In the dairy world, opportunity often arrives in the form of something that moos. For young people especially, a calf or cow can open doors to connections, lessons, and experiences that shape their future skills and dreams. Making that opportunity a reality was a key part of how Mike and Linda Hellenbrand operated their City Slickers Farm in Cross Plains, Wis., for many years, and now that commitment is helping establish a new avenue for youth to develop their passion in the dairy community.
The Hellenbrand Lasting Legacy Award was first presented in 2021 following Mike’s passing from cancer in 2020. It aims to continue the work he did and spirit he embodied by allowing a deserving dairy youth to own and show a high-quality calf. An opportunity the winning individual might not have otherwise had provides the chance to foster what Mike valued most — hard work and personal growth.
Finding a niche
Both Mike and Linda developed successful careers in business and finance and were living in New York City when the events of September 11, 2001, changed their perspective. The farm they had purchased years earlier in Mike’s hometown looked like a good opportunity to shift course, so they pursued Mike’s interest in dairy cattle that stemmed from visiting his grandparents’ farm as a child.
The evolution of their business began with exploring embryo transfer in colored dairy breeds since the Holstein market in that arena was already buzzing. The couple wasn’t interested in milking, but they could raise great calves. So, they put in embryos and developed the calves for themselves, later partnering with prominent breeders around the country to implant embryos and care for calves for them. It became a passion for both her and Mike, said Linda, who grew up on a hobby farm in Massachusetts.
With so many high-value calves on site, they established what would become a biannual sale in 2006. “One of the things Mike thought was important was to have youth lead in the sale ring,” Linda explained. Between the work in the ring and training and preparing heifers beforehand, multiple young people gained hands-on experience with heifers at the Hellenbrand farm over the years.
That soon included the showring, too. Linda described that many of their partners and local friends had children in 4-H, so, with approval from the co-owners of the calves, Mike and Linda helped young people show some of the calves they had. Often, it was a way for the youth to get involved with another breed and make new connections.
“Once that started, it seemed like every year we were introduced to somebody new or had another opportunity to let a youth start showing our cattle,” Linda recalled.
Near the end of Mike’s life, friends including Bryan Voegeli, Dan Basse, Bob Hagenow, and Sheila McGuirk expressed to one another and Linda that they wanted to keep his work going. They knew whatever they did to honor Mike would be focused on youth.
“We eventually evolved to the point where we thought, with so many partners and so many people that were impacted by Mike and Linda, we could get a calf,” explained McGuirk.
As they refined how to choose a recipient and build the program, the group kept a few things in mind. One was that they wanted it to be a valuable calf that would provide a unique experience for a young person. Since Mike served on the executive board at World Dairy Expo, they decided the calf would be a daughter of a previous Expo Grand Champion.
In addition to having applicants submit details about their involvement and interest in dairy, the original board members wanted to ensure that an eventual recipient had the tools to take care of the calf since the breeders would retain half ownership. They put this into practice by requiring that applicants choose a mentor to advise them through the project and house the calf if necessary. The mentor would also submit a statement about the applicant and how they would support them.
The Guernsey kickoff
“The first year, we were on pins and needles about how many applicants we would get,” said McGuirk. The calf being awarded was a daughter of Springhill Mentor Jazzy-ET, Grand Champion of the 2017 International Guernsey Show.
The group received applications from well-qualified candidates, and the lucky new owner of Jazzy’s calf was Alison Gartman of Sheboygan, Wis. She lives on her family’s Holstein dairy, and showing a Guernsey would be a new experience for her. Throughout the summer, she cared for the calf under the mentorship of their family friend and herd veterinarian, Jeff Bleck, D.V.M. They discussed keeping the calf healthy and proper nutrition, and they kept an eye on her so she was in her best show shape. Gartman tied the heifer in with Bleck’s family at a few shows that summer and fall, including Expo, to gain another perspective on show preparation and animal care.
Gartman’s favorite show came at the Wisconsin State Fair when she stood in fourth place in showmanship for her age division. “She just became a lot more confident through the year with her showmanship abilities,” said Bleck in discussing how Gartman grew through the course of the year. “She would have questions and just became more comfortable discussing her calf,” he added.
The biggest thing Gartman said she took away from the experience, though, is expanding her connections to people she admires in the industry. “I just think that’s so amazing that I got to connect with all those people through this one award and this one heifer,” she said.
One of the most interesting parts of her show season was walking her heifer through the sale ring at the World Classic in 2022. The award is structured so that the recipient owns 50% of the heifer for the show season it is awarded in, with the breeders owning the other half. At the end of that year, the animal will go through the World Classic. The recipient can either receive half of the proceeds of the sale or, if they would like to keep the heifer, the award’s board of directors will help find a buyer willing to donate the calf back to them.
Gartman chose to keep her heifer and hopes to use that strong pedigree to build up her own herd. They plan to flush her so they can market embryos and possibly show her as a cow, too.
An exciting future
After the first year, the award’s board of directors knew they had a winning formula. They tightened up the timeline so that applications were accepted in the fall, the recipient received their calf in early spring, and they had all summer and up until Expo to work with the animal. For this year’s calf — a daughter of 2021 Ayrshire Grand Champion Marilie Gentleman Karmina bred by Tom and Kelli Cull and Peter Vail — they received more than 30 applications.
Nicole Arrowsmith of Peach Bottom, Pa., was chosen as the recipient and has been working with Budjon-Vail Rynolds Kiwi-ET all summer. She is looking forward to attending Expo for the first time this year to exhibit Kiwi. The Jersey girl also appreciates the opportunity to care for a quality heifer from a new breed. “There’s a lot of responsibility owning her, so it was pretty cool they thought I could do it,” she said.
The competition was so strong for this year’s award that the group offered cash prizes to a runner up as well as six finalists. They hope to be able to continue to offer additional awards and expand the applicant pool, McGuirk said. Applications for 2024 will open October 1 and be accepted until January 1, 2024. The calf is a daughter from the 2017 International Brown Swiss Show Grand Champion, Top Acres Supreme Wizard-ET, bred and owned by Wayne Sliker of St. Paris, Ohio.
There are many people working behind the scenes of this award to make it possible for young people to have an opportunity that would make Mike Hellenbrand proud. A nine-person board of directors as well as an advisory board, all made up of people who knew Mike well, are helping keep his legacy alive, as are the breeders who have generously donated calves. Trying to duplicate what he did was daunting, said Linda. But she believes they are on the right track and appreciates those who have come together to make it possible.
“There’s no question in my mind that it’s kept Mike’s memory alive,” agreed McGuirk.