Their turn to dairy

Three cousins continue the family farm


    BANGOR, Wis. – When the Manke brothers – Kenneth, David and Paul – were ready to step down from managing their family dairy farm, they approached their niece and two nephews about taking over. The three cousins – Melissa Manke, Matthew Manke and Bryant LeJeune – stepped up to the task and, after a couple years of preparation, took the farm over in 2017.

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    “We sat down and talked a lot when we first started,” Melissa Manke said. “We all had our certain skill sets that we came with.”
    The cousins milk 200 cows in an auto-flow parlor on the farm near Bangor.
    Manke and LeJeune handle most of the milking while Matthew takes care of the heifers and calves. Manke does all the administrative work for the farm, and LeJeune is in charge of managing crops and ordering breeding supplies.
    The cousins all work together to harvest hay. Every year, they manage 250 acres of hay ground in addition to 320 acres of corn.
    “We meet every winter to discuss what field is going to be what so we have a plan,” Manke said.
    Prior to the transition, Matthew and Melissa were working full time on the farm, and LeJeune was milking on his own. The farm expanded the freestall barn, slurry system, and feed storage area to accommodate LeJeune’s 60-cow herd.
    “My wife and I had been trying to purchase our own farm for years but couldn’t seal the deal,” LeJeune said. “We realized that without the help from someone along the way, I couldn’t live out my dream of being a dairy farmer. We are very grateful to the last generation allowing us to keep their legacy alive.”
    The previous generation helped the cousins by continuing to work on the farm through the transition. David has since passed away, but Paul feeds every day and Kenny helps where he can, usually in the fields or running errands.
    The brothers also helped the younger generation by floating the loan so the cousins would not have to go through a bank. The cousins are paying their predecessors back on a 30-year note. They calculated what the payments would be in pounds of milk based on $16 per hundredweight. The retiring generation gets paid for that amount of milk regardless of where the current milk price is.
    “They ride the wave with us,” Manke said. “When milk price is good, they get more money, and when it’s bad, they’re taking a hit just like we are.”
    So far, it has afforded the cousins to stay ahead. In the five years of ownership, they have come out ahead on payments every year except one, which they have already made up for. The payment design helps them pay down debt when times are good and offers a cushion when times are tougher.
    “The goal is to pay ahead,” LeJeune said. “We’re looking at paying over 20 years instead of 30.”
Shortly after making the transition, the cousins were presented with an opportunity to buy an additional farm site adjacent to the existing property. Again, they had support from their uncles to do so.
    “We had another farm that was 7 miles away which we sold to buy this closer farm,” Manke said. “It was the missing link.”
    The cousins agreed communication has made the transition work. While they do not have regular meetings besides their crop meeting in the winter, they make sure to talk every day in the barn. They also welcome opinions from the older generation, even though the cousins have the final say in management decisions.
    “We can’t go by the, ‘That’s the way we’ve always done it,’ rhetoric because that’s the way they did it, not us,” Manke said. “Nobody wants anyone to fail, but there has to be some failures for everybody to learn and move on.”
Manke said farming with family is easier with good communication among her cousins too.
    “Yelling doesn’t get you anywhere,” she said. “The best way to work things out as a team is to come to the table with a clear head and explain why you want it done a certain way. It gets you 10 steps further.”
    LeJeune agreed.
    “You have to be willing to give and take,” he said. “It’s a balancing act.”
    The cousins progressed the dairy operation by installing a solid separator as part of the expansion when bringing LeJeune’s cows in. They filter enough manure through the separator to provide bedding for the free stalls, while the rest of the manure goes in the storage pit. The cousins toured farms before deciding on the design. So far, the setup has proved worthwhile.
    “I am not going to argue that sand is the best bedding, but it is so hard on things,” LeJeune said. “Our pumps have been in for seven years, and they look brand new. We take a little hit on somatic cell count, but we gain it back with maintenance and not having to buy bedding.”
    LeJeune has also been experimenting with a highly-digestible hybrid corn. They have planted it for the last three years and have had an increase in milk production since making the switch.
    “It’s a softer, more digestible kernel,” LeJeune said.
In years past, they have always combined corn, but they are planning to combine and chop this year.
    Future plans for the cousins include upgrading their double-4 parlor, which was built in 1994. Parts and service are obsolete for the parlor, and the cousins will be looking into something more efficient. They also plan to build a different heifer facility.
    However, while there are plans for remodeling and facility improvements, there are no plans to expand.
    “We want to keep it so we can do most of the work and don’t have several employees,” LeJeune said. “Maybe one who can do the night milking sometimes.”
    With the workload balanced for now and a vision for the future, the cousins are taking their turn at carrying on the legacy of their family’s farm.
    “We’re continuing the vision our great-grandparents started back in 1912,” Manke said. “We never got to meet them or even our grandfather, so the fact that we’re able to do this is pretty cool.”


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