With Thanksgiving at hand and customers gobbling up their pasture-raised turkeys and other meats virtually as fast as they can expand production, Brandon Dykema is indeed thankful to be farming fulltime.
Brandon is living his childhood dream to become a farmer. No easy task for the son of a minister who grew up in Sussex and who's only hands-on experience was gardening on a generous scale.
He and wife, Tammera, call their nontraditional operation in the northwest corner of Washington County "Dominion Valley Farm." It's Biblical. "God created the earth (and all the creatures on it) and told man to have dominion over it. It's a very full word when you think about it," he says. "We're to take care of things and be more than just efficient. You're not to be careless with what you do, but take care of the land and your animals."
The Dykemas believe that taking care of their diversified poultry and livestock is grazing them as much as their land allows.
What's unusual about this small family farm is its size - only 36 acres abutting Interstate 41 north of Allenton. Nevertheless, the Dykemas have been able to grow their business to the point that two years ago, Brandon, now 37, quit his job to live his boyhood dream of farming.
Grazing and direct-marketing have more than compensated for efficiency of size. And like so many other farmwives, Tammera works "off the farm," to supplement their farm earnings. She's a work-at-home medical transcriptionist, who's at the computer in the very wee hours of the morning before she's called upon to get breakfast and kids out the door for the school bus. The Dykemas have four boys - Caleb, 10; Alek, 6; Micah, 5; and Gabriel, 2 1/2.
The Dykemas moved to their farmette in 1997. It was an easy commute for Brandon, who was working in Menomonee Falls. They tore down the old barn and shed and put up a "new" one. Brandon dismantled an existing barn, carefully marking beams and boards so he could get it back together and hauling most of it home piece by piece on a 12-foot flatbed truck. The idea was to store hay in that 32 by 42-foot barn; it's housed everything but hay, Brandon grins.
A fan of Joel Salatin, the well-known Virginia pastured-poultry guru and direct-marketing entrepreneur, Brandon says reading Salatin was "that spark" that got him started on a path that's made it possible to now farm fulltime. Brandon was struck by the diversity of Salatin's operation, and that if it's managed correctly, a producer is able to cover the same pasture with many species and ever-greater numbers of birds and livestock, too. There is a finite carrying capacity, though, and Brandon, after about seven years, feels he may be approaching it - at least if he doesn't make some adjustments in his enterprise mix.
He started raising meat chickens on their place in the country in 1998, about 100 for themselves, friends and family - and doing their own butchering the first couple years. People really liked what they tasted, and business grew, primarily by word of mouth. (It doesn't hurt any either that the Dykemas are farming in a prime location for direct-marketing, near metropolitan Milwaukee.)
That second year, they raised 500 chickens on pasture, and added 40 turkeys, which they sold fresh to folks just days prior to Thanksgiving. The next year, they upped numbers to 1,000 chickens and 75 turkeys. Tammera was pregnant that summer, which made at-home butchering more of a challenge, and just weeks before Thanksgiving, they were blessed with their third son.
The following year (2001), they doubled the number of pasture-reared chickens to 2,000, added more turkeys, and a small herd of Galloway beef cattle. They also took their poultry to a state-inspected plant at Cascade for processing. (By law, 1,000 birds - tops - can be processed on-farm and still be sold to customers.)
"With this kind of farming, you can start small and still grow. It can be a hobby or eventually turn into a living," says Brandon.
Although he didn't fully replace his income when he decided two years ago to farm fulltime, he notes that "somewhere along the line, you say, 'Well…'" and take the plunge. There comes a point, when the part-time producer has to decide if he's going to "put more time into this" in order to "get more out of it," he adds.
"If all you do is worry if you're going to make it or not, it's all you'll do," he says philosophically from the kitchen table in a farmhouse that's over 100 years old.
This year, Dominion Valley Farm has produced 3,000 chickens, some 250 turkeys, 500 ducks, and around 30 Tamworth butcher pigs. Also grazing in the Dykema's rolling paddocks are nine Galloway cows, five steers born last year and seven heifer calves from this year's calving. The beef cattle never see grain. They're carried through the winter on hay, which they purchase.
Brandon admits their farm business is getting to the point - especially in light of how dry it was in their area this past summer - that they may have to make some adjustments so they can continue to grow. With Milwaukee moving out, land is running $8,000 to $10,000 an acre and yearly ag leases are over $100 an acre. Adding land is pretty unaffordable; Brandon suspects they'll go heavier into poultry and pigs. Possibly, the beef can be raised by another producer. Brandon hasn't had a lot of time to give future plans serious thought, what with "turkey pick-up day" this weekend and pasture and farmstead clean-up for winter staring him in the face.
Chicks are purchased from a hatchery in Waterloo and reared initially in a 21 by 30-foot hoop house that has two layers of plastic, with in-between air space and "inflated like a pillow," with a little squirrel-cage fan. The sides consist of plastic "tubing" that's also inflated and thermostat-controlled. The fan turns off and the side deflate, letting cooler air enter if need be. Brandon likes the greenhouse-type brooder house because it lets a lot of light in for the birds and has been durable. Brandon notes they're outgrowing the brooder house, though. "We'll cross that bridge when we get to it," he notes.
At present, a new pole shed and shop is under construction. He'll finish out the inside this winter. A portion of it will house freezers for their naturally-raised meats. Customers pick up frozen poultry, pork and beef throughout the year.
Chickens are started in batches of 300, with paper over shavings to keep the chicks from consuming their bedding. They're in the brooder house for three weeks, before going out to pasture in Salatin-style pens. Brandon says he's liked those for raising poultry on pasture spring and fall. In the summer, he feels the birds get too hot in those moveable pens. Three sides and three-quarters of the top of those pens are metal with the other top quarter chicken wire, which can also be sealed with plastic tarp in those cold early-season rains.
Brandon has been perfecting a pasture pen of his own design - one that has more height to it and can be opened or closed up more easily. His hoop pens consist of 18-foot treated 2-by-6s, run parallel 10 feet apart, and 2-by-4 cross pieces front and back. Conduit straps are utilized every two feet on the 2-by-6s to secure 15 feet of half-inch electrical PVC, slid into two conduit straps (in pairs one on top of each other along the wood bottom), so that every two feet, there's a hoop. He covers the hoops with an oversized, good-quality plastic tarp.
These 10-by-18-foot hoop pens weigh 150 pounds tops. Brandon admits wind has been problematic. He's had to stake the pen down to the pasture, and he's wondering if 3/4-inch electrical PVC would work better. He notes that turkeys can be pretty hard on the tarp with their claws when they try to roost.
In total, Brandon has 10 pens, with 100 chickens at the most in each, confined in pen, moved to new ground once a day. Obviously, he reuses the pens several times during the season.
Securing turkeys on pasture is tougher. He uses electrified netting (with no "juice" on the fence) in conjunction with the pasture pen to give them more space. However, should he happen to get lax about moving them and pasture gets a little short, the turkeys still tend to crowd once in awhile and march in a group right over the netting, he grimaces. He lets the turkeys roam in about a quarter-acre area for roughly a week, before moving the whole works to fresh pasture.
Most of the Dykemas' Cornish-cross chickens are sold at 4 to 5 pounds dressed, for $2.25 a pound. Customers can get them cut into pieces for $1 per bird more. They also raise them to heavier weights - 5 to 7 pounds dressed - for folks who like heftier birds. The per-pound price is the same. Fresh chickens can be picked up on the farm at designated dates. Otherwise, Dykemas freeze chickens, which are also kept on hand for on-farm pickup. Although they have a walk-in freezer and chest freezers, they don't have a cooler.
They also sell to restaurants, which Brandon notes, tend to like smaller birds (3 to 3.5 pounds dressed). Uniformity is major when selling to restaurants, he mentions. For one restaurant, he sources only females, which he can feed longer for more maturity, but not extra weight. They strive for meat that's juicy yet firm.
Restaurants are also the primary customer for their Rouen ducks, which they sell for $2.75 a pound.
The Dykemas belong to an international organization called "Slow Food." Their local chapter has gotten chefs and farmers together to connect with each other. There's now even a chef/farmer directory, the idea being for restaurants after higher-quality food to hook up with local producers willing to sell direct. Brandon says some of the chefs even mention their farm by name on their menus.
Tammera and their oldest son also sell at the farmers' markets in West Bend and Kewauskum. The Dykemas also have a mailing list of customers. Every spring, they send out information about their farm and ordering information. They rely on e-mail a lot to keep in touch with customers.
He says a certain percentage of their customers have already educated themselves about the health benefits of grass-fed meats, and they'll actually seek out their farm, which has a website linked to some major grass-fed meat sites (http://www.dominionvalleyfarm.com). Other customers decide to give their meat a try and are sold on the taste. They Dykemas don't do mail order, because of the cost and hassles involved.
Neither are they organic, even though they promote their products as "range raised," with "no antibiotics, no hormones" and "all-natural feed." Brandon isn't willing to pay the extra cost for organic-certified feed. Between the poultry and the pigs, he's purchased over 80,000 pounds this year. He buys grain exclusively from his neighbor and grinds himself every five days. The chickens get corn, roasted beans, oats, oyster shells, fish meal and a vitamin premix. He's never been able to quantify how much pasture is supplementing the feed bill. He doesn't think they're actually eating less grain on pasture, because they require more energy because they're outdoors and exercising more. The pasture-rearing system results in healthier, tastier meat, he contends.
As noted, customers will be coming to pick up fresh turkeys at Dominion Valley Farm this weekend for Thanksgiving. They raise two types - the standard broad-breasted white turkeys, and Bourbon Reds, a "heritage" turkey, with a more "robust" turkey taste. The white turkeys sell for $2.35 a pound, and most are between 15 and 22 pounds dressed. The Bourbon Reds bring $3.50 a pound and weigh from 8 to 16 pounds. They require two months longer to raise and don't get as big, Brandon notes.
As for the swine, they've settled on the Tamworth breed because they're "good grazing pigs." They've been trying to expand their pork enterprise and are trying to farrow, too, as opposed to buying feeder pigs. They sell half or whole pigs, or 25-pound boxes of assorted cuts.
The Galloway beef is finished on grass and sold in 25-pound boxes of assorted cuts. The herd calves in June, and it takes until the fall of the next year for them to be finished out at 1,100 to 1,200 pounds. The Galloway have a double coat and don't develop as much back fat as other breeds of beef.
The poultry follow the beef in the Dykemas' pasture rotation, as the birds need "lawn grass." Pigs are confined to their own areas, which Brandon wants "ripped up" for rejuvenating. He plants a "hog mix" of peas, oats, grasses and turnips for them. The pigs are also grained on pasture.
The perimeter fence is three strands of high-tensile with inside fencing two wires. Water is delivered on pasture with black poly pipe laid on the ground.
Brandon couldn't be more thankful for how the business has taken off. He loves farming - working with his hands and "figuring things out." He likes owning his own business and working at home. Selling direct to the public, he's not isolated on the farm. Their boys are learning "how to work," too, he adds. It's a dream come true.
Readers wanting more information can contact Dykemas at 262-629-9423 or email@example.com.