Providing ‘the opportunity for the cow to do her best’

Tom Kestell stands in the outer office of the tie stall barn where Ever-Green-View Elsie-ET (2E-92 GMD-DOM) is pictured. She is herd queen, the cow that had the top butterfat record in Wisconsin — responsible for bringing forth former world record lactation holders My 1326 and her daughter My Gold as well as top genomic international sire Snowman.

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 he and his wife Gin were honored by the National Dairy Shrine as 2017 Distinguished Dairy Cattle Breeder during World Dairy Expo. In 2018, Holstein USA recognized the Kestells as Holstein Elite Breeders.

Colleagues call Tom “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 excellence that put Ever-Green-View on the map with genetics now sold in 40 countries, and thousands of people visiting the farm each year, including van loads from South America, Europe and Asia at Expo time.

With a 2020 rolling herd average of 44,767M 4.04 1807F 3.14 1404P on 130 cows — with over half of them scored EX and a BAA of 111.7 — these cows produce a lot of high quality milk for a local cheese company, with an SCC around 100,000. (Average herd score 88.3 points in 2017)

As of 2018, the Kestells had 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. Those numbers have continued to grow with new national butterfat records and other achievements from the herd.

This herd has produced the only dam and daughter in the Holstein breed to both achieve world-record lactations: 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 7-year world record of over 72,000 pounds. This shows the performance genetics behind cow type and production.

The Evergreen View herd is about 50% 2-year-olds, and Tom merchandises cows weekly. He’s not shy about selling top cows. During my visit, Adam Faust, a young dairy producer Tom has mentored, pulled in to pick up three high producers to upgrade his herd, including a daughter of the herd queen and top butterfat cow in Wisconsin, Elsie.

As we walk through the barn, Tom 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 since 2012 that his herd has topped 40,000 pounds, and in 2016, surpassed 45,000.

People wonder, how does he do it? That question was top-of-mind during an October 2017 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. In 2018, Tom and Chris did a popular “On farm feed and forage management” presentation at World Dairy Expo.

They make alfalfa haylage, baleage and dry hay. Their BMR 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, he says.

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. “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.

Gin Kestell says Tom is fussy about cow care and son Chris is also meticulous around the farm. With tours and visitors and speaking engagements, they observe how good it is to “meet people from around the world and learn from them and they from us.”

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.

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 eight 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.

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.”

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.”

— Story by Sherry Bunting

UPDATE: Want to know more about how Tom Kestell challenges status quo thinking in dairy? A recent (September 2020) DairyVoice podcast interview by Joel Hastings of DairyBusiness is a great one. Take a listen:

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