Two show cows from the Engel brothers’ youth are the basis of the Luck-E Holsteins herd. Their aggressive and consistent focus continues to yield cows that work, score, show and impact the breed.
By Sherry Bunting
HAMPSHIRE, Ill. — What started with their first registered Holstein as a wedding gift to each other in 1968, has grown to a thriving milk herd of 185 registered Holsteins plus young stock managed today by Dennis and Beth Engel’s sons Matt and Joe.
Luck-E Holsteins has bred well over 400 Excellent cows in those 50 years — the bulk of them in the past 15. Most of the best cows on the farm go back to Matt and Joe’s two 4-H show cows Klassy and Ashley.
In fact, in the past 5 years alone, 210 Luck-E-bred cows have gone Excellent in the U.S. That’s a big number to come from a 185-cow herd, and there’s even more when internationally-owned cows are included.
Located near Hampshire, Illinois, an hour or so south of Madison, Wisconsin, the Engels host 1000 people annually from around the globe, having sold genetics coast-to-coast and in nearly 20 countries. A novel approach to marketing includes ‘point-and-price’, which has expanded from on-farm visitors to include quite a large and interactive following at Luck-E Holsteins on Facebook.
“Someone comes to the farm, likes a cow, asks a price, and we give a price right there on almost every cow,” Joe explains, adding that their herd average on 185 cows is at 25,484M 4.8F1151, 3.3P 820. Yes, the brothers really do sell their best.
Joe and Matt became partners with their parents in the mid-1990s. The family has built a reputation for having high quality cows available, all the time. They have also stayed true in breeding for the kind of cows they want to milk.
“The cows are not spoiled here. They all live out in the freestalls,” Joe explains. While they all live in the sand-bedded freestall barns, they are milked with 12 milking units in the former stanchion barn twice a day.
The Engels look for elite udder bulls. They must have good feet and legs, with conformation score coming third. When doing sire selections, they search with criteria that are high enough and specific enough to yield a short list of bulls.
“We may see 10 come up, and that is our first sort,” Joe explains. “Then I look at the sire stack and cow family and begin to throw out what does not match what we are looking for. We use genomic numbers, but for us, they have to be verified by the sire stack and cow family that they come from.”
As for type, they strike for balance. It is first-things-first for a cow that will do well, score well, and show well.
“First we want a cow that is built to do well in a freestall environment, that I will really like milking when she comes into the barn,” Joe relates. “This takes out the narrower cows that are pretty but can’t make it in freestalls.
“The goal is not how good to breed the best cow, but how to avoid making a bad one. If we don’t make bad ones, the good and great ones will come.”
He notes that with heifers costing the same amount to raise — good or bad — it’s expensive to have ‘throw outs.’
Trends come and go, and the Engels stay true to the cow they want with a breeding philosophy standing the test of time.
“We look for real dairy strength, width — from muzzle through rump — and good udders because we want our cows to make a lot of milk on cheap feed, so they must have the capacity to eat a lot of forage. We grow good forages here, and forage is what we need to be putting into the cow,” Joe explains.
The Engels breed heifers to calve by 21 months. “We might look different when we’re doing a mating,” Joe describes their process. “We don’t focus on how good this animal could be. We always think through what is the worst that could come out of a mating. Our goal is to avoid the bottom end, and our belief is if we do that, the extremes on the top end will come.”
Joe and Matt strive to make themselves interchangeable in terms of chores. They take turns going to even the big events like World Dairy Expo, so finding a photo of them together is a challenge.
Though they work together in cattle management, each brother has areas of focus.
“I get the calf out of the cow and through weaning, then they are Matt’s until they come back to me as springers,” Joe explains. Matt does the breeding and feed purchasing while Joe does the herd records, organizes the repro, IVF and embryo work and the marketing and correspondence.
“We want to see fresh, crisp, perfect udders at 10 days to three weeks fresh,” Joe says pointing out that they’ve used Udder Comfort since it first came out. It’s integral to their routine for every animal at calving.
In fact, at their 50th anniversary sale in March 2019, Joe notes: “We sold a ton of cows just fresh, and they were showring ready. Udder Comfort had those udders spot-on, all the way ready, really fast.”
“We use Udder Comfort twice a day a week after calving, until the swelling is gone. With our heifers, we like to coat the udder and get it between the leg and udder to soften and prevent irritation before they calve,” says Joe. “For second lactation and older cows, we do the Udder Comfort routinely, but not as many days as the first-lactation animals. We use only this product because of the results and it’s gentle to the skin at the same time.”
In July 2020, Luck-E was premier breed and exhibitor of the Illinois State Show, which attracted many entries from out of state with other shows being canceled. Among the winnings racked up for their just-fresh young cows — coming right out of the no-frills one-group TMR freestall barn — was a top summer Jr. 2-year-old and the top two Junior 2-year-olds, one of which went on to be intermediate champion of the state show. They also had the top two Senior 3-year-olds and the second place 4-year-old, which went on to be reserve senior and reserve grand as well as champion bred-and-owned of the state show.
Breeding good cows ranks number one on the ‘favorite things’ list for the Engel brothers, but Joe is quick to say their second favorite thing is to sell a milk cow and see her do well in her next home – leaving them the challenge to make the next good one. That’s the evolution process at Luck-E Holsteins.
Luck-E Advent Asia *RC EX 94 is a great example. Loved worldwide, she has been ‘readers choice’ Red Impact cow in the Holstein International survey three times and was this year named Red Impact cow by the judges also. She was purchased in 2017 by Bert-Mar Farms, Osseo, Wisconsin, along with herdmates Atlanta and Kandie-Red.
The Lundbergs made Asia a foundation of rebuilding their Bert-Mar herd, with many daughters classifying VG as 2-year-olds.
Joe recalls that Asia’s first seven daughters were EX as 3-year-olds, and the pattern transmits and repeats.
“Asia is almost more in style now than when she was a young cow. She’s not extreme in height, but super correct with amazing dairy strength,” he explains. “I guess you could say she was almost ahead of her time.”
Asia sons and grandsons stamp type and udders. This summer, Awesome was still number one genomics in the world for udders. Grandson Admiral was still number one for type, with Apex the number one type polled bull and Avalanche and Dr. Antidote moving in the charts, to name a few.
At age 8, Asia had a daughter born that was #1 Red Type. Today, at age 11 “Asia is still going strong with a red great granddaughter that is +4.23 Type, a third generation chart topper,” Joe reports. “She still has daughters winning state shows, beautiful cows here and at Bert-Mar. Calves out of Asia are hitting all the time, and we have seven more due next March.”
Before the 50th celebration sale in March 2019, there were 71 Asia daughters born on the farm. By now, they’ve had over 100 Asia daughters born there.
With Dennis in charge of the crops and Beth the recordkeeping, sons Joe and Matt focus on the cows and genetics. Luck-E Holsteins was among the first herds in the world to be flushing cows, given their location in an area where embryo transfers were born.
“Sales are over half our business, so having repeat customers goes back to what our parents learned and taught us about treating people right,” says Joe, adding that most sales are one-on-one with customers and direct from the farm.
The Engel family’s passion for the Holstein cow began when Dennis and Beth were first married and milking 38 grade cows. They bought their first registered Holstein dairy cow in 1968. When she had her first heifer calf, they needed a prefix. They were advised to keep it short and positive; so they went with Luck-E — replacing the ‘y’ with ‘E’ for Engel.
But luck has had little to do with the accomplishments here. The family steadfastly breeds for what they want to see in a cow, with a simple and consistence focus yielding great cows that are loved around the world.
Having both been raised on beef farms — with Dennis earning his penchant for dairy by helping his grandfather milk cows — he and Beth learned through an early purchase the value of being completely honest to put everything out on the line. It is a philosophy that has stood the test of time in the animals they sell today.
Looking back, Joe says there are two individual cows “who changed everything for us.”
One goes back to the 1980 World Premier. “Dad bought Hyatt Kay and brought her home. That was a big investment for my parents at the time,” Joe relates. Luck-E Advent Kandie-Red — the EX-95 senior and reserve grand champion, best udder and champion bred-and-owned Red and White cow of the 2014 World Dairy Expo traces back to Kay as the granddaughter of Joe’s first show cow Klassy.
“Kandie’s whole family goes back to the Kay family, which has been on our farm for 35 years,” Joe confirms. Kandie has had records over 40,000M with 4.7F and 3.6P. She followed Asia and Atlanta with over 40,000M records in their own right, to reignite the genetics at Bert-Mar Farms in 2018.
The other game-changer was Hart-Lyn Starbuck Ashley. Matt was 15 when he bought her as a 2-year-old that went on to be first Senior 3 and grand champion of the state show, eventually scoring EX94 GMD DOM. An early flush to Skychief produced Arizona. She was flushed to Blitz, producing Australia, and her offspring to Advent included Asia and Atlanta.
“We have had so many special ones born out of these two families, that it’s hard to name them all,” Joe says.
The A’s and K’s keep rolling, including a crop of VG King Doc 2-year-olds in milk this year, with two VG88’s being full sisters of the 2-year-old bull they are marketing — Luck-E Dr Antidote RC EX90 54H902 (semen available).
It’s easy to see how the aggressive pace and consistent focus at Luck-E has produced so many EX cows and some national production records. The Engels’ key-in on production out of their specific type-and-udder-sorted bulls for a mating.
“They have to meet our type requirements, but then we pick from the best of everything else, including production, components, and fertility traits,” Joe explains.
They also pay attention to the recessive traits that add value — namely Red and now Polled. “The polled animals we have are among the animals we are most excited about,” he says, expecting polled traits to have an increasing effect on their marketing in the same way the red has — by adding value to already good cows.
Repeat customers tell Joe the process is working. When the Engels sell their top animals — even their 93, 94 and 95-point cows — as well as young cows — the brothers say what makes it okay is the excitement they have for the new heifers coming in.
Above all, Joe and Matt simply enjoy working with cows and family. “This is a great way to raise kids,” says Joe.
Their mom, Beth, tells the story of Matt, at 3, out on the pasture with 40 cows knowing every one by name.
“We can’t remember ever not loving cows,” says Joe, “but for me, I can almost pinpoint the time it really hit me, when we had our first really good show cow — Klassy. She was Kandie’s grandmother and won the state show in 1997 as a two-year-old.”
“Our best cows here go back to my first good show cow Klassy and Matt’s first good show cow Ashley. That’s kind of cool to know our two 4-H cows are the foundation for our whole careers.”