Tom Kestell’s secrets to success: Good people, good genetics and really good feed’
By Sherry Bunting
WALDO, Wis. – “Some men see things as they are and ask why. I dream of things that never were and ask why not?”
That quote from Robert Kennedy rings true for Tom Kestell, and it was a key point in his remarks when honored by the Dairy Shrine as 2017 Distinguished Dairy Cattle Breeder during World Dairy Expo a year ago.
In June, Holstein USA recognized Tom and Gin Kestell as Holstein Elite Breeders.
Colleagues call him “the E.F. Hutton of dairy” because when Tom has something to say about cows, people listen. A team builder with vision, determination and an eye for cattle, it is Tom’s humble commitment to the people and the cows that have put Ever-Green-View on the map with genetics sold to over 30 countries, and thousands visiting the farm each year, including van loads from South America, Europe and Asia at Expo time.
With a rolling herd average of 45,000M 1710F 1397P on 130 cows — including 52 EX and 72 VG for a BAA of 111.4 and average herd score of 88.3 points (2017) — these cows produce quality milk with an SCC around 100,000 for a local cheese company. The Kestells have bred 29 Gold Medal Dams and 19 Dams of Merit, and their Evergreen View Farm has been home to 353 cows with over 100,000 pounds of lifetime milk and top production cows, including the state of Wisconsin’s top butterfat cow, Elsie.
The herd includes last year’s national record holders for six of the eight age divisions in the Holstein breed, not to mention two past world record holders: Ever-Green-View My Gold’s lactation of over 77,000 pounds as a 4-year-old was the world record in January of 2017, when she surpassed her dam’s 2008-15 world record of over 72,000 pounds.
While My Gold’s record has been surpassed by another Wisconsin cow later in 2017, there has never been another dam and daughter to make world record lactations, and that’s what pleases Tom — that My 1326 and My Gold show the performance genetics behind cow type and production.
He points out a half-dozen daughters in the herd making extremely good records in their own right — with a few around 68,000 pounds.
Suffice it to say, Tom likes cow families and looks to breed cows with great udders and lots of milk. It took him 10 years to get to a top herd average in the county and state, and he has continued to build from there. It has only been the past four to five years that his herd has topped 40,000 pounds, and now 45,000.
People wonder, how does he do it? That was a question on my mind during a visit with Tom and Gin at their farm.
“There’s no one single answer,” Tom replied with a smile. “It comes down to good people working for us, good genetics and really good feed. Our goal is to provide the opportunity for the cows to do the best they can do. That’s what is important to us. We don’t set out to make records, but to give the cow the chance to do her best. She is deserving the credit because she is making the milk.”
Tom and his son Chris grow all the feed for their cattle, including the grains, forages and soybeans. They buy some bypass protein, vitamins and minerals. Farming nearly 600 acres, they are positioned to sell some corn and soybeans, but like to keep most of what they grow on the farm, so they have inventory to always use their own feed for quality control.
They make alfalfa haylage, baleage and dry hay. Their corn silage is chopped waist-high as shredlage. Doing it this way leaves a lot of the stalk in the field, but it increases the digestible energy of the silage and enables the Kestells to get it all made in one day.
“I don’t feel we need to harvest every pound of dry matter from that crop as silage,” Tom explains.
When high moisture corn is harvested at 27 to 30% moisture, there is a beehive of activity in the fields. The stalks are shredded immediately behind the combine. Stalks are then raked and round baled in rapid succession before they lose their moisture, and then line-wrapped in plastic to preserve them for future use. The wrapped bales are stored near a hay field that will be harvested the following year for heifer feed.
In the spring, the hay is cut and dried to 55% moisture, and the corn stalks are then shredded on top of the windrows. The combination of alfalfa and corn stalks are then harvested with a standard chopper and stored in upright silos, Tom explains. If this is done correctly, the resulting feed tests 17% protein, which is ideal for pregnant heifers
Cows at Evergreen View have been fed a TMR for over 30 years, but Tom topdresses a little differently. Every morning, for their first feeding of the day, the cows get some topdressed roasted soybeans. Once a day, they get four pounds of baleage per cow topdressed.
The Kestells feed a high forage ration balanced to 16% protein as the goal.
“We build our rations on the forages we have, and we believe alfalfa is really important,” says Tom, explaining that the forage portion of the ration is 50% haylage and 50% BMR corn silage on a dry matter basis. The ration of forage to concentrate is 68% forage and 32% concentrates.
Tom has been an advocate of tie stall environments, having mentored young dairymen with advice for renovating old barns. He says it all comes down to personal preference on how to manage dairy cattle.
“I like to bring the feed to them in an environment where they have no worries,” he says. “Our main focus of everything we do here is to keep our cows happy and healthy.”
One element is preparing udders for lactation. “We use Udder Comfort for our fresh cows, especially two-year-olds to soften and soothe. I also like rubbing it on hocks. We have good success with this,” Tom explains. “Where it is needed, Udder Comfort really works. It has been a good product for us.”
The herd is milked three times a day, and left out on pasture for a few hours after the morning milking while the barn is cleaned.
“Cows aren’t machines,” says Tom. His wife Gin will tell you that Tom is pretty fussy about cow care, and son Chris is equally meticulous on details.
Tom admits he loves everything about the dairy, even the challenges. He sees genomics as a tool with the challenge in balancing genomics with type and performance.
He observes that the high genomic heifers are most popular in certain markets, while others are looking for high performance. With a heart for the performance side of cattle genetics and preferring proven bulls, Tom balances this by also using top genomic bulls.
He used Montross last year because his proof was impressive and Delta on the performance side as well as Modesty and Jedi on the genomic side.
Interesting to note that the herd queen and top Wisconsin cow for butterfat — Ever-Green-View Elsie-ET 2E-92-GMD-DOM with three generations of Tom’s 2-E breeding behind her — has produced the family that not only brought forward My Gold and the dam-daughter world record lactations, but also a top genomic sire internationally for milk and protein: Flevo Genetics Snowman-ET.
Kestell exports many embryos — in 2015, one-third of all U.S. dairy embryo exports came from Evergreen View. An earlier export out of the Elsie family turned out to be Broeks MBM Elsa-ET. Elsa was 2008 Global Cow of the Year and is the dam of Flevo Genetics Snowman.
To do this level of export business, means dealing in bulk with large numbers of embryos in a single order to countries like Russia, China, Mexico. That means keeping an inventory, which is risky with today’s fast-moving genomics.
“I look at what the qualities are for the different countries and the restraints in their markets,” he says.
Tom sees genomics correlating well for the newer health traits, daughter pregnancy rate, livability and productive life. But for type and production, he sees genomics as just one of many tools.
“Many people use genomics as their only criteria, but I think that is a mistake,” he explains. “Genomics are predictions of what might happen. Actual production and type are what actually happened..”
Next to the 2017 honor from the Dairy Shrine, the achievement that means most to Tom is Holstein Herd of Excellence for the past seven years in a row. He is quick with his praise for the farm’s longtime employees.
Looking ahead, Tom sees the industry changing and the path for small farms being a tough one as the pattern is set for future growth in the industry. However, he believes smaller farms have a path of opportunity.
To compete, they will need to look carefully at their business decisions, he says, noting the potential for small farms to get together to buy inputs as a group. Tom doesn’t see the cooperatives doing this for their producers. It is something producers can do by forming alliances apart from their co-ops.
“The realities of the economics are big versus small because the land is needed for the cows and if the industry is growing, the land has to come from somewhere,” Tom observes. “Both large and small farms are dealing with the current economics, and while there is plenty of milk out there, the volume premiums are not as prevalent.”
Quality milk is a key area that will determine the future of dairy farms. Tom sees the quality of components and somatic cell counts as becoming increasingly important for farms of any size to have access to milk markets.
“The business end of farming is more important than ever. The big farms will keep growing. It is happening all over the world,” he observes. “It is up to us as farmers to figure out how to make money in this business. Not everyone will survive because this is not a right we have to milk cows. It has to be a business, first.
Some advice Tom has that he follows on his own farm: “Do more of what you are good at, and if you are not good at something, hire someone who is.”
As Tom and I wrapped up the interview in his wood-paneled office — where the walls are lined with awards, a window gives a view of the cows chewing cud in the adjacent tie stalls, and the desk is piled with magazines, bull proofs, paperwork and gifts from Kentucky producers who had toured there earlier in the week — son Chris enters to get his dad’s thoughts on the soybean fields, a veterinarian from Germany shows up for a tour, a young dairyman from Chilton pulls up in a red truck and trailer to pickup three cows he has purchased, and I am welcomed to that cup of coffee and banana bread with Gin in the house.
She tells the story, how Tom’s family’s herd was sold when he left for college in 1968. That’s where Tom and Gin met. She is quick to point out that she knew nothing about farming. But that didn’t matter. Their whirlwind three-week romance had Tom proposing marriage on the third date. As Gin jokes, “I just wondered what took him so long.”
They began assembling their first small herd in 1971 and purchased their farm at public auction in 1975. Four years later, they were able to buy the home farm Tom grew up on from his mother. Chris lives there now, and it is where the dry cows and flush cows are kept.
Tom says it has never been his desire to get much bigger than 90 to 130 cows. Gin says she always knew in her heart that Tom would do great things with his cows. He puts so much thought into giving them the opportunity to do their best.