Every employee at Exel’s Holsteins and Jerseys in Lodi, California, understands the importance of following the farm’s golden rule: Take care of the animals and land, and they’ll take care of you.
Hank Van Exel, lifelong dairyman and owner of the third-generation farm, believes that if you grow high-quality crops for feed, then you’ll raise healthy, productive cows that in turn produce nutritious, high-quality milk. It’s a smart strategy for the dairy business. “If we do all of that, it gives us an edge over all the people who have to buy large amounts of feed,” says Van Exel, who was awarded his industry’s highest honor in 2015 — the World Dairy Expo Dairyman of the Year award.
To grow enough feed for their herd of 3,000 Jersey and Holstein cows, the family owns 1,000 acres of cropland and farms an additional 1,300 acres. They grow corn, alfalfa, wheat, triticale and ryegrass. In the temperate California climate, the Van Exels can harvest two crops of wheat each year, doubling their production. In addition to feed crops, the family also raises 80 acres of grapes for the thriving California wine industry. This year, they’re hoping to expand their grape crop to 130 acres.
With several dairy farm locations, Van Exel has a team of 40 people, including his children and their spouses, to help with the work. Hank’s son, Adam, and two daughters are the third generation to work on the farm, which was started by his father and mother — Adam and Pietje — after World War II. His parents emigrated to the United States from Holland in 1951 and started the dairy in 1954 with just 30 cows.
“My parents milked the cows by hand. They did everything, all the work, by themselves. I think they were one of the greatest generations ever,” Van Exel says. “They could accomplish a lot just by working really hard.”
Smart Equipment Saves Time
In modern times, hard work is still the family ethic, but it is complemented with new technology and smart equipment that allow them to get more done in less time and with fewer resources. Cows are milked by sophisticated automatic milking machines three times a day.
As longtime Bobcat® compact equipment users, the Van Exels rely on the versatility of three Bobcat S750 skid-steer loaders to help save time and effort on their farms. One S750 is used in the calf-feeding program, another is used to move calf pens, and the third is used to clean out the pens and then scoop new sand and dirt into them.
“We also use them to rake all of our beds — where the cows sleep,” he says. “We rake the beds twice a week, and that’s the Bobcat loader’s job.”
Van Exel also uses a Toolcat™ utility work machine on the farm to feed the calves. Workers fill the Toolcat cargo box with grain and then one worker scoops it out while another slowly drives it down the line of pens so each calf is fed efficiently and quickly.
“The Bobcat machines help us save time every day on the farm, and they can get into a lot of places where other equipment can’t,” Van Exel says.
Worldwide Dairy Judge
He uses that extra time to pursue his favorite hobby — judging dairy cattle competitions all over the world. Van Exel has traveled “everywhere there are cows,” including France, England, Scotland, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Argentina, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Canada and Australia.
“It’s my hobby. The genetics part is my passion. I really enjoy doing that,” he says. “And it’s important for me, because I get to see different ideas and different ways of doing things.”
Internationally known for his keen eye for cattle, Van Exel got his start like most farm kids — showing cows in 4-H. He was asked to judge some county fairs and caught the bug. While the cows are what hooked him, it’s the friends Van Exel’s made through his travels that mean the most to him.
“I’m not sure how much fun just being a dairyman all the time would be, but it’s sure a lot of fun with all the people you get to meet along the way,” he says. “I know a lot of people all over the world through the dairy cows. It’s been a great honor, to be quite honest, to have the opportunity to do that.”