Milking time is family time at Hochstein Dairy near Wynot, Neb.
Neal and Sharlee Hochstein and their four daughters — Shelby, Sonya, Whitney and Joslyn — say that time spent doing chores and milking cows is a time of togetherness, fun and working toward a common goal. That goal is to take good care of their milk cow herd and produce a high-quality product for consumers. And it shows.
Hochstein Dairy was among the top three herds in the 2020 Nebraska State Dairy Association production and Dairy Herd Improvement Association herd average awards, based on pounds of milk and pounds of protein.
Nebraska Farmer visited Hochstein Dairy recently and talked with the family about what it takes to run a dairy.
“There have always been cows on this place,” Neal Hochstein says. “My great-grandfather bought the land in 1894, and back then they milked everything by hand.” Neal’s father, Don, installed the first milk bulk tank in 1962 when they milked 15 to 20 cows in stanchions. In 1980, they installed a three-side-opening milking parlor.
They milked between 45 and 60 cows with that setup for 26 years before building a new, single 12-parallel milking parlor in 2006. Up until that time, the family also raised hogs. But they made the decision to make the milk cows a priority.
A new freestall barn, with sand-bedded stalls, went up in 2007, and the herd increased to between 120 and 140 cows. That size is perfect for their family and their facilities, Neal says. They have one part-time milker who works three nights a week, but the family takes care of the day-to-day operation.
“Our kids all grew up around the cows,” Neal says. Sharlee is a guidance counselor at nearby Wynot High School. While she was working on her master’s degree at Wayne State College, the girls spent plenty of time around the milking parlor growing up, driving tricycles in the barn and coloring at a makeshift table set up for them.
The girls each have grown into a specialty role within the operation. They all can do every job, but they have specific roles they are most comfortable in.
Shelby likes to run the farm equipment, so she helps in the field and runs the skid loader more often. Sonya, who is the family and consumer sciences teacher at Wynot High School, and Whitney, who is a freshman at Wayne State College and serves as a Nebraska Dairy Ambassador, prefer milking, especially when Neal and Shelby are busy in the fields.
Joslyn, who is an eighth grader, helps her dad with milking and feeding baby calves. While working full time off the farm, Sharlee kicks in — not only in feeding her crew, but also feeding baby calves too.
The Hochstein daughters always have been busy with school, athletics and other activities. “School. Practice. Chores. Homework,” Shelby says. “That was the order we did things.
“But we wouldn’t trade this life for anything,” she says. “You learn how to work hard. You learn to be responsible, how to be patient and how to show up on time, because the cows don’t wait.”
Shelby recently married Connor Wuebben, and the couple lives nearby in Bow Valley. Shelby met her future husband when he helped the family as a part-time milker while still in high school.
Dairy farms in general have experienced plenty of financial challenges in recent years. “My dad always used to say, thinking about finances, that it isn’t how much money you make that matters. It is how much you spend,” Neal says. “We always have goals and things we want to improve on, but sometimes you have to wait until you can afford those improvements, and if you make an improvement, you have to look at the bottom line.”
One of those worthwhile improvements is the addition of an electronic heat detection system. “We haven’t had a bull in 15 years,” Neal says. “We are 100% artificial insemination, and part of the decision to go that way was for the safety of the kids helping out, because we don’t have to deal with a bull.”
The electronic heat detection is crucial to their AI program, so Neal believes it is like having a 24-hour-a-day hired man on duty.
For the Hochsteins, crops are grown to feed the cow herd. They plant about 200 acres of corn, chopping 75 acres every year for silage. They pick some corn in the ear with a two-row New Idea corn picker and store it in three corn cribs to grind for feed for the baby calves. Along with alfalfa for hay, they plant oats and chop it early for silage, and then double-crop with forage sorghum.
In the past, the family has always fed out their Holstein steer calves, but they are now using sexed semen and Angus semen in the AI program.
Their milk is transported to the Associated Milk Producers Inc. processing plant in Freeman, S.D.
Changes to the industry
Neal serves on the board of directors for the Nebraska Division of Midwest Dairy, and is a board member representing Nebraska with the American Dairy Association. In those positions, he has observed shifts in the attitudes of consumers.
“The industry is very consumer-oriented, compared to years ago,” Neal says. “We’ve learned over the years that we need to ask questions of consumers first, to find out what they care about and to understand why they feel the way they feel."
With misinformation about dairies and animal care, Neal notes, “What a lot of folks don’t understand is that if we don’t treat our cows right, they aren’t going to treat us right.”
Whitney, in her position as a dairy advocate with the Nebraska Dairy Ambassadors, notes that dairy farms are highly regulated, and farmers care deeply about their cows and the health of their herds. However, these important facts are often not communicated properly to consumers, and there is plenty of misinformation from folks who haven’t set foot on a dairy farm.
Sonya, who teaches at Wynot, hopes to bring her family and consumer sciences students to the Hochstein Dairy for a field trip.
“We want them to be educated about the truth about agriculture, because they see conflicting things on social media,” she says. “That’s why we discuss dairy products in my classroom, using USDA’s MyPlate to talk about the food groups.”
Living the seasons
Sharlee makes note of the life education that her children have gained from their dairy experiences. “The kids grow up around the seasons," she says. "The seasons of life, the seasons of the crops. They learn about life and death sometimes, which is part of life. They learn about disappointment because the crops might get hailed out.”
She grew up with beef, horses and swine on a farm in Frontier County. After 27 years of marriage, she and Neal and their children have built their own true family dairy operation. They acknowledge the lessons their children have learned by growing up and working on a dairy farm.
Perhaps the best lesson has been an appreciation for their life. “It is part of the farm that they get to see God’s beauty every day,” Sharlee says.
Whitney adds, “Dairying not only teaches you how to work hard, because life isn’t all about work. This is work , but it’s not work, because we get to do it together.”