MADISON — Those interested in custom heifer raising were in the right place at the right time on April 10 as three men involved in this specialized business shared insights as part of a panel discussion at the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association’s conference.

Panelists included Mike Halderman of Buckeye Heifer Resources, Camden, Ohio; T.J. McClure of Circle Heifer Development, Garden City, Kan.; and Jamie Franken of City View Farms, Sutherland, Iowa.

Halderman is the owner and manager of Buckeye Heifer Resources, one of only a few “grower networks” he believes is still in existence. At Buckeye, Halderman works with 10 dairies and growers with about 4,800 head of inventory in Ohio. He uses a system of phases to break down which farms are growing what age of calves, with farms raising them from birth to 4 months in phase 1, 4 to 6 months in phase 2, and breeding farms making up phase 3, respectively.

West Branch Farms of Greenville, Ohio, raises animals in phase 1. Displaying a few photos of the operation, he noted how the family retrofitted a barn they already had to suit the needs of calves from birth to 4 months and calves from 4 to 6 months of age. This operation is proof that any barn can be used if proper ventilation and the number of animals that will be housed there are considered, Halderman said.

“When a grower decides to expand, that’s their decision,” he said. “I don’t require growers to build barns.”

He also highlighted Foos Cattle of Bowling Green, Ohio, who are in phase 2 and raising cattle that head to northern Kansas. Their facility used to house horses but has since been repurposed for calves.

McClure’s farm and business, Circle Heifer Development, is a phase 3 farm in Halderman’s program. McClure grows for several dairies, ranging between 9,500 and 10,000 head. He raises calves from 6 months to springer, focusing on optimal heifer productivity through high-quality feed and nutritional, breeding and management expertise.

Franken’s family operation in Iowa includes 14,000 head, with a goal to expand to 20,000 head by this December to meet the needs of expanding dairies. His family decided to get into the custom heifer business in the 1980s after their barn burned down. They purchased an old beef feed yard and converted it into a custom heifer-raising operation.

Relationships key

All three men agreed that if a dairy producer is considering a contract with a custom heifer raiser, it all boils down to trust and nurturing a good relationship between the two entities.

“Do your due diligence on the facility and their track record,” McClure said. “Trust needs to be involved.”

Halderman added that there’s no replacement for seeing the facility in person and shaking hands with the raisers themselves. It has to be a partnership, he said.

Farmers should ask themselves if their philosophies match up, Franken suggested. If a farmer isn’t comfortable with how an animal will be raised, the relationship can become strained.

In terms of communication, Franken said he speaks with someone at his larger dairies daily, with their needs dictating how frequent the communication is. He calls and sends emails and texts but most prefers a phone call.

“Anything we do, they will receive a report the next day,” he said.

Communication with some of his dairies has increased, McClure said. He interprets their desire for more details about what’s going on as one coming from their pocketbooks, although like Franken, “it varies on the dairyman.”

Halderman likes to meet face-to-face with his clients and tries to do it monthly, but distance doesn’t always make it feasible. Regardless, the farms he works with receive a report monthly detailing movements, including failures, something he said he watches closely, especially in the first phase of growing.

“The true testament is what she looks like coming off the truck, though,” he said of heifers. “It’s a lot of trust.”

The men also offered advice to those interested in starting their own custom heifer-raising business.

“There is a lot of room for growth with millennials,” McClure said, adding that the majority of his staff are under 30 years of age.

For younger people, there could be opportunities as older people phase out of the business — that is, as long as they understand the work that goes into raising heifers.

Halderman recommended minimizing debt and strongly opposes constructing new buildings right away to try to “find out if you’re good at it.”

“You need to have that natural instinct to raise calves,” he said, adding that it may be beneficial to find a mentor or work on another dairy to learn about the business before going all in.

McClure echoed his comments: “Learn about the industry to know what it’s all about first.”