September 9, 2023 at 8:00 a.m.
The long way around
Young Iowa farmers return to home farm
Amber and Ben Selman do chores together June 28 on the farm where they began dairying in 2019. The farm is where Amber grew up near Maquoketa, Iowa. (PHOTO BY SHERRY NEWELL)
MAQUOKETA, Iowa — Like many beginning dairy farmers, Ben and Amber Selman made several stops en route to landing back at the family farm.
In their case, that farm is where Amber grew up with her parents, Joe and Shelley Heinrich of Maquoketa. The Selmans’ return meant the Heinrich farm had a chance to continue the dairy for another generation.
Ben’s path first took him from his father’s 20-cow dairy in Indiana to Iowa State University, next to an artificial insemination company role in Minnesota, and then to three herdsman jobs in Illinois and one in Iowa.
Amber’s route also included ISU, then a public relations job in Minnesota, followed by three agriculture journalism jobs that accommodated Ben’s relocations. Now, she works from home for a marketing agency while also taking care of the farm’s calves and handling other duties.
Along the way, the couple had three children to whom they are giving the experience of growing up on a dairy farm. Ellie loves to grain calves and play in the hay mow. Anna is the kitten wrangler, and Weston loves to ride in tractors.
The Selmans returned to the Heinrich farm in 2019. Since then, the operation has been in a slow transition.
Ben and Amber Selman (second, from left) visit with Tony Rice of National Milk Producers Federation (from left), Congresswoman Mariannette Miller-Meeks, Illinois dairy farmer Lorilee Shultz and Ashley Davis of Prairie Farms during a NMPF trip in early June in Washington, D.C. The Selmans farm near Maquoketa, Iowa. (PHOTO SUBMITTED)
“Joe said he hadn’t planned on milking for this long,” Ben said. “If we hadn’t come back, the dairy would be done. He was vice president of Iowa Farm Bureau, had beef cows and was focusing less on dairy.”
Ben said his various experiences on other farms are useful now.
“You pull from the range of experiences, and you kind of learn more of being flexible,” he said. “Quite frankly, you learn three or four different tricks. Multiple ways will work; if one doesn’t, another does.”
Joe oversees the farm while a cousin is involved with the beef enterprise. There is additional family land to manage near Andrew where, five generations earlier, Amber’s great-great-grandfather settled.
“There are lots of moving parts,” Amber said of the Heinrichs’ farm operation.
“Joe likes to say there are lots of pockets on the same pair of pants,” Ben said.
The dairy rests mainly on Ben and Amber’s shoulders. They grind their own corn, hay and haylage, and purchase concentrate and soybean meal. Milking is done in a flat-barn parlor with six stalls.
Amber and Weston Selman prepare calf milk during chores June 28 near Maquoketa, Iowa. Amber and Ben Selman returned to Amber’s home farm to dairy in 2019. (PHOTO BY SHERRY NEWELL)
To kick start the return to the farm, the Selmans purchased Ben’s father’s 20 Jerseys, making an adventure of the two trips from Indiana through Chicago and back to Maquoketa. It was memorable in several ways, as the first trip took place the same day as Iowa’s 2020 derecho storm that wreaked havoc across Iowa. Its path thankfully left all cows in their pens and no big damage on the farm.
The Selmans’ first objectives for the dairy was cow and calf health, improving cleanliness, pushing more grain, updating vaccination, dehorning and other practices.
“Once we got comfortable with those pieces, we brought in a nutritionist, and now we’re making small changes,” Ben said. “It’s genetics — getting rid of bulls and going to A.I., then developing fresh and dry cow protocols, then (somatic cell count). Production has almost doubled since we started implementing different pieces.”
In spite of the work they have to do at home, the Selmans found time to serve as Prairie Farms representatives to the National Milk Producers Federation Young Cooperators Advisory Council. They attended the NMPF annual meeting in October 2022 and spent the first week of June in Washington, D.C., on a lobbying trip.
For Amber, it repeated a role her father and mother had played many years ago on a similar trip.
The Selmans, along with a fellow dairy woman and friend, were tasked with discussing five things while in Washington: timely passage of the farm bill, updating the base for the Dairy Margin Coverage program, the Dairy Pride Act, the European Union’s move to protect cheese names and tariffs on baby formula. Ben and Amber’s trip also promoted dairy farming.
“We met with two (legislators) from Iowa and two from Illinois,” Amber said. “It went pretty well. Talking to people about agriculture in Iowa is pretty easy.”
“It was a good experience,” he said. “It puts in perspective how many people it takes to have just one senator form an opinion.”
However, the Selmans’ daily focus is on moving their dairy forward.
Amber’s wish list includes planned meetings with those involved with the farm. She also hopes their children will be involved in showing cattle, just as she and Ben did during their youth. Daughter Ellie is a 4-H clover kid and is the Jackson-Clinton County Little Miss Dairymaid.
“In a perfect world, in 10 years, we’ll still be here doing this,” Amber said. “We’ll have had an expansion and getting an inkling of what the kids would like to do with their futures.”
Ben said he is keeping his ear to the ground for an increase in milk quota from their cooperative, Prairie Farms.
“It would be my hope and goal to expand, but the question is always, ‘What do you do first?’” he said of the challenges they face.
In the meantime, both Ben and Amber said they enjoy the time they can spend with their young family on the farm.
“It’s kind of stressful being a farm mom,” Amber said. “But, it’s hilarious too. We have this little 2-year-old who can’t say words but knows a calf’s name. He climbs right over a calf and tries to feed it.”