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It seems to  be the era of bad news for the dairy industry The seemingly never ending formal NAFTA discussions are a daily subject of discussion by politicians and dairy groups and around the kitchen and small town coffee tables across the land. 

Is China going to sign new contracts for more agricultural products? Stories of dairy farms receiving milk termination notices from their processors leads to the question; are we next? Milk prices received by farmers are lower than the cost of production. Milk from other states moving into Wisconsin by a never ending line of tankers for processing. Dairy herds being dispersed across the state and nation as farmers leave dairying.

Add in the quandary of illegal immigrants employed on most every farm over 100 cows and one wonders about the future of dairying in this, the one and only “dairy state.” Who will milk the cows, is the unanswered question? 

Angel and Chris

Yet, not is all doom and gloom across dairyland. Several weeks ago, at the annual Dairy Strong Conference hosted by the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association, I by chance met Angel Hebbe, a young dairy farmer from Cambridge, who related how she and her husband Chris were building a dairy herd. And, how I should come down and visit them one day.

Several weeks later, I called to make arrangements for a visit and got no answer from her cell phone. I later found out that when I called Angel was busy having a baby - a girl they named Anneliese.

Last week I did get to spend some time with the young dairy family and found out how they made their way from working in a paper mill at Appleton to now milking 55 cows and growing. 

Fifth generation

Chris told how the farm dates to 1901 when his great, great grandparents, Herman and Anna bought the farm.

“Actually the ownership skipped a generation,” Chris says. “My parents never lived on this farm and I was raised on a small farm near Ft. Atkinson.”

When the couple first met, Chris was working at a rubber factory in DeForest and milking cows. Angel was managing a pizza place at West Town mall in Madison.  

“Would you believe, we met at a bar,” Angel says with a laugh. “You hear about these things, but we really did.”

Five acres, five hutches

After a brief sojourn working in Appleton, Chris in construction, Angel managing another pizza outlet, the couple came back to southern Wisconsin and bought five acres near Kaiser (east of DeForest).  

“We started with five acres and five calf hutches near DeForest, in 2007, with the idea of raising dairy steers,” she began. “By 2013 they were up to 120 steers and custom raising heifers and buying feed from Blue Star dairy that owned the adjacent land.

“We were both working at Blue Star (from 2006 to 2013) at the time,” she says.

At Blue Star

Both Angel and Chris worked at Blue Star Dairy over the years, as did Angel’s mother, Nancy, who milked cows and raised calves there before and after marrying Walter Meinholz in 1991.

“My mother milked at 3 a.m. and we girls (four of us, ages 11, 10, 8 and 6) ) often slept in the car or break room at the dairy,” Angel remembers.  (Nancy Meinholz died last January, Walter several years ago.) 

Their own farm

In 2013, Chris and Angel moved to their current farm that was owned by Roger Lehmann, Chris’ grandfather. "We started by raising custom heifers," Chris explains.

Lehman was a well known Berkshire hog raiser and also raised steers and heifers and the dairy barn had been stripped of equipment after milking had stopped in 1993. 

“We put in stanchions, pipeline and all the milking equipment,” Chris says. “The equipment came from another old barn and I did most of the work myself.

“We bought 13 cows and started milking,” he continues. “Then went to 30, 45 and now 55 cows and by September we plan to be milking 90 cows. We have some replacement heifers that will go into the herd and will have to buy additional animals,” he says. “Cows are relatively low price these days.”

A freestall

The cows are housed in a freestall barn just outside the barn, Chris explains.  

“We only milk in the barn, in fact, it does not have water piped in. It has 40 stanchions, so we are switching cows each milking - our plan is to milk 90 cows thus making two barns full at each milking: milk one barnfull, turn them out and bring another in. (This may sound strange to many dairy folks, but the California flat barn system is similar and has been used for decades.) 

Milking at 5:30 a.m.

Anna Evenson, a high school girl from nearby Cambridge helps with the milking: she’s always here by 5:30 a.m. and then goes to school, Chris says. She also works at her mother’s dress shop in town and in the summer works at the Madison International Speedway in the town of Rutland. (Two miles from the former Oncken farm.)

The Hebbes purchased the 236 acre farm in 2015 and now farm a total of 900 acres. Grand dad Roger makes a tour of the farm almost every day.

One of the challenges this couple faces is that Red Cedar Lake is located just south of the farmstead, not a quarter of a mile away, with a field between the buildings and lake.

“We’ve worked with the NRCS and constructed contours, terraces and a grass filtration system to keep the lake clean,” Chris says. “Yes, we do a lot of no-till but we have plenty of land away from the lake for our manure, only clean water gets into our lake."

The Hebbes have added two calf barns since they began farming and admit they don’t buy new equipment, still pick corn with a New Idea picker and have a corn crib for storage.  “We don’t even have a barn cleaner, I use the ‘armstrong” method of handling manure.”

Eggs for sale

While we were talking at the kitchen table, I heard and saw someone on the front porch. “Oh, he’s just getting eggs, “ Angel explained. “The Lehmans were well-known for their chickens and selling eggs. We still have a hundred hens and people come and pick up their eggs — it’s on the honor system.”  

“But, not for long,” Chris added. “Chickens take a lot of work and we’re going to put our efforts toward our cows, cow comfort and raising good feed.” 

Does no good

“What about the doom, gloom and low prices in the dairy market,” I asked.

“There is not much we can do about that, and complaining doesn’t do any good,” Chris says. “Hopefully the cycle will change as it has in the past.”

Good luck to the Hebbes and thanks for the enjoyable and optimistic visit.

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.

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