By Harley Buchholz
Art and Will Steffen partnered in farming but now find they work together just as well as employer and employee. Art became the sole owner this year of a farm founded in 1862 - five generations ago - by Jacob Steffen. Will had been a partner since 1994 when he left the U.S. Air Force following the death of their father, Eugene.
The brothers work with four other employees on 430 owned and rented acres north of St. Cloud in eastern Fond du Lac County, milking 280 Holstein cows three times a day.
Will has a degree in mechanical engineering and says, "I'm not much of a dairy person. I like building things, fixing things so (when we decided) to stay in cattle I said, 'I'll work for you' (referring to Art)." An added benefit came with capital gains tax advantages by selling his half of the partnership on Jan. 1.
Both agree that "nothing has really changed" with the new arrangement. "We still make decisions together," says Art. "What will work, what won't - we discuss it."
"He always listens to my opinions," Will says. He does the machinery maintenance and repair and has built or customized some of the farm's machinery. Art has charge of the dairy herd. He has taken ag courses.
Starting in 2000 with a milking parlor, the brothers expanded the milking herd from 150 cows. They began with greenhouse type freestall barns, which they built themselves, but "there's a lot of wind up here so they didn't last," Will says. "We tore them down and built a replacement."
"Half at a time." Art says. "We put up steel buildings now and they haven't moved."
That was in 2005and 2006. A new calf barn followed. They've done a lot of the construction themselves.
They're continuing to look at modest expansion now mainly to increase cattle comfort.
"It's always a matter of cash flow," Art says. "Great ideas don't always flow." Then, he adds, "It's debt retirement, really to keep from getting buried with debt."
"It depends on feed costs and the price of milk too," says Will. "Last year, feed prices killed us."
The cattle are fed corn silage and haylage produced on the farm, but most of the grain for mixed rations is purchased. That calls for close attention to forage production. The Steffens look for 6 tons of alfalfa per acre and 20 to 22 tons of corn silage, all stored in bunkers. They raise some corn for grain, hitting 200 bushels per acre in 2011, and figure that 160- to 170-bushel yields make for a good year. Early rye and soybeans also mix in their crop rotation, with the bean crop averaging 80 bushels per acre last year. "We incorporated a fungicide; that seemed to be a nice addition" and helped push the yield, Art says.
"Some land is double cropped," Will points out. "We have a lot of manure for fertilizer so we figure we can get the best use out of the land." Art says he is considering cover crops within the next year or two. He is single. Will is married and the father of three. His wife works off the farm.
Art raises all of the replacement stock on the farm except for 45heifers that go to a custom raiser between 8 and 12 months before being brought back for breeding. "We don't want to overcrowd," he says. A Select Sires technician comes daily to check for breeding. Art notes that they were among the first to buy an electronic motion detector device that helps in heat detection. "We went with it because we were having problems with heat detection," he says. "We discovered mold in the corn" was causing the problem. Heat detection and milk production both improved within 14 days after the moldy silage was removed. Milk production ranges around 85 pounds of milk per cow per days and has peaked at 90 pounds.
Buchholz lives in Fond du Lac.