Brothers pin hopes on changes at the dairy
Nobody knew how much the Holton dairy cows would bring. But they soon learned.
At last Thursday's auction of 249 dairy cattle, the top-priced cow went for $4,400. That's more, said auctioneer Ed Fellers than any grade dairy cow he'd auctioned in his 24 years of selling dairy cattle. A grade cow is a cow that's not registered.
"It's got to be one of the highest grade cows -- if not the highest grade cow -- ever sold in the United States," Fellers said.
His auction firm, Burton Fellers Sales Inc., sells dairy cattle throughout the United States, as well as in other countries.
The auction success stemmed from two factors, Fellers said.
"Dairy cattle are in short supply right now -- they're extremely hard to find," Fellers said. "And because of the quality of cattle like these people (Holton Brothers Dairy) have."
And all the cows auctioned high, bringing an average top bid of $2,296. Auctioneer Fellers said the 249 head brought $571,925.
"I know it's got to be one of the highest average grade sales ever in the United States," Fellers said.
Despite the premium prices, for the Holton brothers -- Kevin, Kerry and Terrence -- their mother, their families, and all those who had handled the cows, the sale was bittersweet. For decades, the brothers have worked to build a high-quality herd of Holsteins.
"In a way it's almost like you have to ship part of your kids away," said Kevin Holton, who showed the cattle in the ring. "Those cows -- to me a lot of them are that close, they have an emotional bond with you, believe it or not."
So, running the cattle through an auction ring was tough.
"It was very stressful emotionally," Kevin said. "It got better as it went along, but the beginning was terrible."
And for the rest of the family, it was the same.
Kerry's youngest daughter, Annie, who is 8, took in the day's activities with solemn respect. She and her brother, Daniel, 12, and sisters, Erin, 18, Megan, 16 and Kelly, 14, took all or part of the day off of school to help at, or at least watch, the auction.
Wearing her long brown hair in braids, and tall green rubber work boots that inched toward her knees, Annie nibbled on an ice cream bar, knowing this was a day different from all the others in her eight years of living on the family dairy.
"I'm sad," she said simply and shyly, echoing the words of her sisters.
Down to business
The farm at the top of Holton hill south of Tonganoxie, which has had a dairy on it for more than a century, looked different this day, with a gaily colored yellow and blue tent staked near the dairy barn.
Gasps of wind jabbed at the roof of the tent, pulling the outside guide ropes taut to their stakes. A potted chrysanthemum plant anchored the ground at the base of each stake.
Inside the tent was an auction ring with a raised show pen surrounded by more pots of mums, and bleachers for the audience.
Kerry noted all the work that had gone into preparing for the sale.
"It's like getting ready for a wedding and a funeral at the same time -- it's endless," Kerry said.
The bidding was loud and brisk, making the cattle skittish as they met unfamiliar sights and sounds. With their udders distended with milk, each cow was brought into the auction ring. Their worth was measured in part by pounds of milk produced in a day. At this auction, 90 to 100 pounds of milk a day was the norm.
Kevin pointed out details the audience might not have known.
For instance, one cow's underside was covered with mud. It wasn't because there's anything wrong with her, he said, but because she slipped and fell that day. Another had a tail that didn't raise, apparently a genetic condition.
But the auctioneer pointed out this cow's "perfect udder" and remarked on her gentle disposition, crooning: "Her tail is a long way from her heart."
As the first half dozen or so cows were auctioned, Kerry and his son Daniel watched the front row of the bleachers. One could only guess their anguish, as well that of Kevin who was showing the cattle in the ring, and Terrence, who was sitting in the front row of the audience -- while watching their prized cattle going through the auction block.
When an old favorite, wearing an eartag that identified her as #752, approached the ring, Kerry and Daniel couldn't sit on the sidelines any longer.
They walked to the shoot, Kerry reaching over the fence to pat the cow on the back, and Daniel climbing on the fence to reach her.
Several times the two stepped to the pen until finally they stayed there, bidding farewell to each of their cows. Number 89 orange stepped up.
"She's pregnant, due in October, still milking 80 pounds a day," the auctioneer said.
Kerry and Daniel gave the cow an affectionate pat, running their fingers through her coat as if she were a family pet.
One tough goodbye -- many more to go.
It takes planning to lead up to a dairy auction. The cows are shown with their udders full. Because they're milked 12 hours before the auction, this meant a midnight milking. Then, immediately after being bid on, the cows were led into the dairy, milked there one last time, and then, some 40 to 50 pounds lighter, led to the waiting trailers for the long rides to their new homes.
Buyers included Kansans, mostly from the central and western part of the state, as well as Colorado, Missouri, Texas, Nebraska and Iowa. Shoppers from Illinois and Oregon also attended the sale.
Linda and Ralph Burkholder, who are Mennonites, came 225 miles from their small community of Baring, Mo., bringing their bonneted 11-month-old daughter, Kimberly, with them.
The prices were reasonably high, said Ralph, who was top bidder on five cows.
"I paid more for cows today than I ever did," Ralph said.
He noted the discrepancy between the recent years' low milk prices and the cost of production -- exactly what prompted the Holtons to reduce their herd. He spoke in general terms of milk's low prices during the past year, noting the recent rise, which likely fueled interest in the sale.
"It's the highest price for cattle and the lowest priced milk in the last 20 years," Burkholder said of the previous year's raw milk prices.
But the Burkholders, who had read about the sale in the High Plains Journal, said they expected the cattle to go high.
"I'm really not surprised," Ralph said. "Because of the demand and because of the type of cattle they have -- they have outstanding cattle, they really do -- and they just keep moving onto the floor one good one after the next."
Kevin said, although it wasn't easy to sell the cows, when economics are considered, the family didn't have much choice.
A year ago, the Holtons were getting $11 for a hundred pounds of milk that cost them $14 to produce. As of Monday, the price was of raw milk was up to $14.80.
Had it been that high last year, Thursday might not have been auction day, Kevin said.
"The auction is the result of a three-year run of low prices," Kevin said. "You've got current expenses to maintain, as well as try to pay off back deficits, and you can only do that so long."
The next generation
From the stands, the Holton children watched strangers bid on their family's prime dairy cows.
"I think that my dad and his brothers really hope that they will take good care of the cows," Erin Holton said. "You can see that they've worked really hard with the genetics of them."
Clearly, genetics did play a part in the sale's success. For instance, early on in the auction, one cow was shown but not auctioned. Next into the ring were her dozen or so daughters. One after another, they were sold, each coming in at prices over the $2,000 mark.
"This is a cow family, folks," the auctioneer said.
He noted the cows' gentle temperaments and joked, "I'm telling you I'd still be married to my first wife if she had had this kind of disposition."
He praised the Holtons for their work in building a sound herd.
"You can breed for a lifetime and not have cows that look like this," he said.
In fact, the top selling cow was a descendant of this same cow.
And finally, after her daughters had been sold, the mother cow was brought back in and shown to bidders.
After a half-minute's rush of shouting bids, she too was gone.
Kevin said he hopes the cattle, who have lived all their lives at the Holton farm, will soon adjust to their new locations.
"No doubt it was traumatic for them, getting loaded in a truck and hauled a couple of hundred miles away and when they get out of the truck they look around and they don't see anybody they know," Kevin said. "Cows, they have emotional attachments too -- to the people that are around them as well as to the other cows."
One of the family
Hank Haller came to the Holton farm in October 1938, and stayed.
He was a 14-year-old orphan whose most recent home had been an orphanage in the Westport area of Kansas City, Mo.
The farm life, and the dairying suited Haller, who having just turned 80 last week, has lived on the farm these 65 years.
"I just liked it," Haller said. "I suppose I'm one of the family. I've been here so long."
At the auction, Hank looked much like the others in the stands. Except that he had no auction catalog in which he was writing the price of each cow sold. Nor was he raising his hand in the frenzy to bid. Instead Hank, sat quietly, his stoic expression not hinting at his emotions as he watched the cattle go.
He didn't want to see the auction any more than the Holtons did.
"I wish they could have kept the cows," Hank said. "They worked so hard to get good producing cows."
A little faster pace
By summer, the family will be down to milking 40 cows, the fewest they've milked in four decades.
There's about six weeks of work left for hired hands to help with.
"There are fences to mend and cattle to get ready to go to grass," Kevin said. "... It looks like most of them will be out of a job about May 1."
But the Holtons will remain, with the brothers doing the bulk of the work.
By next year, the herd will be larger. About 100 cows are due to calve from August to December. And 100 other young cows will be pregnant this time next year. So, the tentative plan is to stay in business. But that depends on making ends meet. Kevin hopes they can hang on. But in the world of fluctuating prices for raw milk, there are no promises.
And, he sees daily the change in the area's demographics, with Leavenworth County quickly making the transition from rural to urban.
"We know our days are numbered," Kevin said. "The world just operates at a little faster pace then we do, so I guess that's the way it is."