After graduating from Rosendale High School in 1951 and University of Wisconsin Farm and Industry Short Course in 1952, Don Rickert and his wife Lila got married in 1954. They started working for Don's parents, Edna and the late Eldor Rickert. They milked 33 cows and farmed 180 acres near Eldorado in Fond du Lac County. During the 52 years they've been married, the couple has steadily expanded their successful farming operation. Today, they own 1,250 acres, rent an additional 450 acres, milk 685 cows, and feed out 175 Holstein steers with their sons Greg and Jim and Jim's wife Kelly.
Shortly after Don began working for his parents, the Rickerts started DHIA testing and using artificial insemenation. In 1963, they built their first Harvestore. By then their herd had grown to 55 cows. The following year, they put an addition on the stanchion barn. Their family had grown too. By 1964, the couple had five children – two daughters and three sons. In 1967, Don built a hog finishing barn that housed up to 250 hogs with much of his own labor. From 1967 to 1988, the Rickerts bought feeder pigs and sold them at 230 pounds.
"I figured more profit was made by feeding the extra corn to hogs rather than selling the corn," he says. For the past 40 years, the Rickerts have kept their bull calves and finished them to market weight.
In 1968, Don and Lila bought the home farm from Don's parents.
During the next 10 years, more land was purchased and rented. By the time their oldest son Ken graduated from high school in 1976, the Rickerts were milking 125 cows in their stanchion barn. That year they also built a Slurrystore and since then the farm has injected liquid manure which has greatly reduced fertilizer purchases.
"Our goal was to expand the farm operation enough so that each of our sons had a chance to farm," Don explains.
And expand they did. In 1981, after Jim graduated from UW-Madison Farm and Industry Short Course, the Rickerts incorporated their farm.
"We incorporated with the idea that it was a lot easier to bring the boys into the operation because they could accumulate shares," Don explains.
Following the farm crisis in the early 1980s, Don borrowed a lot of money to grow the business and invest in the future. During this time, he purchased 600 acres as neighbors decided one by one to sell their farms.
"In hind sight, my only mistake is I didn't buy more of it," Don laughs. "But I guess I didn't want to go too far in debt."
One of the farms he bought included another set of farm buildings with a grain bin set up and dryer. The Rickerts also expanded the dairy. In 1995, a freestall barn was added for 74 cows. They began switching to milk their 185 cows in the stanchion barn.
In 2000, Don and Lila's youngest sons Jim and Greg wanted to expand the dairy further and build a new freestall set up, but oldest son Ken decided it was time to pursue a new career and left the farm. That year, a new freestall barn, milking parlor and special needs barn was built in a field across the road from the original farm and Jim and Greg formed an LLC on the dairy.
"Even though Ken was not involved in the dairy expansion, he played an integral part in the continued expansion of our farm," Don says. "If it were up to me, we wouldn't have expanded the dairy in 2000. That's the great part about another generation coming into the operation. They bring a lot of youth and enthusiasm."
Positioned for the future
Today the Rickerts milk 685 Holstein cows with a rolling herd average of 25,977 pounds of milk, 969 pounds of butterfat and 769 pounds of protein. They have utilized embryo transfer for the past 25 years. More than 40 bulls have been sent to AI companies across the U.S.
Their cropping program includes 1,000 acres of corn, 400 acres of alfalfa, 230 acres of soybeans and 70 acres of winter wheat. Alfalfa is harvest four times a year, primarily as haylage and is stored in bunkers and silos. Oats are harvested as oatlage and are fed to heifers. Alfalfa is fertilized after first and third cuttings and limed if needed. BT varieties of corn have been used. Corn is cultivated and liquid fertilizer is applied in one trip. Chisel plowing replaced moldboard plowing 20 years ago.
Don has no plans to slow down. Last year on the farm, he planted all of the corn, cultivated the majority of the corn, completed most of the combining and cut almost all of the alfalfa. But his greatest joy is working on the computer.
At an age where most men don't even know how to turn on a computer, Don thrives on keeping all of the farm's financial records on the computer and completing transactions online daily. Every two weeks he handles the payroll for 12 employees, including Jim and Kelly's son Andrew, 23, who works full time on the farm.
"Math was my favorite subject in school," he explains. "The thing I enjoy doing the most is making spread sheets. I just compared expenses for 2006 back to 2000. I could see what percent went for feed. I figured the feed cost per hundredweight of milk for each year. I really like working on that stuff. Then I hand it over to the boys and they can make some decisions based on those numbers."
While working hard to build the farm operation and raise a family, the Rickerts have always found time to be active in their church, community and farm organizations. They are members of the county, state and national Holstein associations. In 1978, they hosted the County Holstein Twilight Meeting at their farm. Don served on the Fond du Lac County Holstein Board of directors for six years and was president. He also served six years on the state Holstein Board of Directors and was president in 1994-1995. Don was a member of the Alto Dairy Cooperative Board of Directors from 1990 to 1995 and served on the Wisconsin DHIA state policy board. Don and Lila are members of the Peace Lutheran Church, and Don has served on the church council. He also was a long time member of the Eldorado Fire Department and served as president before retiring from the department.
Don says he is honored to win the 2007 Master Agriculturist Award, but he's quick to credit Lila, and their sons Ken, Greg and Jim and Jim's wife Kelly for their success on and off the farm.
"I didn't do this all by myself," he notes. "Lila has always worked on the farm, and if the boys didn't have an interest in the farm we certainly wouldn't have expanded. Everybody here pitches in."
Location: Fond du Lac County
Farming enterprises: Dairy, crops, steers
Size of farm: 1,700 acres
Number of cattle: 680 Holstein cows, 680 dairy heifers, 175 steers
Years farming: 55
Family: Wife Lila, two daughters, three sons, 13 grandchildren.