Fall for Colors sale offers dairy genetics

John Oncken

One of the ringmen taking bids on the Brown Swiss heifer kept looking my way, and I was getting concerned he thought I was bidding on the animal up for sale because the only people behind me were Dave Bollig, Belleville, who I knew as dairy superintendent at World Dairy Expo, and a young girl dressed all in white who had been leading sale animals earlier.

Natalie Roe, 13, Monticello, bid on and bought her first calf, a Brown Swiss bred by Voegeli Farm. “I was really scared,” she said.

When the bidding stopped and the youngster was pointed out as the happy buyer of the March calf for $2,600, I realized what this sale — the “Fall for Colors, Limited Edition” — was about.

Four breeds

The sales hosts, Mike and Linda Hellenbrand of City Slickers Farms and Dan and Jean Basse of Guernsey Grove Farms, Chicago, were offering some 65 calves and heifers from four dairy breeds, Brown Swiss, Guernsey, Jersey and Milking Shorthorn, at the New Holland Pavilion at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison last Saturday.

The sale was co-hosted by Mike Hellenbrand of City Slickers Farm (left) and Dan Basse, Guernsey Grove Farms.

All the animals were calves or heifers born as the result of embryo transplants (often called transfers) from outstanding genetics aimed at creating elite offspring that will eventually end up on farms for milk production or show ring glory.  

This periodic (every other year or thereabouts) sale is one of the variety of efforts the Hellenbrands use to market the several hundred calves born on the farm each year.

A good sale

A milking Shorthorn is paraded around the ring.

The Oct. 22 sale averages for the four breeds included $3,600 on 13 head of Jerseys; $3,551.73 on 29 head of Guernseys; $3,307.70 on 13 head of Brown Swiss; and  $1,625 on 10 head of Milking Shorthorns.

All in all, “a good sale for both the sellers and buyers” summarized several veteran dairy producers at ringside. Did you notice that all the leadsmen were youngsters who showed calves as 4-H managerial projects for City Slickers or one of the partners, one commented?

Yes, I had, and I had taken a photo of the group as they were introduced just prior to the sale. They were a happy and very proud group of youngsters all dressed in show “whites” and eager to lead calves into the sale ring.

The sale is perhaps the most visible aspect of this unique dairy breeding program operated at City Slickers Farm near Cross Plains that dates to the mid-1990s. That’s when the Hellenbrands (Mike grew up in the Cross Plains area) purchased it as a hobby farm and raised beef  cattle.

Five of the 29 Guernseys that went through the sale ring

Leaving the big city

At the time, both worked in the investment banking business in New York, Mike at Bear Stearns & Co. and Linda at Deutsche Bank. Their life was centered on the world's financial business, until Sept. 11, 2001 and the attacks on the World Trade Center.

The event prompted them to ponder their future in the high pressure urban setting and led to their decision to return to rural America and their farm on Hillpoint Road near Cross Plains. It took them several years to leave the big city, but they did, and with a plan.

The plan

Embryo transplants had been used in dairying for some time, as farmers saw it as a way to improve their herds rapidly and frozen embryos were being marketed worldwide. The Hellenbrands saw the future in implanting embryos from high genetic registered cows from the major dairy breeds into host or recipient cows (dairy or beef) who carry the calf to maturity.

The Hellenbrands try to be on hand at every calf birth, day or night, to make sure all goes well. As a result, their reputation as calf care experts who seldom lose a calf is well known across the dairy world.

After weaning, the calf may go to contract calf raisers, back to the farm that provided the embryo or possibly sold at private treaty or in a sale.

Although the Hellenbrands are not in the cow milking business, they can milk if need be, but the task of taking care of cows during calving and the calf care afterward is time and labor intensive — jobs at which the former Wall Street bankers do so well.

Lots of partners

Most of the calves born at City Slickers Farm are the result of partnership arrangements between the owner of the embryo and the Hellenbrands, who birth and raise the calf until weaning.

“We have 350-400 head of cattle, mostly recipient cows," Mike Hellenbrand explained. “ We have about 75 partners and sell at auctions across the country. This is our seventh Fall for Colors sale.”

Dan Basse, well-known ag economist and president of AgResource Company, a domestic and international agricultural research firm in Chicago, is a major partner with City Slickers and co-hosted the sale. He had over 20 partnered Guernseys in the sale.

A Chicago-based ag economist with Guernseys, one might ask?  Not a mystery at all. Dan is the third generation of the Basse family that raised registered Guernsey cattle in Muskego in Waukesha County from 1908 until 1992 and had the first all-registered Guernsey herd in Wisconsin (1912). Dan Basse fits the old adage: “You can take the boy off of the farm, etc.”

Another major partner with City Slickers, in the Brown Swiss breed, is the  internationally-known Voegeli Farm in Monticello with six calves in the sale.


Nicole Ballweg (left), a 2014 UW-Madison Dairy Science graduate, works full time on the family dairy  near Dane. She hopes to be the next generation on the farm as a co-owner with her brother. Her cousin, Karlee Ketelboeter,  a sophomore at UW-Platteville, accompanied her to the sale.

Karey Kelly left his home in Salisbury, New Hampshire, at 3 a.m. Saturday morning, flew to Milwaukee and rented a car to get to the 4 p.m. sale. “I’m hoping to buy a couple of 4-H calves, Brown Swiss or Guernsey,” he said.

Todd Kronberg, Milton, isn’t a dairy farmer. He’s a business development manager at ABS Global, but he, along with the Nuttleman family of Bangor, paid $7,000 for a December 2014  Guernsey heifer that will be a 4-H project for his son, Ben.

Then there was that small, young girl dressed in white who was standing behind me and paid $2,600 for the Voegli-bred Brown Swiss calf. She was Natalie Roe, a 13-year-old eighth-grader at Monticello.

“I was really scared,” she said. “This was the first time I ever bid at an auction, but I wanted that calf. She has great genetics and will make a good foundation cow. My dad couldn’t come to the sale, but he gave me a signed check.”

Wow! And she is only 13 years old.

Knows and loves cattle

Her dad, Dan Roe, told me more of the story over the phone: “I couldn’t make it to the sale. We were in the midst of soybean combining, but friend Dave Bollig helped her in the bidding and selecting the calf."

Dan said Natalie had showed Voegeli Brown Swiss at other shows and won the Junior Showmanship contest at the recent World Dairy Expo.

“Brian Voegeli is a longtime friend of ours and does so much for youngsters,” Dan continued. “Natalie was determined to have a calf of her own. Yes, I gave her a check, but she will pay me back. She’s been saving the money."

No, Dan and Sally Roe don’t milk cows, although they did until 1995. They are grain farmers and run Pleasant Grain LLC, a local grain elevator, and you may remember them as hosts to the 2014 Green County June Breakfast on the Farm.

“Natalie now owns her own calf, and you’ll see her in the show ring, maybe even World Dairy Expo,” Dan said.  “She knows and loves dairy cattle.”

Although she’s only 13 years old, I’d surely bet on her future show ring and life success. Wow, again.

John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications.  He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him