Dean Manthe began farming on his own, some 29 years ago, on the rich farmland near DeForest in northern Dane County.
Like many other farmers in the area cash cropping had sort of become the farming enterprise of choice although there were (and still are) a good number of prosperous dairy farms in the area.
Dean's father Lloyd Manthe, Sr, was one of Wisconsin's bigger dairy farmers, milking some 500 cows back in the 1970s and 80s. In addition to dairy cattle, five sons (and three daughters) were raised on the Manthe farm.
Four of the sons, Jr., Randy, Roy (who works for Dean) and Dean are active in grain farming, custom harvesting and custom heifer raising. Daryll does not farm but owns D&J Manthe Forage Service LLC, specializing in forage harvesting. (You read about him in this column June, 2010).
If you want to find the "Manthe farm" in DeForest you have to be rather precise in who you want: Jr. is on the home farm, Randy is a bit north and Dean a bit south.
Dean Manthe, the youngest of the sons and his wife Jackie who works at Dean Medical Center in Madison, and their son Drew (20), farm some 2,000 acres of owned and rented land in Dane and Columbia counties.
They raise corn, soybeans, alfalfa and wheat. In addition, Dean provides custom combining on about 2,000 acres and custom planting on another 2,000 acres.
"I got started farming by renting 150 acres of land and bought this farm in 1993," Dean says. "We've gradually expanded Manthe Grain Farms LLC ever since."
One of those examples of expansion is the two-season-old grain storage facility across the road from the farmstead. The 130,000-bushel unit was a good move, Dean says, but was never near full this year what with the lean corn harvest.
He says that while their average yield of about 120 bushels per acre was well below average it was a lot better than farms in southern Dane County and counties to the south.
Dean says they have enough silage and haylage to feed the 900-plus heifers located in two barns on the home farm and in a rented barn a couple of miles away.
It was back in the mid-1990s when his custom heifer raising enterprise got going.
"I was looking for something to keep my employees busy year around," Dean says. "Don Statz, my wife's father, and a partner with his brother Rich, in Statz Brothers Farm at Sun Prairie, suggested I look at raising heifers for them as they were expanding their dairy operation. "
I had worked with the heifers at our home farm and my brothers Jr. and Randy was already raising heifers on a custom basis, Dean remembers.
The first heifer barn went up in 1996 and another in 2003. Just over a year ago, son Drew rented Bob Walton's Simmenthal Valley Farm and barn a couple miles away and put in 120 heifers.
Some years ago Dean had purchased another 80-acre farm about a mile and a half away that is now the home to a calf barn nearing completion. The 110- by 300-foot facility, with a planned completion date of Dec. 1, will house another 400 heifers.
Unlike some custom raising calf operations, Dean Manthe raises heifers from only one owner - the near 2,000 cow Statz Brothers Farm. "That's what the Statz brothers want," Deans says. "This means there is a much less possibility of disease entering the system."
Dean and Drew, who is now working fulltime with the calf operation agree that death loses have been very minimal over the years. They keep precise records and have recorded less than about 20 losses over the many years.
Health concerns are always at the top of the management list: Constant supervision by the owners and their employees are coupled with weekly visits by Prairie Veterinary Associates, at Sun Prairie, who do all the vaccinating and needed medication.
The heifers come to owners at about 500 pounds and return home to the Statz farm 35 to 60 days after being bred by artificial insemination.
"Genex does all our breeding," Dean Manthe says. "We want strong, good-size calves and have been using sexed semen in order to get as many heifers as possible. "
The Statz brothers made the decision to have their custom raised for a number of reasons. "We were expanding our dairy," Don Statz says "We didn't have the facilities and labor to raise the heifers."
"It also meant we'd need more manure space," Rich Statz adds. "And, feed might have been a problem."
Both Don and Rich agree that the owners do a great job in raising their heifers. "We'd never have stayed if they didn't," Don says. "The new building will mean that the animals will stay a bit longer at the Manthe facility before returning home."
Drew Manthe has moved into the role as heifer manager although he is young, only 20 years old. "I always planned to farm here," he says. "This is where I want to be."
He attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison Farm & Industry Short Course last year as did his dad Dean before him. Father and son emphasize that Short Course is the best education for farmers and farmers to be.
(Note - As I've written many times before, if all the U.W. Farm Short course attendees ever decided to not farm for a day or two, Wisconsin dairying would collapse in a heap.)
Custom heifer raising might be a new concept to some non-farmers but it has been around for a long, long time.
Early on, dairy farmers realized the value of the calves, which because of the premium genetics available through A.I. were of higher quality than their dams.
I first ran into professional custom calf raising in southern California in the early 1970s in the Chino Valley where dairies had no cropland or buildings and the "calf lady" was an every day visitor.
The young calves were taken to specialized farms where many thousands of calves were raised at one time.
There were many different systems in use then and today. Calves might be purchased by the raiser and resold to the original owners (or others) at maturity, Sometimes the calves don't change ownership and are raised on a cost per day basis.
Today there are as many systems as there are custom calf raisers and many Wisconsin dairy farms seek their services.
Success depends on good management that produces healthy animals fed right and treated right that can go on to enter milking herds and become high-producing, healthy dairy cows.
Of course, many dairy farmers prefer to raise their calves on the farm or at off-the-farm facilities they own.
Dean Manthe reminds me that they must also follow the many environmental rules in effect. "We have a 180-day manure storage," he says. "The concrete lagoon at the new barn is 12 feet deep and 140 by 230 feet in size. "
The long relationship between the Statz dairy and the Manthe heifer growers exists "because of good communications," they agree.
John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or e-mail him at email@example.com.