Whether they are talking about a new calf barn, or how they feed and care for 3,800 heifers or how they've slashed their fertilizer bill by utilizing manure from their heifer operation on their 2,650 acres of cropland, it's clear the Schneiders are all passionate about farming.
Schneider Farms Inc. near Hilbert in Calumet County is operated by brothers Ron, Al, Mark, John and Dave Schneider and Al's son, Ryan.
Schneider Farms started in the late 1960s when Ron and Al, the oldest of the brothers, built a parlor on the end of the stanchion barn on their main farm. During the next few years, they were joined by brothers Mark, John and Dave and their father Henry. Together they put up a modern freestall-parlor dairy operation in 1975. Throughout the 1970s, '80s and '90s, Schneider Farms was well known across Wisconsin for managing one of the highest producing large dairy herds in the state.
"In 1977, we milked 200 cows and we were told we had the biggest dairy in the state at the time," Dave recalls. "That didn't last long."
In 1993, the Schneiders hosted Wisconsin Farm Progress Days at their farm. By then, they were milking 480 cows. In 2000, they were milking 650 cows on two sites and had maxed out their facilities.
Sensing there was a growing number of large dairies in northeast Wisconsin that did not have the resources to raise their own heifers, they began to weigh their options.
"We decided either we were going to expand the dairy or custom raise heifers," Dave says.
"We crunched some numbers and decided to raise heifers," Al explains. "Age was a factor. Most of us didn't want to milk more cows."
In November of 2000, the Schneiders sold 500 of their cows and began building a new nursery for their custom heifer raising enterprise.
"We were milking cows on two sites and we basically shut down this site and sold the cows," Ryan says. "The following June, we sold the remaining 150 cows that were at the other farm."
They kept their own heifers. Combined with the heifers they were custom raising, by December 2001, they had 2,500 heifers.
"We've been gradually expanding ever since," Al says.
Today, they custom raise 3,800 heifers for five large dairies located within a 40-mile radius between Wrightstown and Elkhart Lake.
The Schneiders all work together on the farm as they have for as many as 40 years. While everyone pitches in to get the work done, they each have an area of expertise. Al and Ron are in charge of crops. Mark is the calf manager. John is the heifer manager. David is in charge of feeding and purchasing and helps with crops. Ron and Ryan handle the bookkeeping and manage employees. In addition to themselves, the Schneiders have four full-time and three part-time employees.
The Schneiders' spouses all work off the farm. Even though Ryan is the only son of the five brothers who has become a partner in the family operation, over the years, the farm has been a springboard for the Schneiders' children who today lead highly successful careers as attorney, teachers and bankers.
Baby calves arrive at the farm daily when then are between 2 hours and 2 days old. The calves are each identified with ear tags. Heifers from all five dairies are co-mingled and raised together. They currently have about 350 calves on milk. Calves are weaned at 50 days old after they have been moved out of individual pens in the nursery to group pens in a bedding pack deep pack barn. Calves stay there until they are 3 to 3½ months old before moving the small freestalls. From the small freestalls, they are moved to the slatted floor barn that has a manure pit underneath. They stay there until they are short bred and before going to the freestall barn with mattresses. Six weeks before they freshen, heifers are returned to their home farms.
On average, heifers are 23.6 months old when they calve. The Schneiders hire Genex to handle all of the breeding.
"The owners pick bulls from multiple AI studs," Al says. "Each farm is different."
The Schneiders have enjoyed tremendous success with raising heifers. In 2008, they had a 2% death loss with calves under 60 days old. Death loss among older heifers averaged 2.3% last year.
The Schneiders own 1,100 acres and rent 1,650 acres. Their crop program includes 1,025 acres of corn, 600 acres of alfalfa, 300 acres of new seeded alfalfa, 350 acres of soybeans and 300 acres of wheat. The wheat and soybeans are sold as cash crops. They also sell 400 acres of corn which they chop for neighboring Holsum Dairies.
Straw is baled and used for bedding and some is fed.
"We chop all of the alfalfa," Al says. "The only thing we bale is straw."
When the Schneiders switched from milking cows to custom raising heifers, the biggest adjustment was in putting up alfalfa.
"We were normally one of the first ones out in the fields harvesting hay when we had the dairy," Ryan says. "Now we're the last ones making hay. We normally don't mow first-crop alfalfa until the second week of June."
"We're going for quantity not quality," says David. "We want it to be lower in energy so we get more tonnage and the heifers don't get fat."
"We don't want the feed to be moldy," Ryan adds. "You can't feed mold. We want quality junk!"
"We feed some straw and some rice hulls to cut the energy," David says. "We feed some sweet corn waste, too."
The Schneiders no-till about 300 acres of wheat.
"With all of our manure and heavy soils we have to full till everything else," Al explains. "But we like the manure because it keeps our fertilizer costs relatively low and the organic matter is good for the soil."
The Schneiders have experimented with new cropping techniques that allow higher yields on their clay soils.
The Schneiders credit their parents, Henry and Odelia, who live in Hilbert, for instilling a strong work ethic and a strong sense of family in the brothers and their other siblings.
"We have three other brothers and two sisters – there are 10 of us – and we all live in Calumet County," Al says. "We all get along very well."
Although there is a waiting list of large dairies that would like the Schneiders to raise their heifers, they say they have no immediate plans to get bigger. But over the next few years, the younger partners will be growing their share of the business as they transition the brothers out as they retire.
"Ron is 66 and I'm 62 years old," Al says. "Ron is retiring and I will be in a few years. Mark is 59, John is 57, David is 52 and Ryan is 30 – they will be running the operation."
Despite working long hours on the farm, the Schneiders are active in a number of community organizations.
Ron has served on the St. Mary's School Board, was Chilton Co-op Board president and served on the Farm Service Agency Board.
Al served on the board of directors for Farm Credit Services and is past president of the Fox Valley Farm Management Board of Directors. He has also served on St. Mary's Parish Council.
Mark serves on the Town of Chilton Smart Growth Committee and is a member of his church council.
John is in charge of St. Mary's Cemetery in Hilbert.
David served on the Chilton Co-op Board of Directors for 12 years, 10 of those years as president. He is also a member of the Calumet County Forage Council serving four years as president. He also served six years on the St. Mary's School Board, five years as president, and is on the board of Agri-Partners Co-op.
Ryan has been trustee/treasurer at his church for three years and served four years on the Ag Department Advisory Committee for Fox Valley Technical College.