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Published February 06, 2012, 03:09 AM

St. Croix County farms take top honors

Maybe it’s something in the water? Two area dairy operations have captured the top spots in a national ranking system for farms with high-quality genetics efforts.

By: By Tom Lindfors, New Richmond News

Maybe it’s something in the water? Two local dairy operations have captured the top spots in a national ranking system for farms with high-quality genetics efforts.

Willows-Edge Dairy Farm placed No. 1 in the 2011 ratings, while a few miles away Crisdhome Farms was close behind in second place.


The local dairy operation got its start in 1976 when brothers Henk and John Van Dyk set out to buy a farm in the area.

“Pretty soon the hobby farm got out of control,” Henk said.

Two years later John quit his job to work full-time on the farm and in 1978 they bought their first Holstein and began building their herd. Henk later married his wife, Bonnie, and the dairy operation continued to grow and began focusing more attention on their breeding practices.

Today Willows-Edge Dairy Farm sits on 960 acres straddling the Willow River just south of New Richmond. The herd currently numbers 134 and averages more than 25,000 pounds of milk per cow per year. The farm has more than 25 All-American Holsteins to its credit, including bovine celebrities like Velcro, Malika and Flicker.

“It’s got to be love, because we don’t get rich on it,” Henk said of his ongoing passion for the dairy business. “We do it for one reason only, we enjoy it.”

Willows-Edge claimed the No. 1 BAA ranking in the United States this past year for farms with Holstein herds of between 101 and 150 cows. They placed first with an average ranking per cow of 111. A consistent member of the top 10, it’s the third time in the past 10 years their herd has garnered the top spot.

According to Bonnie, their success comes in part from bringing in good breeding stock to enhance the farm’s pedigrees.

“By off-setting the strengths and weaknesses of each cow during breeding, that’s how you get improvement,” she said.

“BAA is all about using the right bulls and mating correctly,” Henk continues. “On a good dairy farm, you need to know the lineage of your cattle so you can create the right pairings.”

Because of effective breeding practices, Bonnie said the Willows-Edge herd is known for its longevity and style.

“People across the country know our herd for that,” Henk said. “The better the legs, the better the udder, the stronger the cow, the longer she’s going to last. The longer she lasts, the more money she makes. If you have to get rid of cows after one lactation, you won’t make any money.”

Even with all the success, the future of the Willows-Edge operation remains in question. Two of Henk and Bonnie’s children already have other careers, while their two young daughters, Claire, a senior at Hill-Murray, and Jordan, a sophomore at Augsburg College, have yet to express an interest in continuing the farm.

There might still be hope, however, as both Jordan and Claire are members of the State and National Junior Holstein Association. They were also members of the state winning St. Croix County dairy judging team.

“I’m 66 and won’t be able to do this forever,” Henk noted. “We just don‘t know about the future of our farm.”

Bonnie said young people interested in farming would likely have a difficult time starting a dairy operation unless they inherit a farm, because the cost of land, buildings and equipment is too high.

Willows-Edge currently relies on outside labor. Three employees manage the milking and feeding of the calves, while a fourth is responsible for mechanical repairs and fieldwork.

Henk starts each day around 5 a.m. checking in at the farm for a couple hours to pitch in with chores, check on the health of the herd and to resolve any problems. He’s assisted by all-around farm hand Bob Amchler.

Henk ends every day the same way he starts it, stopping by the farm on his way home from his day job as a lawyer at Van Dyk, Williamson & Siler, SC. Bonnie also leads a double life working as a senior business loan officer at WESTconsin Credit Union.

Crisdhome Farms

Two generations of the Kruschke family — Chuck and his son, Jake — own and operate the Crisdhome dairy farm off Highway 65 just north of New Richmond. Chuck’s great-grandfather Ernest started the family dairy operation more than 100 years ago on this same acreage.

A continuous commitment from generations of family members speaks to why this is one of the top family-owned dairy farms in the country and why its future is secure with Chuck’s sons Pete, Joe and Jake and his brother Dave, responsible for much of the farm’s current operations.

“We breed cows to last as opposed to breeding cows just to make as much milk as they can,” Chuck added.

Inside a tiny office attached to one of several dairy barns, a long shelf runs down one side crowded with trophies of all sizes. On the walls are several black and white photographs of folks who share history with the Kruschke family alongside numerous photos of notable Holstein cows.

Jake, 22, a self-described “Cow Nut” since he was knee-high to one of these black and white beauties, is the herdsman for the farm. Besides sharing in farm chores, his responsibilities include managing the young stock of some 80 heifers spread out between two farms. He also tracks the genetics of the Crisdhome dairy herd, a responsibility he’s well suited for since completing two terms of dairy farm management courses at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He’s also responsible for identifying and treating any health issues the herd might have.

Brother Joe, 25, is the master mechanic of the operation having completed the two-year Agricultural Power and Equipment program at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College in New Richmond.

Joe’s older brother Pete, 28, and his uncle Dave, also work on the farm. With everyone’s desire to work in the family business, they’ve had to be creative in order to keep all the boys and their uncle employed on the farm. They expanded the operation by renting additional acreage for crops and they created a trucking business that Pete and Joe operate. They haul grain and snap beans to the cities as well as transport cattle throughout the Midwest.

“Cows thrive on consistency,” Chuck explained. “To stay healthy and produce well, they like to be fed the same food, at the same time every day. Same with exercise.”

He said achieving a top-ranked herd consists of “proper breeding, selecting the right sires for your herd and high confirmation.” Maintaining a top heard requires “good care from calf to adult cow.”

Today profitable dairy farming relies on good genetics not only to produce a better product more consistently, but also as an added stream of revenue. In 2009, a team of researchers consisting of members of the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture completed mapping the bovine genome. Today, using this information, experts are able to measure and track the differences between breeds that affect the quality of meat and milk yields. Genetics also contributes to the basis on which national awards like the second-place BAA (Breed Age Average) ranking Crisdhome Farms received as reported in Holstein World Magazine.

To arrive at the rankings, dairy farms are divided by herd size 0-50, 51-100, 101 -150, and so on. A trained classifier from the Holstein Association USA is sent to each registered farm every seven months to grade individual cows in five major scorecard categories: Front End/Capacity (20 percent), Dairy Strength (20 percent), Rump (5 percent), Feet and Legs (15 percent), and Udder (40 percent).

Crisdhome Farms received a BAA of 110.50 placing them second in the category of farms with herds of between 101 and 150 cows behind only Henk and Bonnie Van Dyk’s Willows-Edge farm, also of New Richmond, with a BAA of 111.00.

Chuck explained getting into the top 10 of the rankings “has been a goal of our farm for many years” after consistently being ranked in the top 50. Crisdhome Farm has been a regular member of the top 10 since about 2000.

The dairy community is close-knit and Chuck is quick to share the spotlight with this year’s top ranked farm. Considering this is a national ranking, it makes quite a statement that the top two farms are located in the same community only miles apart.

“We work together,” Chuck said. “Two good herds in the same area brings more buyers into the area.”

According to Chuck, the most important benefit of a consistently high ranking is the credibility it gives his herd in terms of being able to sell not only milk but cows, bulls and embryos as well to other farms.

Cows that are consistently healthy, that calve easily, that produce high quality milk, and that can reliably produce over their lifetime are valuable commodities and their genetics can produce additional income for a dairy operation. Crisdhome Farms keeps about 75 percent of the embryos it produces and sells the other 25 percent locally as well as internationally. Embryos sell for an average of $200 to $1,000 each.

Blanch is Crisdhome’s oldest producing cow at age 12. That’s an exceptionally long career for a milking cow. A typical Holstein has its first calf at about 2 years old, so its milking career begins at about 24 months and can last four to eight years with the prime milking years being around 4 to 5 years old. Milk production continues after that, but slowly declines after those prime producing years.

Last year Crisdhome Farms produced about 2.5 million pounds of milk. That works out to about 25,000 pounds per cow.

“These boys work hard out here and they really don’t do it for fame or glory,” said Mary Kruschke. “They just love what they do.”