Persistence Pays Off for Black Creek Farmer

Jack Banker turns tragedy into opportunity.

Published on: Mar 31, 2006

Jack and Judy Banker of Black Creek and their son, Brian, custom-raise 850 heifers for 10 area dairy farms.

Eight years ago, Jack Banker was ready to hang it up and get out of farming.

Who could blame him? He'd suffered a skidsteer accident a year earlier that nearly cost him a leg, and the day after Christmas in 1997 while he was still feeling the sting of his mother's recent death, his 100-cow milking herd perished in a barn fire.

"That was a tough time," says Jack, who lives on the farm near Black Creek where he was raised. "We didn't know what we wanted to do."

Six weeks after the fire, Zen Miller, Outagamie County Extension dairy and livestock agent, suggested Jack and his son, Brian, attend a six-week Strategic Planning Seminar sponsored by Outagamie County Extension Service.

"There were a lot of people at the seminar who were planning dairy expansions and it became apparent there was going to be some opportunities to build a heifer raising facility," Jack says. "My cousin's husband was doing this on a smaller basis. We decided to put a plan together."

They originally thought they would raise a couple hundred heifers, but after crunching some numbers, the Bankers realized they were looking at raising 600 to 700 heifers.

They decided to put up a 360-foot long by 102-foot wide freestall barn to house heifers. The facility features 7-foot six-inch open sidewalls with winch-controlled polymax curtains and a 24-inch overshoot roof, open to the south with adjustable curtains. Heifers lounge in galvanized loop-style freestalls with head rails and rubber pasture mattresses. There are 578 freestalls in the building that are tailored to the increasing size of the heifers. Lounge areas are bedded with shavings. The entire barn is outfitted with self-lock feed panels. Alley scrapers run continuously in the barn. Manure flows by gravity to a pit that holds up to two million gallons.

Humble beginnings

Scenic-View Farm was established in 1947 by Jack's father, Ben. After marrying Judy, his high school sweetheart, Jack started working at Neenah Foundry in 1963. He was a union representative for the International Molders and Allied Workers. In 1977, he decided to return to the farm shortly after his father died. In 1978, he formed a partnership with his brother, Rick.

At that time, they were farming 300 acres and milking 38 grade Holstein cows. They also had a few hogs. Jack and Rick expanded and remodeled extensively and increased the milking herd to 100 cows.

Jack bought Rick's share of the business in 1995 when Jack and Judy's son Brian returned after working off the farm for seven years.

A string of bad luck

In 1996, Jack was cleaning the barn with a skidsteer. The bucket was loaded and in the up position as he started down a slight incline. Jack was bounced partially out of the seat as a ram came down on his leg crushing his ankle and mangling the bone between his knee and ankle. He endured multiple surgeries and an infection which he still takes antibiotics for. Jack was still recovering from his farm accident when his mother, Helen, died a year later. His grief was compounded the day after Christmas when a passing motorist pounded on the door at 4 a.m. Their barn was in flames and they lost the entire milking herd.

"I was ready to hang it up at that point, but Brian still wanted to farm," Jack says.

Back on track

Today, Jack, 60, and Judy and Brian supply the labor to raise 850 heifers for 10 area dairy farms on their farm known as Scenic-View Farm. A nephew, Brad Banker, works on the farm part-time. Other family members help on the farm during cropping season.

"All of the farms that we raise heifers for are within 35 miles of our farm," Jack says.

The Bankers farm 460 owned and rented acres. They grow corn silage and alfalfa and buy standing oatlage and peas and oats from neighbors.

Feed is stored on a blacktop feed-storage pad. The pad is 380-feet long and 150-feet wide. Corn silage and alfalfa haylage are piled there. The piles are covered with plastic and tires. Piles are packed in two directions which virtually eliminates waste, Jack says.

Baby calves are started in hutches in the transition barn which holds 85 calves. "We only raise baby calves for two farms," Jack explains. "They usually deliver the calves when they're a week old. We like them to have had their colostrum and be off to a good start when they get here."

Calves leave the hutches when they are 2 months old. "We wean them at 6 weeks. When they're on milk replacer they get starter. I like to keep them in hutches after I switch them over to water and grower before they go to the transition pens," Jack explains.

"We try and keep them in pens of five or six for a couple weeks and then they are moved up to six to eight in a pen. Then they go from 10 to 12 to 20 in a pen," he explains. Calves stay in the transition barn to between 4 and 6 months of age. "We don't move them into our large facility until they are at least 4 months old," Jack says. "The large heifer facility holds 650 heifers up to 20 to 22 months old."

Jack or Judy feed the baby calves. "It takes an hour and a half in the morning to feed and take care of the calves in the transition barn," Jack says. "It usually takes Brian about three hours once a day to mix and feed four different TMRs to the heifers."

Close springing heifers are fed a high-fiber diet so they don't get fat before they return to their home farms.

They go back to the farm two months before they calve. "Most of them calve at 22 -24 months of age because of the growth we get on them," Jack says.

Heifers are bred at 13 to 14 months old. "If they stick to that breeding, we get them to calve at 22 months old. We have an 80% conception rate on the first breeding," Jack says. The Bankers contract with Northstar Select Sires to breed the heifers.

Much of Jack's day is spent doing computer work in the office.

"I get up early in the morning 4 or 5 and work on the computer when it's quiet and there's nobody around to bother me and no phones ringing," he says. "We keep our breeding records, health records and billings on the computer and I do all of the farm financials and taxes on the computer through a Quicken program. Nile Beck from Fox Valley Technical College helps us with our taxes."

Jack is very active in his church and has held many offices in a variety of farm organizations. He served as president of Fox Valley Dairy Herd Improvement Association and is now the advisor representative to the NorthStar Michigan DHIA advisory board. He also is a delegate to the national DHIA annual meeting and serves as the Midwest Caucus chairperson.

Jack says custom raising heifers is working out well for his family.

His advice to others - "If you don't give up, good things can come out of a tragedy."