A good many years ago the Dane County farm family - dad, mother, two sons, a daughter - milked cows in a barn typical of the times: stanchions, straw bedding, a hay mow and concrete silo.
In addition, they raised several hundred chickens from which the mother sold eggs to regular customers in the nearby city, one of which was a doctor who kept track of the eggs and the farm family medical bills.
Over the years it seemed that the eggs bought and medical services given came out about even unless the farm family had need of a serious operation such as the father's cancer occurrence. The family was very willing to pay extra for that - it was a success and the father lived another 40-plus years.
The family's claims to fame were limited.
The father was well-known statewide for his purebred Spotted Poland China hogs which showed well at the county fair and were in demand as breeding stock.
The second son - an outstanding high school basketball player - won a college scholarship, gained a business degree and achieved much success in the financial world.
The daughter also went to college, became a teacher, married a minister and retired in Minnesota.
The oldest son, while growing up, talked with his father about maybe expanding the dairy farm - there were several neighboring farms that could be bought - but the conversation never got too serious due to the father's memories of The Great Depression and the huge farm debt he and his brother had to overcome after the early death of their dad.
The result? The son went on to college and spent his life in the world of agriculture. Eventually the cows went when parents wanted to get away from daily chores and spend the winter in Arizona.
Another family dairy farm went out of business.
That scenario has been repeated thousands of times since in Wisconsin and continues today as the latest figures show just 11,324 dairy herds in the state. This is 116 less than Aug. 1 and 592 less than a year ago.
"Isn't that a terrible shame," some will comment. "It's those big farms driving the little guys out."
"It's the horrible milk price," others will say. "The little farmer can't make it today."
"Young people just don't want to work hard anymore," the farm couple who proudly acclaim that they "didn't take a vacation or miss a milking for 22 years," say.
No, in most every case of a dairy farm leaving milking, it's a decision based on the family situation. Often there is no next generation or the next generation has gone on to do other things rather that milk cows.
Those family farms that milk cows today are often made up of two (or more) generations who milk more cows, farm more land, use debt to progress and are a much bigger business than those dad or grandpa ran.
Christian Hill Dairy, just south of Lomira in Dodge County, is a true family farm which 50 years ago might be made up of five family farms or maybe none.
In 1917, Alvin Christian bought a small farm located on part of the current farm. In 1952, his son Harley took over and, in 1975, his son Dale and his wife Mary entered into a 50-50 milk check sharing arrangement and, in 1989, they purchased the dairy and its 60 cows.
The Christian family grew to four boys - Patrick, twins Christopher and Curtis, and Bobby - and, as will happen, they each had their own thoughts about the future.
Patrick (33) was intent on becoming a teacher and went on to graduate from Martin Luther College in New Ulm, MN.
Christopher and Curtis (30) where star athletes in high school and, dairy farmers to the core, they began buying heifer calves early on and loved farming.
Bobby, the youngest of the foursome, also had dairy farming on his mind.
Christopher was the first to want to get more involved in the family farm, his mother says.
"I spent a short time at UW-Platteville," Curtis remembers. "But, that wasn't my thing,"
The twins pursued their dairy dreams by starting a herd on a neighboring farm and milked about 80 cows while still working on the home farm where their parents were milking the same number in the 1952 stanchion barn.
In 2003, milking on two locations prompted (after considerable thought) the decision to construct a 120-cow free stall barn near the old stanchion barn.
"We were switching 170 cows between the free stall and old stanchion barn," Curtis said. "Meanwhile, our herd kept growing, to 300 cows," Mary says with a laugh. "That was a lot of cows in that small freestall."
In 2005, Patrick rejoined the family dairy farm.
"I guess I had dairy in my blood," he says.
Youngest son Bobby, who bought his first heifer when in the sixth grade, was still in high school, but with his eye on joining the operation down the road.
In 2006, Christian Hill Dairy LLC was formed with Dale, Mary and sons Patrick, Christopher and Curtis as members. Bobby joined in 2007 after his high school graduation.
"We didn't want to hold our kids back," Dale and Mary say. "They were always with us in working on the farm and they wanted to stay. "
"The LLC means that we are all together in terms of the financial success or failure and progress of our dairy," Dale explains. "Our children had involvement and responsibilities from an early age. "
A freestall holding 420 cows was built (on the hill above the farmstead) in 2005, along with a double-14 BouMatic parlor. Additional freestall barns were added in 2007 and 2009, bringing the herd to the current 1,300 milking cows.
A 420-cow addition to the 2007 barn is now being built by Bayland Buildings of Green Bay, and the parlor is being expanded to a double-24 by Gehring Sales & Service at Rubicon.
The manure handling system involves two 250-foot-long sand settling lanes, a primary solids settling lagoon and a lagoon from where water is recycled back to the barns to aid manure flow to the lagoons.
"It's a gravity flow system that we pretty much designed," Dale explains.
Family members have individual responsibilities. Dale works with crops and machinery and Mary is the calf manager and accountant. Christopher is herd manager. Patrick manages the milking parlor and employees. Curtis is the feed buyer and feed manager, and Bobby is the machinery manager.
The family has regular meetings, not in a conference room but in a ring of patio chairs in the farm shop, when they discuss farm management issues relating to the dairy herd and the 2,000 acres of owned and rented cropland that they farm.
"One of the advantages of a family LLC is that each member can get time off for vacations and fun," Dale says. "Our goals do not include 'never missing a milking,' as some dairy farmers brag about."
For sure, Christian Hill Dairy is not the dairy (many now long gone) that many of us grew up with, and it is built for the future - the future of the family and its farm.
John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or email him at email@example.com.