By Sonja Heyck-Merlin
Please explain a bit of your personal history and farming background:
The farm is located in Antigo, Wisconsin which is 150 miles north of Madison. My grandpa bought the farm after World War II. My father bought it from him in the early 1960’s and then I bought it in 1999. The farming operations have remained pretty similar over the generations. We’ve always grazed our cattle.
I left the dairy out of high school and joined the Army, spending twenty years between active Army, Army Reserves, undergraduate, and graduate school. For ten of those years, I did social work and spent the first year out of graduate school as a 4-H agent.
I married in 1988. When we moved back to the farm in 1999, we had three children – 3rd grade and younger. Dad was ready to retire and I had completed my twenty years in the military. The return to the farm was an opportunity for a change in our family’s life. I am also a deacon at a local Catholic Church.
Can you give us a glimpse of your farming operation?
We own 150 acres on a dead end road with woods surrounding three sides of the farm. Another 90 acres are rented from neighbors. We milk around 45 Holsteins and have another 45 head of heifers. Some of our larger cows have been crossed with Jerseys. The hybrids seem a bit more hearty and aggressive on pasture. Heifers are bull bred but we use AI on the milking herd. We added a milking parlor to our hip roof stanchion barn in 2005 and still use the barn for winter housing. In 2013, we added an addition to the stanchion barn for more housing.
We freshen the majority of our cows in the late summer and fall to take advantage of Organic Valley’s winter premium. Having a lot of dry cows in the spring and early summer means less time milking cows which allows us to focus on putting up quality forage. Our production goal is fifty pounds a day per cow.
Can you share some more details about your heifer program?
Young stock six months and younger are kept in the barn. Heifers six months to calving age are rotationally grazed and out wintered during the non-grazing season. In the winter, I feed the heifers dry round bales which I spread out in a large grazing paddock in rows of four. I section off four bales at a time with a break wire fence. The bales are put in ring feeders. Once they eat those four bales, I move the rings and break wire fence and keep moving down the field.
What does your forage program look like?
Our forage is stored in three 16’x60’ silos. Two get filled with haylage and the other with corn silage. We supplement our forage with shelled corn and occasionally oats. Sometimes I have my own oats to combine, depending on how weedy they get. If the weed pressure is bad, I chop the oats and put them in the silo. A local feed mill comes and picks up the corn and oats and salt that I provide them with. They grind it up, add minerals, and bring it back to the grain tank on the farm.
We do all of our own field work with a full line of used machinery that I bought from my dad. It was here and I’ve always figured that it’s better to use it than stick myself with monthly payments for new equipment. I’ve never been into custom work–why pay someone else to maintain their machinery?
Over time, I have redone all the fencing to better accommodate rotational grazing. Generally, I move the milk herd every 24 hours, although my current DGA Apprentice has been experimenting with moving the milking herd two or even three times a day. We’ve also been investing in raised reinforced lanes through NRCS cost-sharing.
When and why did you decide to become a DGA Master?
I became a Master about two years ago. The practical answer as to why I became a Master is that my kids all grew up and left and I needed help. But there is more to it than that. The only way I can put it that makes any sense is that in my life I have always looked at the direction that the Spirit moves me. We all have a purpose in life and we find it if we pay attention to what goes on around us. Everybody has a purpose and my purpose is to pass on what I know and to leave the world in a better place. DGA is a vehicle for me to accomplish this. If I can help jumpstart even one dairy farm family, then I will feel like I have accomplished something.