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‘Raising these calves saved me’: The story of Michigan dairy widow Amanda Leik

Karena Elliott for Progressive Dairyman Published on 27 October 2017
Denny and Amanda Leik's wedding photo

Dairy farming is hard. Farming solo is even harder.

But farming on your own after you’ve lost your soul mate? That takes a special kind of strength.

In 2015, Amanda Peckins Leik learned how strong she really was.

“I grew up on a 100-cow dairy,” Leik says. ,“My great-grandfather started this farm in 1904.” The Lyons, Michigan, resident always loved farming and enjoyed working with her parents, John and Mary Peckins. She received the senior agriculture honor award in high school and a bachelor’s degree in crop and soil science with a specialization in agribusiness management from Michigan State University.

Denny Leik, her high school sweetheart, was raised on a small farm about 10 miles south of Amanda. They married in September 2005.

Denny and Amanda Leik

“He had a great sense of humor and a work ethic like no other,” Amanda says. The couple settled on her family farm and started raising dairy steers before transitioning to milking full time in September of 2007. Amanda was a state agricultural inspector and a part-time bookkeeper for a local 500-cow dairy.

“It was such a great accomplishment and a fun, exciting time,” she says. “We knew this was the environment we wanted to raise our children in.”

By December 2010, the couple had three daughters – Kelsey, Emily and Elaine, who goes by Lainey. And while Denny thrived on hard work, they found the sacrifices of milking a 50-cow herd without employees were taking a toll on family life.

“In 2014, we decided to sell our milking cows to have more flexibility for our family,” she says. The Leiks continued to buy calves from a local rotational grazer, and Denny went back to working some construction jobs. They celebrated Christmas 2014 in Florida – the first vacation the couple had taken since they had married 10 years earlier.

Leik's calf hutches

Then, in February 2015, Denny passed away unexpectedly at the age of 36.

“I never in a million years would have guessed I would become a widow at 34,” Amanda says. “Denny was my best friend – the love of my life.”

The young widow struggled.

“This life after loss is the most difficult thing I have ever had to deal with,” she says. “It was super hard to keep going in the beginning.”

She describes the overwhelming grief as both physically and mentally draining.

“I won’t lie; there were days when I wanted to stay in my bed all day,” she says. Slowly, she came to terms with the loss of her husband and made the decision not just to survive, but to live.

Elaine Leik feeding a calf

“I knew without a doubt that I still wanted to farm,” she says. “So a few months after Denny died, I continued to buy calves from the rotational grazer, just as he had planned on doing.” Her family was concerned, afraid the young widow with three small children was taking on too much.

“I had to prove to myself that I could do this on my own and excel at it,” she says. Doing the things Denny had planned – things that were important to him – was a way for Amanda to honor him and his memory.

“Looking back, I see that raising these calves saved me; they got me up and out of bed every day,” Amanda says. While her family was available to help with the children, the house and school, the farm was her responsibility.

“Feeding those calves on milk was all on me,” she says. “I had to take care of them.”

Leik family in 4-H shirts

Today, Amanda continues to buy 40-day-old bull and heifer calves in the spring. “I’ve sold the heifers from breeding age to bred springers, depending on the market,” she says. She fattens the steers to sell at the local livestock market. She also farms about 250 acres of corn, alfalfa, soybeans and wheat.

Her father, John, and brother help part time. “I definitely would not be able to do this without the love and support of my family.”

Her daughters are active in 4-H showing dairy cattle. Kelsey, the oldest, won first-year showmanship in 2016 and Lightweight Dairy Feeder Grand Champion in 2017.

“My girls and I are doing well now,” Amanda says. “We are happy and laugh again. But I know how short life can be, and it can change in the blink of an eye when we least expect it.”

Kelsey Leik and calf

Challenges continue to confront the young family, and some days are still “super hard” in Amanda’s words, but they get through them together.

“I’ve learned so much,” she says. “Not a day goes by I don’t think about my husband and the love we had for each other and this land. His hard work and good management gave me the freedom to continue farming and provided the life we wanted for the girls.”  end mark

Karena Elliott is an international freelance writer who makes her home in Amarillo, Texas.

Editor’s note: Karena Elliott and Progressive Dairyman learned of Amanda Peckins Leik’s story after publishing an article last year about another farm widow. Learn about Betty Rose Elliott and her inspiring story here.

PHOTO 1: High school sweethearts Denny Leik and Amanda Peckins married in September 2005.

PHOTO 2: Denny and Amanda Leik farmed together, milking cows and raising calves and steers.

PHOTO 3: “Raising these calves saved me, they got me up and out of bed every day,” says Amanda Leik.

PHOTO 4: Amanda Leik’s youngest daughter, Lainey, helps feed calves at the family farm.

PHOTO 5: Amanda Leik’s three daughters are heavily involved in 4-H. From left to right, with mom Amanda in the back, are Emily, age 9, Elaine ‘Lainey,’ age 6, and Kelsey, age 11.

PHOTO 6: Amanda Leik’s eldest daughter, Kelsey, won first-year showmanship in 2016 and Lightweight Dairy Feeder Grand Champion in 2017. Photos provided by Amanda Leik.

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