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Heritage Calf Project gives youth a foundation for their own dairy herds

Maura Keller for Progressive Dairy Published on 11 September 2019
Recipients of the Heritage Calf Project

Providing 4-H dairy youth the chance to purchase a purebred dairy calf and start their own herd is the cornerstone of the Heritage Calf Project, an effort initiated and kept alive by a committee of local dairy farmers, industry representatives and county fair supporters.

Started in the northwestern corner of Wisconsin in St. Croix County, the project shadows what a gentleman, Lyle Berg, had done in nearby Barron County several years ago. As a retired businessman, Berg provided high-quality, purebred heifers to deserving young dairy farmers. About 10 to 15 years ago, Chris Libbey read a story about Berg and his generosity to young farmers.

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“The story, which was written following Lyle’s death, told about a large number of young dairymen who had gotten their start due to Lyle’s generosity and who participated in his funeral service,” Libbey says.

Inspired by Berg, Libbey – along with Wayne Peterson of Glenwood City, Wisconsin – provided the funds through the Friends of the St. Croix County Fairgrounds to launch the St. Croix County Heritage Calf Project in partnership with the St. Croix County 4-H Dairy Committee.

The dairy committee administers the program, which over the years has received ongoing financial support from the Friends of the St. Croix County Fairgrounds, the New Richmond Area Community Foundation and the outright donation of several of the calves by local dairy farmers. Following his retirement from 3M Animal Care Products in 2007, Libbey has been an active member of Friends of the St. Croix County Fairgrounds, serving as its president.

“The dairy committee awarded the first calf to Ellis Frank at the 2010 May Fair Event and Sale,” Libbey says. “One to two calves have been awarded annually since.”

As Chuck Kruschke, St. Croix County dairy judging coach explains, the St. Croix County Dairy Committee invites 4-H members to write a short essay on what it would mean to them to own a registered calf. They also indicate what breed they would like the calf to be and where they would house the calf. Three dairy leaders with no ties to the applicants read the essays, interview the members and choose a winner. In recent years, there have been five to eight interested 4-H members who apply annually.

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“The interviews are what really make the winner stand out. Their future plans, goals and their poise and presentation are a big part of how the winner is chosen,” Kruschke says.

The benefits of this calf project are many. First, the chosen 4-H member has the decision of selecting a calf, coupled with nutrition training for optimum growth and development of the animal. Understanding genetics to improve the quality of that animal’s offspring becomes a part of the learning process as well.

“Just the day-to-day care of their animal also provides growth in responsibility and nurturing,” Kruschke says.

As Libbey explains, successful applicants have a history of demonstrating commitment to the dairy project, both as exhibitors and as mentors to younger project members. Many are also members of the St. Croix County dairy judging team. This year, there were 10 applicants with two winners selected. It is interesting to note that several of the winners don’t come from dairy farms and, as a result, have formed partnerships with local dairy farmers to house their Heritage calves on their farms.

A Heritage Calf Program winner in recent years is Haley Beukema. When she applied for the program, she had shown Guernseys for about nine years but wanted to get a small herd started of the same breed of dairy that her mom grew up with – Ayrshires.

“My parents urged me to fill out the application and give it a try,” Beukema says. In response to the essay prompt, “What would a registered dairy calf mean to your 4-H experience?” Beukema wrote about the small group of Guernseys she had at the time and her interest raising a small group of Ayrshire cattle like the ones her mom showed when she was younger.

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“With only 100 words, many details get left out,” Beukema says. “However, the dairy committee conducts an interview with the applicants so that they can elaborate on the concepts and ideas behind their applications.”

Beukema’s passion and desire for an Ayrshire calf of her very own showed through the interview, and she was awarded a heifer from Glenn Nelson in Milltown, Wisconsin.

“I received her as a winter calf. This past lactation, as a senior 2-year-old, Sidse milked 17,128 on her 305 and scored VG-86 as a first-lactation cow,” Beukema says. That cow’s calf, Circle B Raney Sky’s the Limit, was shown as a spring yearling this year, placing third and the second junior at Wisconsin State Ayrshire Show. She also received the honors of Reserve Champion yearling and Grand Champion bred-and-owned Ayrshire heifer at the 2019 Wisconsin State Fair Junior Dairy Show.

“I have learned that many farmers are very willing to aid young farmers with passion to accomplish their dreams,” Beukema says. “This project has given me a great opportunity to breed and develop genetics of my own.”

Rachel Skinner has been in the 4-H dairy project since she was in elementary school, even though she doesn’t live on a dairy farm.

“I knew dairy was my passion, and owning my own animal would be a brand-new experience that would open up a lot of new opportunities and teach me a lot of new things,” says Skinner, who was awarded her calf in 2017. She received a $1,000 grant to purchase a calf and, with a little extra money, she bought a Red & White heifer from a classifier across the state. “My calf ‘Racecar’ is now a junior 2-year-old cow, and I’ve shown her all three years that I’ve had her.”

Skinner is extremely thankful for this program.

“My calf (now cow) is my prized possession, and she has opened up so many doors for me,” Skinner says. “I actually enjoyed having my own animal so much and found it such a rewarding experience that I bought another heifer this spring who is teaching me even more stuff because every animal is different and the more you have, the more you’re going to learn.”

The program has also made an impact on Skinner’s future plans. Before obtaining Racecar, she was pretty sure she wanted to be a dairy nutritionist.

“Now I’ve had so much fun working on her breeding program, I’m thinking I also want to look into working for a sire company,” Skinner says. “This program has made such a big impact on my life that I’ve donated to the fund, and I plan to keep doing so because there are so many deserving dairy youth in our county [who] would benefit so much from one of these calves.”

Evolution of sorts

Since its inception, the Heritage Calf Project has evolved. Initially, the calf was purchased for the member, but now the winning youth receive $1,000 toward their purchase and select and buy their own calf.

“This gives them the opportunity to purchase what they want and allows flexibility in purchasing a more expensive calf with their own additional monies,” Kruschke says.

“Assistance is provided by the dairy committee at the request of the member to help with this process.” The project is also an added perk for the breeders who sell their calves to these winning members. They get to witness the success of the 4-H member as they show these animals in competition as well as have their name associated with the project.

“The program’s progress is a result of many people donating money, breeders have donated calves and individuals donating items that are auctioned off for project support,” Kruschke says. “Many individuals also donated time into helping these members and the interview process as well. It’s a fine example of what a willing group of volunteers can do.”  end mark

PHOTO: Past and current recipients of the Heritage Calf Project pose with their animals at the St. Croix County Fair, including Haley Beukema (far right) and Rachel Skinner (far left). Photo provided by Ryan Sterry.

Maura Keller is a freelance writer in Plymouth, Minnesota.

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