Food Service & Agriculture

Conklin feed mill stretches the menu

Sparta Elevator makes feed for real Big Birds, as well as conventional farm critters.

February 28, 2014
| By Pete Daly |
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Conklin emu
Ron Schantz bought Dykstra’s Elevator in Conklin and will continue offering specialty feeds for farmers in the area. Photo by Matt Radick

When Ron and Norma Schantz of Sparta Elevator Co. decided to buy Dykstra’s Elevator in Conklin, it kept alive a longtime landmark in this small northeastern Ottawa County town, more widely known for Fenian’s Irish Pub and its live Irish music.

Keeping the feed mill alive pleased local farmers who have been buying livestock feed there for generations, and it also made life a little easier for people like Carl Kemme of Trader Creek Farm near Allendale. He needs a steady supply of specialty feeds for a variety of exotic fowl — including emus and ostriches.

“I raise 29 breeds of exotic pheasants, 56 breeds of exotic ducks and geese, quail, emu, turkeys, swans, chukars, bobwhites and all that kind of stuff,” said Kemme.

Kemme has raised ostriches and rheas, too, though not currently, but he does sell feed to other West Michigan breeders of ostriches and emus.

An emu is a large, flightless bird native to Australia, which can grow close to 6 feet in height and weigh up to 150 pounds, according to the Michigan Emu Growers Association. It is raised for its low-fat meat, oil used in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, and leather — plus for feathers and egg shells sought by artisans.

This winter the emus at Trader Creek Farm have preferred to stay in their barn. “They’re laying right now,” said Kemme. Normally, emus lay their eggs in the summer months, but Kemme explained, “They still think they’re in Australia.”

He said years ago he developed a special feed for emus with the help of Michigan State University’s agriculture research staff. The Farm Bureau feed mill in Hamilton first supplied his made-to-order feed; then he switched to Dykstra in Conklin, which had been in business for 75 years when Mike Dykstra sold it to Sparta Elevator in Sparta last fall.

Kemme said a commercial feed miller needs to process at least two tons of ingredients when preparing a custom mix in order to do a high-quality job.

“If I bought that feed just for myself, I’d be sitting on two ton of feed, and by the time I got it all used up, that feed would have lost some of its nutritional value. And, of course, you have to keep it from molding and spoiling. So it’s a lot better that other” emu raisers buy feed from him. “It’s a good deal for everybody.”

Schantz, 61, lives near Kent City. A long-time farmer, he has owned Sparta Elevator since 2003. Dykstra’s is his second feed mill.

“I’ve been in the feed business probably 25 or 30 years,” said Schantz, having sold excess feed directly from the dairy farms he has had over the years.

He owned a small dairy farm in Middleville where he grew up, and later a farm near Muir in Ionia County. That one was 600 acres with 150 cows; the Schantz family ran it for more than 20 years while he drove to Sparta each day to manage the feed mill. Now he and his wife own a 300-acre farm near Kent City.

Farming is not an easy way to make a living.

“You have to be pretty handy on a small farm to keep things going,” he said, referring mainly to the maintenance and repair on tractors and other equipment.

“We loved the animals and we loved the people we worked with,” he said, which was why he and his wife went into the feed business when they decided to get rid of their dairy herd.

The feed business has its challenges, too. Corn is a major ingredient in many types of livestock feed, and after the recession ended, the price of certain agricultural commodities — corn and oats, in particular — went up. Corn is “a large cost to us,” said Schantz, but after having gone up in price for two or three years in a row, the price dropped in 2013 “to about half” of what it was in 2012.

Much of the price spike was the result of the federal government’s Renewable Fuel Standard, which required the addition of ethanol to gasoline to make the U.S. less reliant on foreign oil and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Corn production increased dramatically but livestock producers and the processed foods industry had to compete with the ethanol producers for the corn. Lately, however, there have been proposals to decrease the amount of ethanol in gasoline.

So are feed producers like Schantz benefitting from an oversupply of grains?

When U.S. farmers have a financial incentive to grow more of something, they do it, he said, but “the other countries are growing more crops (now).” In other words, U.S. agriculture needs exports to foreign countries, including China, to dispose of annual corn production, and when grain production increases there, it depresses the prices here.

Schantz could not say just how much feed he sells in a year, but his Dykstra grain elevator in Conklin has a storage capacity of 40,000 to 50,000 bushels.

The Dykstra facility has pelletizing machinery that enables Schantz to produce relatively small batches of specialty feeds for a wide variety of animals. In addition to the birds already mentioned, he can produce feed for alpacas and llamas, and recently, he filled a special order for kangaroo feed for an owner in the Lowell area.

“There’s a call for that,” he said, in regard to unusual feed mixes for atypical creatures living in West Michigan.

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