HAMPSHIRE, Ill. — The Luck-E ‘awesome adventure’ continues, and it’s not the name of a movie.
As the Engel family’s Holstein journey over a half century continues to have international impact, it is Luck-E Awesome Adventure EX-94 96-MS (pictured above) that was recently named Illinois Cow of the Year, with a 5-10 365d record of 44,039M 2626F 1198P. Several daughters and granddaughters will sell at the upcoming Best of Luck-E sale April 15.
The Engels bred both sides of Awesome Adventure’s pedigree. Her sire’s dam, Asia, was a former Illinois Cow of the Year and so much more, read on…
What started with their parents’ first registered Holstein as a wedding gift to each other in 1968, has grown to a thriving Holstein herd of just under 200 milk cows, plus young stock, managed today by brothers Matt and Joe Engel. They became partners with their parents Dennis and Beth in the mid-1990s and have stayed true to breeding for the kind of cows they want to milk.
The Engels have bred over 600 Excellent cows — the bulk of them in the past 15 years. This includes 48 EX-94, four EX-95 and one EX-96.
The dams of the current Luck-E milking herd average EX-92.
“Our best cows go back to my first good show cow Klassy and Matt’s first good show cow Ashley — the A’s and K’s. It’s kind of cool to know our two 4-H cows are the foundation for our whole careers,” Joe relates.
Breeding good cows ranks number one on the list of ‘favorite things’ 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 their evolutionary process.
In fact, preparations are underway for the Best of Luck-E sale, where 170 head from the top of the herd will be offered, including more than 90 milking cows, many of them fresh in March. The sale managed by Fraley and slated for April 15, 2023, will be at the farm in Hampshire, Illinois and on Cow-Buyer.
The family has built a reputation for having high quality cows available, all the time. Their ‘point-and-price’ approach has expanded from on-farm visitors to include quite a large and interactive following at Luck-E Holsteins on Facebook.
The herd average on 184 milk cows as of February 2023 is 24,261M 1088F 813P, with somatic cell count (SCC) averaging 124,000 on the herd and 72,000 on the April 15 sale cattle.
Yes, the Engel brothers really do sell their best.
The cows are not spoiled here. They all live in the sand-bedded freestalls, with a one-group TMR. They are milked twice a day in the former stanchion barn with 19 milking units.
Joe and Matt like selling young cows in milk because of their focus on balance, udders and production. “People often ask how our cows’ udders look so good so soon after calving. I say we always use Udder Comfort. It helps maximize the cow’s genetic potential,” Joe explains.
Meanwhile, the A’s and K’s keep rolling with Luck-E Awesome Adventure EX-94 96-MS being named Illinois Cow of the Year.
Luck-E genetics have gone coast to coast and internationally to 20 countries. The Engels host over 1000 people annually from around the globe at their northern Illinois farm — about an hour south of Madison, Wisconsin, home of World Dairy Expo.
Last year, they took a string of cows to the 2022 Expo. It was an opportunity for Joe’s son Blake, 9, to exhibit for the first time. He led Adventure on the colored shavings, where she earned the International Type and Production Award in the WDE International Holstein Show. She was later nominated Junior All-American, having also been bred-and-owned champion at the Illinois State Championship Show in 2022 and 2020 as well as reserve grand in 2020.
The Engels bred both sides of Adventure’s pedigree. Her dam is Luck-E Braxton Aruba EX-94. Her sire is Luck-E Awesome-Red — a top udder bull whose dam Luck-E Advent Asia EX-94 (below right) was not only a former Illinois State Cow, she was beloved internationally, named Holstein International Red Impact Cow of the Year in 2020 after being Reader’s Choice for that award three times.
Joe recalls Asia’s first seven daughters were EX as 3-year-olds, “so we started to IVF her more. She now has 34 EX and counting. This includes five at EX-94,” he reports.
Asia’s pattern transmits and repeats, and her sons and grandsons stamp type and udders, including Awesome-Red, Artisan, Dr. Antidote, Advencer, Acetylene-Red, and more.
“Asia was not extreme in height, but super correct with amazing dairy strength,” Joe explains. “I guess you could say she was almost ahead of her time.”
Trends come and go, and Asia is just one representation of how the Engels stay true to breeding cows they want to milk, with a 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.
As for type, the Engels strike for balance. They breed for heifers to calve at 21 months and for cows to do well in a commercial environment. 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. This takes out the narrower cows that are pretty but can’t make it in freestalls,” Joe relates.
“We might look different when we’re doing a mating,” he 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.”
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.
“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,” says Joe, observing that heifers cost the same to raise whether they are good or bad, so it’s expensive to have ‘throw outs.’
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 do 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,” says Joe, 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 the Engels their process is working. When they sell their top animals and young cows — what makes it okay is the excitement these brothers have for the new heifers coming in.
The Udder Comfort routine is a big part of bringing new heifers into the milking herd. “We sold a ton of cows just fresh at our 50th anniversary sale (2019), and they were showring ready. Udder Comfort had those udders spot-on, all the way ready, really fast.” The Best of Luck-E sale in April will again feature just-fresh young cows.
Looking back over the past 53 years, the 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 consistent focus yielding great cows that are loved around the world.
Having both been raised on beef farms — with Dennis earning his penchant for dairy 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.
“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 his recollections about two cows that “changed everything” for Luck-E.
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,” he says. 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 had records over 40,000M with 4.7F and 3.6P.
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-year-old and grand champion of the state show, eventually scoring EX-94 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.
Above all, the Engel brothers simply enjoy working with cows and family. “This is a great way to raise kids,” says Joe.
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.
Their mom, Beth, tells the story of Matt, at age 3, out on the pasture with 40 cows knowing each 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.”
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.
Those udders are clearly Joe’s focus after calving.
“We want to see fresh, crisp, perfect udders at 10 days to three weeks fresh,” he 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.
“We use Udder Comfort twice a day a week after calving. 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 because it is gentle to the skin at the same time.”
— By Sherry Bunting