History and new era practices mesh on family dairy farm

Habeck homestead hosts Manitowoc dairy breakfast

Ray Mueller

KELLNERSVILLE – When Manitowoc County hosts its 29th annual dairy breakfast on the farm on the morning of Sunday, June 11, the estimated 4,700 to 4,800 attendees will be visiting a property that has been in the same family for 151 years and that has undergone huge changes in numbers and farming practices during that time.

Vertical and horizontal feed storage frame the Habeck Homestead Farms farmstead, which will be the site for Manitowoc County's dairy breakfast on the farm on Sunday, June 11.

Habeck Homestead Farms LLC in the northern part of the county is the home of about 520 dairy cows and an equal number of dairy youngstock today. From the 450 cows milked at any one time three times per day in a Double 8 parlor, about 40,000 pounds of milk are shipped daily to the Land O'Lakes Cooperative cheese plant in Kiel.

That's more than a doubling of the volume compared to as recently as the summer of 2000, when the milking herd had 232 cows, according to data prepared for the hosting of a county forage council meeting in June of that year. The rolling herd average for annual milk production per cow was 24,225 pounds at that time compared to more than 27,000 pounds (about 90 pounds per day) this year.

Crop production

Similarly, the owned and rented crop acres have also doubled in the 2000s – reaching about 1,125 today compared to 568 at start of the 21st century. Today's crops consist of 525 acres of corn, 350 of alfalfa, 150 of winter wheat, and 100 of soybeans. Agronomy services have been provided by Buchner Agronomy of nearby Whitelaw for about 15 years.

Asked about how the alfalfa and winter wheat crop fared during the past winter and early spring, cropping manager Keith Habeck estimated that the stand losses were only 15 percent – far less than on many other farms in the county and surrounding counties in east central Wisconsin.

Dairy cows due to calve within a few days rest in one of maternity pens at Habeck Homestead Farms.

With the various groupings of all ages of dairy cattle on the farm, nine different rations are prepared every day – five for milking cow groups, three for heifers, and another for dry cows and the close-up calving groups which are housed in separate pens with five to seven head each.

Brenda Meyer of CP Feeds at Valders is the herd nutritionist.

Unlike most dairy farms in the area, corn silage was not part of the standard ration for the milking cows at Habeck Homestead until about 15 years ago. That was when the farm was operated by Gerald Habeck, who passed away in 2006, and his wife Yvonne, who points out that she's been on the farm 59 years and recalls that in the mid 1950s the farm had 100 acres of crops and 20 milking cows.

Although feed storage now includes a colony of plastic bags, five upright silos constructed decades ago still are used extensively for storing alfalfa haylage, high moisture shelled corn, and corn silage. Those silos have heights of 60 to 100 feet and diameters of 20 to 30 feet. Bins are also available for ground corn, soybeans, and protein mixes.

Family history

The farm's history dates to 1866, when it was purchased by Wilhelm Sturm. A Sturm/Habeck marriage led to the farm's current family name – now in its fifth generation of ownership with two members of the sixth generation as employees among the total of 10 full-time employees and several part-timers in addition to four members of the immediate family.

 Keith Habeck -- crops manager at Habeck Homestead Farms.

A family corporation established in 2007 includes Yvonne, who continues as the bookkeeper, Keith, his brother Kevin, who is employed off the farm with the Patz farm equipment company, and their sister Kim Landt.

Kim Landt is a key person at the farm because she is the dairy herd manager with additional responsibility for employee supervision. She also handles the artificial insemination with semen from Genex through a double OvSync (Ovulation Synchronization) breeding program supplemented by heat detection with tail chalking.

The annual turnover in the dairy herd of Holstein cows (black and white with some red and white) along with a few Jerseys and Brown Swiss is about 33 percent, which is very close to the dairy sector average.

Veterinary services are provided by the Reedsville Clinic.

Building history

During a recent media day, family members recalled the timeline of a series of changes in the buildings and practices on the farm. A couple of mishaps also occurred along the way.

A smokehouse and a colony of upright silos illustrate a portion of the 151 year history at Habeck Homestead Farms in northern Manitowoc County.

Following a long period of carrying milk for storage in cans, a pipeline was installed in the original barn in 1978. With an increase in cow numbers that accompanied the construction of a free-stall barn in 1979, cows were moved in three shifts for milking in the existing barn for 10 years until a Double 6 milking parlor was installed in 1989.

In 1998, a partially constructed free-stall barn was destroyed in a windstorm, delaying the intended use of the new facility by several months. By that time, the herd size had passed 200 milking cows plus the dairy youngstock. Another increase in cow numbers occurred in 2012.

Facility upgrades were completed in 2008 for both dry cows and recently fresh cows. Today, there is a milking unit station within the main 850-foot free-stall barn for the first milking of fresh cows – milk that is then fed to the calves.

When the original barn burned in 2011, one item which was lost was a wood carving emblem that dated to the farm's founding in 1866. In addition to a granary and a summer kitchen, another original building still standing in the center of the farmstead is the former smokehouse, in which the breasts of geese grown on the farm were smoked and then sold to area grocery stores.

Calf feeding system

For many of the breakfast attendees, an intriguing new feature is likely to be the Calf-Star automated computerized calf feeding system that was installed in 2013. An average of 10 calves are born on the farm per week.

An automated calf feeding system that dates to 2013 will be one of the features likely to catch the attention of dairy breakfast visitors at Habeck Homestead Farms on Sunday, June 11.

The Calf-Star system has four pens surrounding the central control unit for the daily feeding of each calf with up to three gallons of milk made from a commercial powder. Calves enter a group pen at about 7 to 10 days of age and stay for about 75 days, until being weaned from milk and introduced to dry feeds and moved to new group housing units. 

Cow comfort features

This is only one of the technological innovations which the Habecks cited as being the drivers of change in recent decades. They also mentioned the sprinklers and fans which provide comfort in the free-stall barns during hot and humid days and the back brushes that cows most often walk under after returning from the Double 8 milking parlor (installed in 2009) which operates for about 21 hours per day.

Since 2003, rubber flooring has been installed on the walkway to the milking parlor and near the feed rail in the free-stall in order to reduce the amount of time that cows are standing on concrete. As another safety feature, plastic has replaced the steel on the dividers between free-stalls. A special free-stall bedding mix that includes paper waste acts a drying agent and helps to reduce the incidence of mastitis infections in udders.

Kim Landt -- dairy herd manager at Habeck Homestead Farms.

All of the Holstein heifer calves are also being DNA tested to identify their genomic traits. Kim indicated that a group of samples is submitted about every two months for testing, setting the stage for a decision on whether the calves will be raised or sold.

Looking ahead

When asked about possible changes, the Habecks say they have no plans to increase dairy cattle numbers. They noted that doing so would propel the farm into requiring a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources operating permit if the cattle reached a total of 1,000 animal units (1 million pounds of live weight). Kim joked that robot milkers (one per every 55 cows) could be a possible change.

More likely ideas are the addition of a machinery maintenance shop and a building for machinery storage, the Habecks stated.

The June 11 dairy breakfast will be served in the existing machine shed and in an overflow tent, according to Becky Salm, the chair of the county's dairy promotion committee, which has the county Farm Bureau chapter and the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board as co-sponsors along with many other contributors.

Breakfast tickets, which include a serving of an ice cream sundae, are $7 for adults for $4 for children age 5 to 11 (free to age 4).

Other activities during the morning event will be wagon tours around the farmstead, a cow bouncy house, face painting, picture taking with a calf, and crowning of the county's dairy princess and Farm Bureau queen at 9:30.

From Highway I-43, directions to the farm are to take Exit 160 west to Kellnersville, north on T, right on Fisherville Road, and left on Pleasant Road to parking in an alfalfa field. Other routes to Kellnersville, whose water tower is visible from the Habeck farm, are Highway K from the west and T from the south. Because Pleasant Road will be designated for one-way traffic that morning, all exiting will be to the north.