Farm Horizons, February 2010

Mayer family receives 'premier breeder' award for Simmental cattle

By Linda Scherer
Staff Writer

Making the switch from Holstein dairy cows to Simmental beef cattle was a gradual one for Mayer farmers Marlow and Darlene Hecksel and their son, Ryan.

Winning the Simmental “premier breeder” open class beef cattle competition at the 2009 Minnesota State Fair is proof the family has made a successful transition to beef. In the last seven years, they have sold their Simmental cattle in 23 states and two Canadian provinces.

Venturing into the beef cattle operation on the Hecksel century farm began in 1991, as they considered phasing out dairy.

“We knew we had to quit milking or spend a whole lot of money on the buildings and the barn. I figured, at our age, it didn’t pencil out,” Marlow said.

At the time, Ryan, who was just 10 years old, had joined 4-H and was ready to show cattle, just like his older siblings had.

“We had never heard of Simmental before,” Darlene said. “We wanted to buy him something for 4-H, and I had called our technician and he had given us the number of someone who had Simmental. That was how we got started.”

Two Simmental heifers, 8 months old, were given to Ryan, who began to train them for area fairs.

“He showed one of them at the Wright County Fair the first year and we had gotten “reserve champion” with her,” Marlow said. “Then, he won “junior showmanship,” and he had never shown an animal before in his life. From there, it grew into a full-time business,” Marlow said.

For awhile, the Hecksels’ cattle numbers kept increasing and it became a challenge managing a double herd, according to Marlow. By 1997, when the dairy cows were gone, the family began focusing completely on breeding Simmental livestock, and cattle sale and show events, rather than on milk production.

“The difference I have found between the dairy cattle and the beef cattle is the nice warm barn in the winter-time,” Marlow said. “Now, I am outside all winter. Everything is outside.”

Today, the Hecksels’ herd numbers approximately 200 Simmental, but by March, the number will increase to about 250 with the new calves expected to be delivered. Each of the animals is named and tagged.

The herd is made up of calves, heifers, cows, and bulls. A mature cow’s average weight is between 1,300 and 1,400 pounds. Bulls can weigh more than 2,000 pounds.

Breeding begins in March. Once the animals are bred, they are moved out to pasture in May or June.

The number of animals the Hecksels can raise are limited to finding pasture for them to graze during the summer.

“In our part of the country, the land is a little too high-priced to run beef,” Marlow said. “We rent pasture wherever we can find it. We have seven or eight pastures. Our cattle are all over the country,” Marlow said.

“We have cattle at Watertown, Delano, all of the way to Litchfield. Wherever we can find pasture,” Ryan said.

The animals are put on a trailer and are so used to being hauled back and forth between pastures, they just jump right into the trailer when it is time to move them, according to Marlow.

Besides showing their Simmental cattle at the Minnesota State Fair open class annually, they also attend several other events.

The North American International Livestock Exposition in Louisville, KY in November, is a place where the Hecksels can promote their livestock, and they also sell several of their best open heifers there each year.

For the last four years, in December, they have attended the Northern Lights Simmental sale at Salem, SD, where they usually sell 20 to 25 head.

In February they attend two events – the Minnesota State Sale in Rochester, MN, and the Black Hills Stock Show in Rapid City, SD, where they show and sell their top bull.

Each time the cattle are loaded on two trailers, along with enough feed for at least a one-week stay.

“It is work,” Marlow said.

In addition to the events, the Hecksels’ beef cattle are also promoted in a catalog for the “National Western Simmental,” sale at Denver, CO, where they show and sell genetics in January.

Most of the calves born on the Hecksel farm are embryo calves.

The top 10 cows are flushed for their embryos a few times a year – that way each cow with superior genetic merit is capable of producing several calves a year. Some of the embryos are frozen to be sold at sales, bringing in anywhere from $400 to $1,000 per embryo, depending on the bloodline.

The advantages to marketing embryos are:

• an economical means of transporting genetics versus live animals;

• zero risk for disease transmission;

• offspring adapt better to new environments when born and raised there;

• the buyer can purchase genetics from an elite cow that is not for sale.

A century in farming

The Hecksel century farm covers 200 acres of land just east of Winsted. Ryan is the fourth generation in the Hecksel family to farm there.

The first generation was Henry and Minnie Hecksel, who built the original house on the property for $7,000, and had dairy cows and horses.

“My grandfather was a horse jockey. I think, at one time, there were about 50 horses on this place,” Marlow said. “Every kind of horse. He used to trade them.”

The second generation to run the farm was Marlow’s parents, Wallace and Luella Hecksel.

Marlow and Darlene are the third generation to live on the farm. Marlow had grown up in the same home, with renovations, where he and Darlene raised their four children.

The Hecksels’ four children are:

• Doug, who lives in Lester Prairie.

• Lonnie, who is married to Beatrice (Dressler). They live in Mayer.

• Wanda lives in Champlin.

• Ryan, living on the farm in Mayer.

Darlene and Marlow also have two grandchildren.

To learn more about the Hecksels’ Simmentals go to their web site at heckselsimmentalfarm.com.

More about American Simmental cattle

The Simmental is an ancient breed. The ability to adapt to their environment has allowed them to become influential in cattle markets across the world. Simmentals were developed at a time when cattle were multipurpose creatures – not only were they raised for their meat, but also for their heavy milking ability, and even draft uses.

Simmentals were introduced very early into the US. Their earliest recorded presence was in Illinois in 1887. A transitional time in the country, the Simmental had little success until its reintroduction in the 1960s. The first purebred calf was born in 1968, out of a breeding using imported semen. In 1974, the World Simmental Federation was formed. Its main goals were to unify breeders by providing a base for information and research exchange, and to increase the influence and importance of the breed.

The American Simmental organization has focused primarily in highlighting the breed’s beef qualities. They are rugged animals of substantial bone. Ultimately large in size, it may come as a surprise that Simmentals are exceptionally easy calvers. Though they have low birth weights, they have fast growth rates. Cows are excellent mothers and have very long production cycles. Cows and bulls reach sexual maturity early, in contrast to other Continental breeds that may take longer to develop. Though they have not been selected for their milking abilities, the Simmental continues to be an above-average milker.

The economic benefits to beef breeders raising Simmentals are almost unsurpassed by any other breed.

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