Over a Century of Tradition with Fick’s Swiss
copyright 2017 Photos and Written by Alec Schoof, published on BlodgettCommunication.com
It was milking time when I arrived at Galen & Sandy Fick’s farm. Galen was tying up the cows in the 56-cow tie stall barn, after having them outside briefly that afternoon. A typical dairyman, Galen instantly apologized that some of the cows were a little dirty after several hours outside on a dreary day, but they weren’t. Galen’s hired man, Brennan arrived at the same time I did. According to Galen, Brennan works 2 1/2 hours in the morning and 2 1/2 hours in the afternoon seven days a week with every other weekend off. Galen emphasized how important Brennan is to his dairy, labeling him as his main man and stating how lucky he is to have him.
Stepping into the house, one is immediately aware of Galen’s interest, Brown Swiss dairy cows. The entrance boasts a Bonnie Mohr Brown Swiss print and a set of cow bells from Switzerland, birth place of the Brown Swiss cow. Before taking a seat at the kitchen table, Galen eagerly detours me to the curio cabinet in the living room containing Brown Swiss model cows, and other collections including Brown Swiss memorabilia from his parents. Galen indicated that one of the model cows was purchased in an antique store, later adding with a chuckle that he is “always looking for brown cow things.”
Fick’s Swiss from Boyden, Iowa represents over a century of Brown Swiss on a family farm. My first question was just how long is over a century. Galen responded with the story of his dairy’s history. He said that his great-grandfather August Bahlke started the family’s registered Brown Swiss legacy in 1903; as well as purchasing the farm that Galen lives on the same year. August Bahlke had seven daughters so each daughter was given a Brown Swiss cow when they got married. In 1916, August’s daughter Marie married John Fick, Galen’s paternal grandparents, thus the Brown Swiss heritage continued. In 1946, Galen’s parents, Alfred and Elsie Fick were married and took over the farm and the Brown Swiss herd following John Fick’s dispersal in October. They built the 56-cow tie stall barn in 1965. Galen commented that they always milked a barn full except when his parents had their dispersal in 1987. This is when Galen took over with several head purchased from his parent's sale plus fifteen animals that he already owned.
Showing is also important in the tradition of Fick’s Brown Swiss. Galen explained that John Fick traveled to shows in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids by train. Later Galen showed me an actual show catalog from a show that his grandpa attended in Cedar Rapids in 1938. There was a small lapse in some of the larger shows after Alfred built the tie barn in 1965. However, showing resumed starting in 1972. In 1977, Galen traveled extensively exhibiting at 7-9 fairs, such as Iowa State Fair, Minnesota State Fair, and South Dakota State Fair. Another ritual, that started that year was World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wisconsin where he showed consecutively until 2004. Initially, he traveled with another Brown Swiss breeder from Northwest Iowa. Together they took care of a string that at one time included the Grand Champion Brown Swiss from Lee Barber. All totaled, Galen worked with four champion cows at Expo. Galen recalls being stalled next to and mentored by Bridge View from California. He also credits World Dairy Expo with allowing him to meet a lot of influential people in the dairy industry.
World Dairy Expo holds a lot of memories for Galen. 1980 was a special year at Expo for Brown Swiss exhibitor’s. It marked 100 years of Brown Swiss in the United States, so it was incorporated into Expo as the World Conference was held there that year. But even more memorable was the placings of his dad’s animals – a 4th, 6th with 2nd best udder, and a 4th place Best 3 Females – making it a pretty big year. The 4th place cow was Grand Champion at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines that year also. Another great time at Madison was having Reserve Champion Bull one year. Galen additionally stated, “I always enjoyed showing bulls. I was one of the last old holdouts. I always had a bull along in the string.”
Classification is an essential element in his herd. Galen is very big on type stating that you need a “sound good looking cow to make milk.” John Fick classified already, making them a really old classified herd. So, it is not quite continuous from his grandpa’s herd, because of his dad having less money available after building the new barn. Despite those lapsed years, Galen still boasts about 45 years of continuous classification.
Another area of both longevity and continuity is being a State sale consignee. For forty continuous years, Fick’s Swiss has had a consignment at their Iowa State Sale. Originally Galen remembers his dad going to Waterloo for the state sale, where he purchased some animals. Until this year the sale has been held in West Union. This year Cresco, Iowa was the host site. Merchandising plays a very important role in the registered Brown Swiss business. Not only does it add additional income, but Galen also takes satisfaction in being able to merchandise quality cattle that can help another dairy improve their herd. A couple of years ago, he sold a group containing fifteen head. He mentions that years ago he sold bulls too, but just like showing bulls, selling bulls also came to an end.
I asked Galen what his fondest Brown Swiss memory was. He pondered briefly before listing a few events that he viewed as important. One was his dad’s dispersal sale in 1987. Another noteworthy happening was the 1980 World Dairy Expo, along with having Reserve Champion Bull one year. Receiving the Bob Massy Award at the at the Iowa State Fair was a tremendous honor for Galen. As he struggles to choose a favorite, it’s obvious that Galen feels fortunate that he works everyday doing something that he loves and is grateful for this captivating lifestyle.
Galen emphasizes just how important his family farm lifestyle is. He stated, “I enjoy the family farm and small dairy life myself because I get to work with cattle. Working with cattle every day, managing cows more than people.” In addition to having the opportunity to work with the cattle, Galen and Sandy explain that they’ve met a lot of people through the years. Family is the term that they use to describe both the Brown Swiss people and the show/fair colleagues. And they conclude that longevity is a difference between a family farm and a commercial dairy. They also tribute the longevity of their farm as well as their involvement in the industry to all the relationships that have emerged.
Galen is active on board’s in the dairy industry similar to his father Alfred. Both served on the AMPI Board as well as the Sioux County DHIA Board. About ten years ago, Galen served a three-year term on the National Type Committee. Currently Galen and Sandy are Co-chairman’s for the National Brown Swiss Convention scheduled for Iowa in 2018.
After explaining his family’s history, Galen indicated that he had numerous items upstairs that he wanted to show me. The room was like his own personal Brown Swiss archives. The first item that he showed me was a collection of bound books that list every Brown Swiss animal ever registered starting with #1. Immediately stipulating that this is really cool, he revealed a smaller paper publication that was barely readable. He called it the originator of the bound books, noting that they were sent out every year and were compiled into a bound book when there were enough. Another collection that he termed as interesting was the Brown Swiss Bulletin as he produced a copy of the very first Bulletin ever sent out, adding that he has most of them, just not all. Also among the items were the sale bills from both his grandfather’s dispersal and his father’s dispersal. In addition, he had Alfred’s sale catalog with 101 pedigrees of his registered Brown Swiss herd.
The room contained numerous photos, awards, and certificates. One of the certificates which was from September 2003 was for Fick Lola Lottie ET.
She was 1st on the list of 12 years and older cows for fat on 305 and 365-day record for the whole breed. Galen believes that Lottie still holds this record proving that not only does his heritage possess longevity, but his animals do also. Another significant detail of the Fick’s heritage is that even though they are not the oldest registered Brown Swiss herd in Iowa, Galen surmises that they are presently the 2nd oldest Brown Swiss herd in the United States.
The room is a true accolade to the Brown Swiss cow. Enthusiasm for his heritage and pride for his brown cow permeated their home. It is evident that Galen and Sandy represent the family tradition with gratitude and respect for their ancestors. My own respect for the small family dairy was strengthened as I listened to Galen speak of an honest living that he’s devoted to.