout. The farm almost has to be gifted, but our parents benefit from the land trust.”
Rachel said the family is taking their time with the transition and being proactive.
“Our banker told us, ‘This may seem like a big, scary step, but you’re already running the farm,’” Rachel said. “He’s been with us for 20 years, and we have a good team in our banker, lawyer and financial advisor. The last thing we need to take over are the finances, which we’re encouraging Jena to do because she’s good at it. Finances can be intimidating as that’s a big area to learn.”
“It takes a lot of internal knowledge to do the books,” he said. “You can’t just dive into it. There are so many little things to know.”
An example of this would be milk hedging.
“Sometimes you have to lose money to make money, but it helps in the long run,” Jena said. “These are some of the things I’m learning from my dad as we tackle this part of the business side by side.”
Their plates are full, but this newest generation of Kanes is dedicated to the family farm.
With hearts fully invested, Pat, Rachel and Jena drew on past experience and their lifelong passion for farming to reach their present-day success. And, Tim and Carla know the farm is in good hands with their children steering them into the future.