Growing A Farm For The Next Generation

The Burken family’s farm never stops growing. And that’s a good thing for the next generation.

By Jamie Cole | Photos By Jamie Cole

“As far as expansion goes, we always look at it,” says Mike Burken, the crop manager at Blue Hyll Dairy in Clinton, Iowa. “Crop side or dairy side. We don’t ever block it out.” Mike and his brother, Marty, farm 5,000 acres and milk 1,100 cows.

At least, that’s the count as of now.

“I never don’t look at a farm if it’s available somewhere, and usually try to get it if I can,” says Mike. “So, the expansion mode, I guess, is just in our blood.

“It’s always going to be there.”

The hallway in the front office provides evidence that the “expansion mode” has indeed always been there. Photos from one end of the hall to the other show a procession of years and a progression of constant growth. Mike and Marty are the second generation to work the land at Blue Hyll. Their father, Loran, a mechanic and one of 14 children, moved to Clinton in 1965 and started small. “We had a very small dairy—20 cows—some hogs and fed cattle, and a small grain operation,” says Marty. Both he and brother Mike graduated from Iowa State with ag degrees, and when they returned to the farm, they decided to focus on cash crops and the dairy.

Mike manages the crop side, and Marty heads up the dairy operation. While Mike keeps his eyes open for new ground, Marty keeps the dairy expanding, too. “We built a 500-cow dairy in 2000, and gradually increased that to the current 1,300 cows today,” says Marty.

“And we just gradually expand every year,” says Mike. “The crop side of it, as acres come up … we kind of grab it and just keep expanding to help supply feed.”

Mike says about 40% of the farm’s crops are for feed, while the rest are cash crops sold to local markets. The farm is close to Mississippi River terminals and an ADM elevator in Clinton is only seven miles away. “We plant about 200 acres of triticale, which is used for cow feed also,” says Mike. “And then that comes off, and soybeans get replanted into that.” Alfalfa goes in right after corn, silage is chopped in August and September, and then grain harvest for the cash crops.

A farm in growth mode faces some unique challenges, especially in a prime farming area where land is at a premium and labor is scarce. “In this area, we have a lot of rolling hills and smaller fields,” says Mike. “I look for the bigger parcels, (but) there’s a premium for that kind of ground.”

But growth in this farm business environment is not without its challenges. “We’re in a place where feed prices are doubled, fuel is doubled, everything’s doubled… and we’re on thin margins again,” says Marty.

“We have invested in newer equipment that will hopefully get us a better crop, save on fuel costs, save on maintenance costs… trying to do fewer trips across the field,” says Mike.

The centerpiece of the new equipment investment is a Fendt 1050. “I absolutely love that tractor,” says Mike. The Burkens traded in a New Holland 4-wheel drive tractor for the Fendt, and the “variable transmission is so much smoother and so much nicer. Fuel efficiency on the Fendt is a lot better,” he adds. (See more about their Fendt equipment here.)

The plan is to grow more efficiently even as acres expand, says Marty, and be able to sell off more crop. “If we can use less acres to feed the dairy and have more cash crop, it’ll be a great thing,” he says.

While growth is a priority, Marty says that’s not Blue Hyll’s only measure for success. “One of the things I use to gauge what we’re doing here is my employees’ attitudes,” he says. While he acknowledges that it’s a challenge to attract and keep employees at Blue Hyll and in the ag industry in general, he works to keep this gauge of success measuring off the charts. “Are they happy? Are they smiling? Are they buying into the system? If I see people not happy, then I start getting concerned. So that’s my biggest gauge right there on a daily basis.” He also is careful to mention that Blue Hyll is not just a two-man operation. “We wouldn’t be able to do any of this without our employees,” Mike says.

Land and labor remain common challenges in the farming industry, but the Burkens do have one challenge all their own—the name of the farm. “Everybody we talk to, we have to spell the name… b-l-u-e, h-Y-l-l,” laughs Mike. Why the “Y”? When Loran wanted to register cattle in the early years of the farm, he wanted to name his herd prefix for the blue silos on one of the farm’s hills. “He wanted ‘Blue Hill,’ but it was taken,” says Marty. “So he went with”—Marty throws up his arms and laughs—“Blue Hyll.”

The unique name will live on, says Marty, as his three daughters have all been involved in the business throughout their high school years. Daughter Hillary was named 2022’s Iowa Dairy Princess, and will serve as a goodwill ambassador for Iowa’s dairy industry. As all three daughters move into college, “the knowledge that we’re bringing that generation in, and how they light up when they talk about Blue Hyll, they know they’re part of feeding the world,” says Marty. “And that’s very important to me.”

Until it’s time to pass the reins, Mike and Marty will keep going and growing. “It’s nice working with him every day,” says Mike. “Him taking care of the dairy, me taking care of the crop side, it’s always been a good mesh.”