Excellence in dairy

Heyls receive ND commissioner’s award

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TOWNER, N.D. — In North Dakota, dairy farmers are increasingly hard to come by.

That is one reason the Heyl family, which owns PAY-DAK Dairy near Towner, appreciated receiving the state’s 2023 Commissioner’s Award of Dairy Excellence Jan. 17, during the North Dakota Dairy Convention in Bismarck.

Jonas Heyl said persevering within North Dakota’s dairy scene is not for the faint of heart.

“We’re crazy or stupid, or maybe a little bit of both,” Heyl said. “I kind of joked when we received the award that, since there are (so few) dairy farms left in the state, how many of them already got the award?”

One year ago, there were 37 grade A and B dairy farms remaining in North Dakota. Today, there are 32 grade farms operating, according to Rep. Dawson Holle.

Heyl said that in 2023, a farm that received the dairy excellence award in recent years closed, as did a neighboring farm.

“The dairy up the road from us, a 1000-head dairy, shut their doors,” Heyl said. “When beef prices are so good and dairy prices are so poor — and the government programs want such a high premium to protect a floor that doesn’t even seem profitable when inflation is high, costs are high, freight costs are high, and corporations are taking a bigger slice of our pie — it’s hard to make ends meet.”

Heyl and his wife, Sam, operate their farm with a team of eight full-time employees. 

They milk 300 cows twice a day in a double-8 parallel parlor and raise their youngstock. They also grow alfalfa, corn, soybeans, canola and small grains on 2,500 acres and pasture 200-300 animals each year on 700 acres. Milk from the farm travels three hours to the Dairy Farmers of America processing plant in Pollock, South Dakota, where it is made into specialty cheeses.

The Heyls met in college and came back to Sam’s family farm in 2005, buying the farm from her parents in 2016. The couple has three young children who are the fourth generation on the farm, which was homesteaded by Sam’s grandparents in 1941.

“For us, we’re trying to do the best that we can,” Heyl said. “For the first time since we got the farm, we were in the red last year. We had to take out of operating (funds) to pay bills. We’ve never had to do that.”

He went to his father-in-law to seek advice.

“He said that (being in the red) is going to happen (in dairy farming), and it’s probably going to happen three or four more times,” Heyl said. “It’s just something where you’ve got to weather the storm.”

The Heyls were able to continue moving forward. Heyl said being efficient by incorporating sustainable practices has helped them keep the farm healthy.

“Going forward, we will continue to try to be more efficient in what we do,” Heyl said. “I do a lot in regenerative farming where we’ve saved a lot of input costs by producing our own products, starting with the byproduct of manure, so that I’m not buying synthetic fertilizer anymore. I make compost tea for a starter fertilizer and do different things with our lagoons to create natural fertilizer so that we can save some money.”

Heyl said conservation practices fit well into his family’s farming philosophy.

“I am adamantly a believer in being a good steward of my land,” he said. “I practice regenerative farming, using no-till farming practices whenever I can, cover crops, using manure and putting down green crops to capture carbon — I’m into all that.”

The Heyls also worked with their county’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in 2019 using an Environmental Quality Incentives Program grant to build a 30- by 96-foot hoop greenhouse.

“We’ve since expanded the garden around the greenhouse, and in the hoop house, we put tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers,” Heyl said. “It extends our growing season about a month in the spring and a month in the fall.”

The Heyls use the produce to help feed staff, and the project has provided more diversified training for interns on J-1 visas, whom the Heyls have welcomed to their farm. Heyl said Sam’s parents are experts at canning and largely take care of preserving the produce.

“We get canned fruits and vegetables all year-round because of their hard work,” Heyl said. “We also sell as much as we can on-site, mostly by word of mouth. Once in a while, I’ll take a trailerful of goods into town and put up some signs. Whatever is left over goes to the food pantries.”

Selling produce is also a way to reach out to the community when fewer people each year are connected to agriculture.

“There are few jobs with more importance than what we do,” Heyl said. “Sadly, consumers are being distanced from us, and we need to (educate) so that we aren’t attacked by organizations or people who are misinformed. We try to bridge the gap as much as we can, but when we’re working as much as we do and as hard as we do, it’s hard to make and find time to do that, especially when we have a family.”

Finding time to attend the award ceremony was even a challenge. Heyl said, luckily, Sam’s parents got the kids to school and took care of them while the Heyls made the two-hour trip to Bismarck for the convention.

“(Department of Agriculture staff) knew that if they didn’t give us enough advanced warning, we might not have been able to be there to accept the award,” Heyl said. “Dairy farmers don’t get off the farm very often, and it’s a big deal. None of it could have happened without our employees’ help to keep the farm running.”

In a released statement about the Heyls, North Dakota Commissioner of Agriculture Doug Goehring acknowledged the commitment it takes to run a successful dairy farm in these times.

“The PAY-DAK Dairy has consistent, high-quality milk and a remarkable inspection record,” Goehring said. “Despite the challenges, it is encouraging to know that the Heyl family is committed to the dairy lifestyle and producing an excellent product for consumers.”

Back on the farm, the Heyls have taken the award in stride.

 “It’s nice to be recognized, but we certainly don’t do this to get awards,” Heyl said.  “We’re honored to have gotten it, and we’ve received a lot of praise for it. But any dairy farmer who takes pride in what they do deserves this award.”

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