Dairy runs deep on six-generation Henkes family farm

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Matt (left), Leslie and Trent Henkes run the family’s six-generation farm, Henkeseen Holsteins, on 165th Street in rural Luana. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

The Henkes family’s roots in Northeast Iowa run deep.

“There’s been a Henkes here since 1855,” said Trent, who, with wife Leslie and son Matt, runs the family’s six-generation farm, Henkeseen Holsteins, on 165th Street in rural Luana. “I’ve lived here all my life and farmed all my life.”

Trent and Leslie met at Iowa State University, where they both studied dairy science. Matt and his sister, Leah, also attended their parents’ alma mater, earning degrees in dairy science as well. Matt returned home to help operate the farm while Leah is a sales rep for Fitzgerald Inc., in Elkader, selling dairy equipment. Her husband, Marshall Lange, is in the construction business—a benefit for the farm, as he built the family’s new heifer shed. Three and a half months ago, the couple, who lives 15 miles away from the Henkes spread, welcomed a son, Leigh, into the world.

The dairy industry has been an integral part of the Henkes’ lives, with Holsteins being the family’s choice breed for over 60 years. The first registered Holstein was purchased in 1971, by Trent’s parents, Vernis and Glenda. Today, the Henkeses milk around 65 registered Holsteins, of which one-fourth are red and whites. The herd is almost all homebred, with the breeding philosophy focusing on high type, well-balanced cows with excellent udders. The philosophy has lent itself to success in the show ring, with the Henkeses showing a number of All-Iowa and Futurity winners, as well as several Junior All-American nominees. Around 150 head of young stock, including roughly 35 bulls, are also raised for breeding stock on the 100-acre farm. Another 150 acres is rented for corn, alfalfa and pasture.

“Most people are pretty breed loyal,” said Leslie of the Holsteins, although she grew up with registered Guernseys. Matt has also begun dabbling with Milking Shorthorns.

Trent said being able to carry on the family tradition means a lot to him. It’s also one of the foremost thoughts in Matt’s mind.

“It’s important to keep improving with technology and to keep the farm sustainable for future generations,” Matt said.

The Henkeses have embraced technology through field work practices and their breeding program, which includes embryo transfer and in vitro fertilization. Matt  currently works with several high type genomic bulls with an emphasis on breeding in order to create more polled animals (those born without horns). Trent and Matt also receive daily milk quality reports on their cell phones and use the internet, particularly Facebook, to promote the herd and keep in touch with other farmers.

“We also have a camera in the barn that focuses on all four maternity pens,” Leslie added. Where Trent once had to get up in the middle of the night and head out to the barn to check on the prospective mothers, he can now see what’s going on by simply viewing a computer screen from the comfort of their home, she said.

The family also places importance on dairy promotion and is heavily involved in both local and state organizations. Matt is a dairy coach and judge as well.

“I judge three dairy shows at county fairs,” he said, which stems from his judging involvement in 4-H and college. “I enjoy working with the kids.”

He also participates in Clayton County’s Share-a-Heifer program, lending some of the family’s heifers to local 4-Hers for showing purposes.

“It gives kids who don’t have dairy cattle an opportunity to have the same experiences I had,” he said.

Involvement with 4-H opened up a lot of opportunities for her children at, not only the county level, but district and state levels as well, shared Leslie.

Another aspect of promotion the family takes part in is farm tours. Last year, the Henkeses welcomed over 600 people to the farm as a stop on the “Cream of the Crop” National Holstein Convention Host Day Tours. This summer, they’re a stop on the Red and White Association’s tour. A group from Cornell University filming a YouTube video about technology and sustainable farming recently stopped by while visiting other area farms.

“We get quite a few visitors when the World Dairy Expo is going on,” Leslie said, mentioning that the 100-mile drive from Madison brings those interested in Northeast Iowa’s dairy offerings.

“Somebody’s always coming,” quipped Trent.

Tours and other promotional activities are important, said Trent, to keep the public educated about the dairy industry.

“It’s important to talk with local people and hear the story from the farmers,” Matt added, noting that around 97 to 98 percent of farms are family-owned. “If you have questions, come out and watch us milk and see what we do.”

The Henkeses also suggest supporting the dairy industry by consuming dairy products.

“Dairy is always important in people’s diets,” Trent said. “It’s good for you.”

The MFL MarMac cross country team is big on using chocolate milk to fuel up, Leslie said.

Even when the Henkes family manages to get away from the farm on vacation, they don’t stray far from the dairy industry they love so well. Destinations usually include the National Holstein Convention, World Dairy Expo and Iowa State Fair.

Nothing beats working on the farm, though.

“I like being my own boss and being able to set my own schedule,” shared Trent.

Matt agreed, stating that, once the morning routine of 5 a.m. milking is complete, the opportunities are endless.

“There’s always something to do,” he said. “There’s a new challenge every day. It keeps things interesting.”

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