Short tales from dairyland

John Oncken

Over the near three decades this column has appeared, the subject has most often centered on a farm family, an ag meeting or a specific event. But along the roads of my travels, observing and writing, I’ve seen (and photographed) things that didn’t quite fit into a big enough story to make a column, and they’ve sat in my computer photo library and in my mind, waiting to be used.

Now is a good time to go back, take a look and bring them up front and offer them for your "look see."

White barn – the buildings still stand, but the land will soon house a shopping center.

Farms side by side

When my family and I moved from De Pere to Sun Prairie when I joined the American Breeders Service as the dairy advertising manager, we built a house north of the city in dairy country. I well remember that Highway 151, then a two-lane thoroughfare, was lined with dairy farms on both sides, from Sun Prairie to Madison, and there were even a couple of dairy farms just outside the city limits.

Red barn, one of but two barns remaining on Highway 151 from Sun Prairie to Madison. It still houses a few heifers, but part of it has been developed.

No cows now

Over the years Sun Prairie grew (and grows) from about 15,000 to the current 35,000 people. Highway 151 became four lanes, and today, there is not one cow being milked between the city and Madison. Just two dairy barns still stand and both have relatively short term futures. One on the west side on Frontage Road is doomed to shortly become the site of a shopping center, while the other (the McCoy farm) across the highway is in the city limits and has over the years gradually lost acreage via development.

Neither dairy was forced out of business – far from it – both were the victim of development, which always pays more than does milking cows. Fortunately, the Statz Bros. 4,000-cow dairy is just a couple miles east of Sun Prairie, so there's still cows to be seen fairly nearby.

Albers Dairy at Chino, California in its good days – now gone, as are most dairies in that area that once had 350 big dairies.

First California dairy trip

Many years ago, while working as the dairy advertising manager at ABS, I made my first trip to California to 800-cow Albers Dairy at Chino, then the heart of the most concentrated dairy world anywhere. Needless to say, I was in awe at seeing so many cows in one place and how owner Ray Albers was using every bit of dairy technology available. I visited Albers Dairy many times, including about five years ago when I walked into the beautiful farm ranch house and watched a wrecking crew destroy the kitchen where I had enjoyed drinking coffee with the Albers family over the years.

Actually, a couple of the Albers sons had established a new dairy herd in New Mexico some years prior, and another son, David, was a lawyer in Bakersfield in the Central Valley. He had a large dairy herd, 3,000-cow Vintage Dairy at Riverdale, with even bigger (and nationally publicized) plans to sell methane gas from a manure digester, BioEnergy Solutions, to the electric utility and a plan to build a big cheese factory, Blue Ribbon Cheese, on the dairy.

It never worked

The plans never worked out and he declared bankruptcy some years ago.  Of course the former Albers Dairy, formerly located at the far end of the Chino airport, is long gone, and I’d heard the New Mexico dairy  did not survive. So sad!

Mike Hellenbrand, right, and his wife Linda, left, of City Slickers farm at Cross Plains. Mike, who recently died at age 67, rose to the top of the purebred dairy breeding world in 17 years after a career on Wall Street.

Too early

Michael Herbert "Mike" Hellenbrand, age 67, of Cross Plains, passed away on July 1, 2020, after a long illness. He grew up in Cross Plains, spending time on his grandparents’ dairy farm. After graduating from University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Mike began a career in the banking business, which led him to Boston, then New York City, where for the next 10 years he led the mortgage securitization group at Bear Stearns, a major Wall Street investment firm.

Back home

In 2003, Mike and his wife Linda decided to move back to Cross Plains. Mike thus left the "rat race" of Wall Street for the "cattle race" and a budding new dairy cattle technology called embryo transfer. Their farm, called "City Slickers" with a prefix of "Hillpoint" on the cattle registration papers, became widely known throughout the industry in a remarkably few short years. Mike bred many top dairy calves that went on to be show and genetic winners in the US and internationally. Mike spent but 17 years breeding registered cattle, but he did it well. 

Once (and maybe still) considered the world’s biggest wooden building, the former blimp hangar at Tustin, California stands on the long-closed Marine air base.

So big

During my many annual trips California for the World Ag Expo, I stayed with daughter  Lynne in Fresno for the event, then traveled to Costa Mesa and stayed with my daughter Laurel about 40 miles west of the Chino dairy area where I visited dairy herds.

Early on, I noticed the two huge buildings not far from the multi-lane highway on the road to Chino, but Laurel didn’t know what they were, so we drove in to see. They seemed abandoned, so we took a close look and were awestruck by the size of these wooden buildings.

I revisited the old blimp hangar several years ago and came upon a community veterans gathering in the 1,076 foot long hanger.

Later, I found out they were built as blimp hangars in the early 1940s for a fleet of blimps watching for Japanese submarines (they never saw any). Later, they were used for helicopter training, but for decades have been unused and pretty much abandoned, and along with the surrounding marine air base at Tustin, sort of forgotten.

The round-roofed buildings, over 1,000 feet long, 300 feet wide and 160 feet high, are slowly falling apart, but no one knows what to do with these historic treasures. I’m glad I saw them and my first thought remains - they would sure hold a lot of hay!

Thus ends part one of what might be a series. Maybe?

Tom Morris Amery, left, and Ray Kuehl, right, talk with Doug Maddox, center, at a Wisconsin Holstein Association meeting several years ago. Maddox was the first mega-dairyman in California.
Do dairy cattle think about posing for photos? Ask this heifer, a past Badger Club Sale who held her pose for several minutes while I took several shots.
Bob Gefke, former owner of long-gone Gefke Farms, a registered Holstein dairy which also bottled milk in Oregon. There is not even a sign memorializing this once-famed dairy.
What is a tobacco shed, many readers wonder? This is what one looks like – tobacco is held from the poles.

John F. Oncken is the owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-837-7406 or e-mail him at