Tour highlights MDA grant program

HAYFIELD — The state ag department's Agricultural Growth, Research and Innovation Program grant projects were on display as Charlie Poster, MDA assistant commissioner, toured grantee farms and businesses across southeastern Minnesota.

Emerald Spring Dairy's Darrin Young talks with Minnesota Department of Agriculture Assistant Commissioner Charlie Poster during a July 7 tour of the Plainview farm. Poster toured Emerald Spring and several other agriculture operations showcasing AGRI grants at work.

HAYFIELD — The state ag department's Agricultural Growth, Research and Innovation Program grant projects were on display as Charlie Poster, MDA assistant commissioner, toured grantee farms and businesses across southeastern Minnesota.

The Legislature established the AGRI fund to advance the state's agricultural and renewable energy industries. The fund contains different focuses, including the Farm to School Grant Program and the County Fair Arts Access & Cultural Heritage Grant Program.

Poster checked out five AGRI livestock investment grant and value-added grant recipients.

Eugene Leckness buys 200- to 400-pound beef cattle and finishes them on his Hayfield farm. He had not one but two cattle sheds in the works when he heard about the AGRI Livestock Investment Grant Program. The May 2, 2013, snowstorm had taken down an existing cattle shed, so he worked quickly to get a new one up to house his livestock.

Leckness also had planned to expand his operation and had been studying barn designs, including touring facilities across Minnesota and Iowa. One day, he was driving his daughter back to South Dakota State University in Brookings when she spied an unusual building on the horizon.


He immediately dismissed it as a dairy structure, but she insisted on checking it out, so they did. What they found was a monoslope barn that housed beef. After doing additional research on the open-face design, Leckness was sold and said he wished he could have known of the design before his first new barn was erected.

"I believe in trying different things," Leckness said.

The additional building has allowed Leckness to expand from 300 to 700 head, with the eventual goal of housing 900 beef so he can sell a semitrailer-full of finished animals at one time. While he's unsure if any of his children will come home to farm, the capacity the barns have added will allow the operation to support the move if it comes to pass.

Supporting operational growth is the main goal of livestock investment grants, but more often than not, they come with additional benefits, Poster said.

"It's more customers for crop farmers," Poster said. "A lot of grantees are those expanding to bring a son or daughter home. The projects also often have environmental benefits."

In Leckness's case, the monoslope approach keeps cattle and manure under cover, allows for open ventilation and even allows the low sun to warm cattle during winter. His cattle are also happier with the new set up, with more shade and few flies. He doesn't have any manure run-off, as it now is self-contained with bedded packs.

"I do not mind coming over here and working," Leckness said. "The cows are always content. Their rate of gain is pretty good; they're comfortable."

Leckness was one of more than 100 producers across the state who took part in the $2 million available for livestock investment grants for 2014. Another round of grants will be open for application in the fall. Qualifying producers are reimbursed 10 percent of their first $500,000 of investment, with a minimum investment of $4,000. The livestock investment grants are a way to encourage producers to reinvest in their industry, MDA Commissioner Dave Frederickson said in a statement announcing the grant distribution.


The Value Added Grant Program is aimed at processors.

Cody Koebke hadn't heard of the program before an application came to him in the mail, but he is thankful he learned about it. The Ody's Country Meats and Catering owner already had bids out for a couple upgrades to his Spring Valley business, so the application couldn't have come at a better time.

The AGRI funds helped Koebke purchase an expanded cooler for his processing area and new retail freezers. He used local contractors to install the new equipment, which already has helped his business grow. The cooler has increased energy efficiency and food safety for his processing business.

With expanded visibility for his retail products, sales have noticeably increased since the freezers were installed in the spring. These and other recent changes, including adding an in-house smoker, have allowed Koebke to add three employees.

Ody's Country Meats and Catering processes beef, pork and some lamb for its own business, as well as does custom butchering. It draws business from Iowa to Rochester.

Koebke was one of 56 businesses to receive a 2014 value-added grant. The goal of the Value Added Grant Program is to spur producers and processors to add value to their operations and encourage entrepreneurs to explore new opportunities. Another round of value-added grant applications is expected to open up in the fall.

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