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Serving: WI
Marleen and Rick Adams, Master Agriculturist
TEAM EFFORT: Marleen and Rick Adams of Elkhorn, Wis., manage Sugar Creek Dairy together.

Teamwork fuels success for Elkhorn, Wis., couple

Rick and Marleen Adams milk 600 registered Holsteins at Sugar Creek Dairy.

2019 Master Agriculturist Rick Adams grew up on a diversified farm near Lake Geneva, Wis.

“We had 1,000 hogs, 100 steers, a grain operation, and we milked 50 dairy cows,” he says. “I helped with everything, but I enjoyed the dairy cows the most.”

After graduating from high school, Rick enrolled at University of Wisconsin-Madison Farm and Industry Short Course. While in Madison, his friends introduced him to Marleen, who was going to school for accounting at Madison Area Technical College. After graduation, the two married. They were both 19 and returned to Lake Geneva to farm with Rick’s father, Donald, and his older brother Dave.

Rick wanted to expand the dairy, “but my family thought we were too close to the city of Lake Geneva to expand, so we went looking for another opportunity,” he explains. Rick found a like-minded partner, and they built a milking parlor and freestall setup north of Elkhorn — and Sugar Creek Dairy was born.

“We started from scratch on 185 bare acres,” Rick says. “We were the general contractor. We hired all the construction. We built the bunkers, commodity shed, parlor and two freestall barns with 440 stalls, a hospital pen, pre-fresh pen, and a manure pit. We started digging July 1, and we were in it by Thanksgiving.”

The Adamses had 50 cows and young stock at the time. Their partner brought a little over 200 cows and young stock. Springing heifers were bought to fill out the barn.

“That was in 1997,” Rick says. “Ten years later, Marleen and I bought him out.”

Today the couple milks 600 registered Holstein cows. Their official 305-day DHIR rolling herd average is 30,700 pounds of milk with 1,250 pounds of butterfat and 980 pounds of protein on three-times-a-day milking. Even though they have a large herd, Rick is proud that all their cows are registered and classified. In 2017, the couple received the Herd of Excellence Award from Holstein USA. They make quality milk a top priority. Their somatic cell count stays under 120,000.

Big fans of technology, in 2011 they purchased SCR rumination and heat detection monitors. Rick credits the system with boosting conception rates, increasing milk production, cutting hormone costs, lowering labor costs, and improving overall cow health and longevity.

Raising heifers
The couple also raises 550 heifers. “We raise all of our calves and heifers,” Rick says. “We are very happy with that. There’s no commingling involved, so our biosecurity is better. Everything is more consistent when we feed them ourselves.”

For many years, the farm sent yearling heifers to a custom heifer raiser. When they made the decision in 2014 to raise their heifers, they built two three-row freestall barns, a manure lagoon and a feed pad about 10 miles from the farm.

“Since we built our heifer farm, we cut our heifer age at calving down from 23 months to 22 months,” Rick says. “Now we can do more embryo work. We do IVF [in vitro fertilization] and embryos with Sunshine Genetics in Whitewater. We put in 100 embryos a year.”

Rick places a high value on using top genetics and genomic testing his herd. “We have some fairly high genomic animals,” he says. “We have 24 cows on the Top 10,000 cow locator list, and we have eight cows on the Top 5,000 cow locator list.”

His goal is to continue to build on the progress they have already made.

Rick says he has enjoyed reading bull books since he was a teenager. “I have picked the bulls forever,” he notes. “I pick the six to 10 bulls we use, and the computer mates the bulls to avoid inbreeding. But I hand-select bulls for our top cows. Our main income has always been from milk sales, but this helps keep me interested in the dairy business.”

When their cattle inventory on the farm gets high, Rick and Marleen sell cows or heifers to other farmers privately or at production sales at the Great Northern Sales Arena. “Every year, we sell up to 10% of our herd to other farmers,” Rick says.

Marleen is a full-time partner in the farm. 

“We have 13 full-time employees,” Rick says. “We have a herdsman, assistant herdsman and a calf feeder. I am the general farm manager. My job is to put out fires. I go wherever I’m needed. We have a ‘cows first’ mentality here — I’m on call every night to help pull a calf if needed.”

To keep machinery costs low and minimize labor costs, the Adamses don’t own any harvest or planting equipment and hire all their fieldwork done.

“We work with several neighbors who grow hay and corn silage,” Rick explains. “We give the neighbors the manure, and they agree to grow crops. We buy 300 to 400 acres of corn silage and 200 acres of haylage. Some of the farms are smaller; they are rolling, and they like being able to rotate crops. We plant 40 acres of alfalfa, 30 acres of wheat and 150 acres of corn for silage on our land. We don’t buy any commercial fertilizer.

“We have a big hay shed that we can store a lot of hay and straw in,” he notes. “If an opportunity comes up, we can buy it. We’re not afraid to go to Canada for straw or the Dakotas for our forage needs, but we prefer to buy it locally.”

Although neither their daughter nor son are interested in farming, Rick and Marleen are very proud of their children.

Sara, 32, has a bachelor’s degree in political science. She works at Total Administrative Services Corp. in Madison. Ryan, 31, of Burlington, has a doctorate in physical therapy and works as a physical therapist. Ryan and his wife, Ashley, have two sons, Calvin and William.

Giving back
Rick is a past delegate to East Central/Select Sires and now serves on the board. He is a lifelong Farm Bureau member and is on the Walworth County Farm Bureau board. He was chairman of the Farm Bureau dairy committee and has hosted two breakfasts on his farm. He is a member of Dairy Business Association and Professional Dairy Producers.

Rick is also a member of St. Patrick’s Church in Elkhorn and an avid Milwaukee Brewers fan.

Rick Adams
Age: 58
Location: Elkhorn, Walworth County
Farming enterprises: registered Holstein cows, calves and heifers
Size of farm: 242 owned acres, 600 cows, 550 heifers
Years farming: 40
Family: wife Marleen, daughter Sara, son Ryan, one daughter-in-law, two grandsons
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