STRATFORD, Wis. – Cousins Chris and Jim Leick are carrying on the heritage their great-great-grandfather began when he emigrated in the 1870s from Germany to north-central Wisconsin. Great-grandfather Peter Leick left his work at a lumber camp in 1900 to start a dairy farm near Stratford.
Unlike most dairy-farm histories, the Leick family legacy includes accounts of a family-owned hotel and saloon, an infamous moonshine still and a popular family orchestra. Their grandparent’s orchestra, the Night Hawk Entertainers, hosted many barn dances and entertained the local community from 1924 to 1932 in the second story of the dairy barn – the ballroom.
“Music was big,” Jim Leick said as he recounted the early days.
The ballroom remains, if not the family orchestra. Renovated to serve as a meeting place, the Elmwood Ballroom is now climate-controlled and outfitted with an LCD projector, a flat-screen television monitor and seating for as many as 90 people.
The dairy started as a single-family farm with the Leicks’ grandfathers farming together in the 1920s. After about 10 years Lawrence and Archie Leick decided to farm separately – though living across the road from one another meant it was convenient to share equipment and help each other. By the 1990s Chris Leick and his brother Steve Leick were part of the picture as were Jim Leick and his brother Peter Leick, though they were still managing the two farms separately.
By 2010 facilities on both farms needed to be upgraded so the families decided to merge the two farms again. In the years that followed other facilities were built – including a calf barn with individual hutches and group pens, a grower barn for older calves and breeding-age heifers, a transition-cow barn with hospital pens, and a six-cow parlor for fresh and treated cows.
Night Hawk Dairy is now home to 1,000 cows along with 650 calves and heifers. Three shifts of milkers work around the clock; cows are milked three times each day in a double-12 parlor.
Chris Leick oversees care for the milking herd while Jim Leick takes care of all the calves and heifers to as much as four months pre-freshening. Jim Leick’s wife, Kay Leick, manages payroll, bookwork, information technology and grounds keeping. She also works part-time for the Stratford School District.
Other team members include Kevin Tiry, calf and heifer manager; Tim McMeeken, herdsman; Gary Stoiber, full-time feeder and bunker, feed-storage and crops manager; and Ryan Linzmeier, full-time mechanic and operations manager.
Night Hawk Dairy is a Purina “Dairy Ambassador Herd” – one of four in the nation. When calves are born they are brought to a calf nursery where a sanitized individual hutch will be each calf’s home for 10 days. Each calf is fed a gallon of excellent-quality pasteurized colostrum within one hour of birth. A second gallon of colostrum is fed within the next 12 hours.
The calves are moved to pens at day 10, with free-choice access to water, calf starter and automatic milk feeders. Pens are walked through six times each day so soiled bedding can be removed. Every two weeks pens are bedded with fresh bedding.
Visitors to the barn will notice a brightly colored beach-ball-sized ball in each of the four pens.
“It’s an exercise ball,” Jim Leick said. “It gives the calves something to play with and the exercise is good for their lungs.”
Calves are weighed and measured for height every 10 days. Using that data enables the Leicks to move calves to successive groups based on weight rather than age. It allows them to make adjustments for individual calves as needed. It also supports the larger goal of breeding all heifers at 875 pounds, or 11 to 13 months of age.
“We focus on getting calves to grow quickly,” Leick said.
Once all calves within a group are weaned – at about nine weeks old and 200 pounds – they are moved with their pen mates to a weaning barn. In that barn calves are introduced to hay, silage and pelleted feed. At 500 pounds – at about six months old – calves move to a grower barn. There they become accustomed to lying in free stalls with shavings-bedded rubber mats.
In managing the breeding program Chris Leick said he relies on genomic testing and sexed semen. With goals of lessening the number of replacement heifers born each month and raising the age of the milking herd, he looks for ways to capture more profits.
“We’ve been using genomic testing for about six years,” he said. “We use sexed semen on virgin heifers and we’re using about 80 percent beef semen these days.”
As the Leicks look ahead they said they understand the need to begin planning an exit strategy. Their adult children aren’t interested in taking over. And the dairy economy has made buying into a 1,000-cow dairy a bit ominous for would-be buyers.
But the family’s commitment to excellent animal wellbeing remains steadfast – and they love what they do.
“There’s a fulfillment in seeing the animals and crops you care for grow,” Chris Leick said.
Jim Leick said, “The lifestyle is an addiction. When we established the partnership neither of us wanted to do anything else.”
The Leicks said they understand any potential buyer will need to not only be an excellent manager but also be able to speak to consumer perceptions.
“Consumer opinion is a major driver,” Chris Leick said.
The family will have an opportunity Aug. 27 to impress consumers and others. Night Hawk Dairy will open its doors from 6 to 8:30 p.m. as hosts of an Agricultural Community Engagement On-Farm Twilight Meeting sponsored by the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin. The program brings together elected officials, educators, community leaders, neighbors and other dairy farmers to discuss important issues that affect everyone. Facilitated discussions will take place regarding topics such as water, community development, resource management, changes in agriculture and rural communities, roads and transportation, and other critical subjects. Also included will be ice cream.
The Leicks are members of PDPW. They said they understand the value of open dialogue and lifelong learning.
“PDPW does a lot,” Jim Leick said. “They offer a lot of resources on calf care, cropping, business management and more. The opportunity to network with other dairy farmers is always huge ... It’s nice to help others who need encouragement or want to ask about what’s worked for us.”
Open to the public, the Agricultural Community Engagement meetings are facilitated by the Wisconsin Counties Association and the Wisconsin Towns Association.