If Andy Buttles had his way, he would have a barn full of cows just like Stone-Front Leader Hilda, his 15-year-old registered Holstein that recently set the lifetime milk record for a Holstein cow.
Hilda, who died in 2020 about two months after setting the national record, produced 460,720 pounds of milk during her lifetime on Buttles’ Grant County, Wis., farm. That broke the record set in 2003 by Koepke K0017229-1660, known as the “Granny” cow. Granny produced 458,616 pounds of milk in her lifetime on the Koepkes’ Oconomowoc, Wis., farm.
Although Hilda set the record in 2020, Holstein Association USA just announced the achievement in April of this year.
“She was never a show-ring cow, but she was just a really good animal — moderate size with a super udder,” Buttles says of Hilda. “She was one of those cows that if you needed a whole barn full of something, she’d be the one you’d pick.
“She was a real trouble-free cow. She was an easy keeper; we never had problems with her. And we had a little luck along the way.”
Hilda was born on the Buttles farm in 2005 to a dam who was a solid milk producer.
“[Hilda’s dam] didn’t have the prettiest udder, so we used an udder bull on her to try to improve the udder,” Buttles says. “Everything fell together just right.”
Hilda was not only a record-breaking producer, but she also scored Excellent during the entirety of her productive lifetime. She was officially classified EX-90 4E.
Her best record was set during her nine-year lactation, when she produced 48,200 pounds of milk with three-times-a-day milking. Hilda was milked three times a day during the last six years of her life.
“She just produced milk every year,” Buttles says. “Some cows make a big record or two, but she could do it every year. When you think that she filled nine tanker loads of milk in her lifetime, it’s just crazy.”
Photos of award-winning cows line the walls leading to the breakroom on the Buttles farm, but there is not a single photo of Hilda to be found.
“There was always a cow that was prettier or who won the show or got more notoriety,” Buttles says. “When she looked really good when she was young, we never knew she was going to be setting this kind of record. We don’t even have a snapshot.”
One of those fancy show cows from the Buttles herd was Stone-Front Iron Pasta, who was scored EX-96 and was named reserve grand champion Holstein at the 2010 World Dairy Expo.
“Everybody who was looking at cows in our herd was looking at Pasta, not the one who was paying the bills in the background,” Buttles says.
Hilda set the production record in February 2020, and about two months later came down with a bad case of mastitis.
“Being that age, although we tried treating her, she didn’t have much left to fight with,” he says. “It was a sad day when she passed. We figured we’d dry her up and have her around, but that didn’t happen.”
Family of farmers
The Buttles family settled in Racine County in the 1840s, before Wisconsin became a state. One of Andy’s ancestors was the first white woman born in Racine County.
Dairying became a family tradition passed along from one Buttles generation to the next — they have been raising registered Holsteins since 1913 — but in 1997, a year after Andy graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he decided to move the operation to Lancaster.
“We had a 40-cow barn that was falling apart, and it just didn’t make any sense to do anything there, so close to an urban area,” Buttles says.
The year of the move to Lancaster was when Buttles bought Hilda’s grandmother.
“We needed some more cattle to fill some of the 200 stalls [on the Lancaster farm],” Buttles says. “Over the last 24 years, we have just gradually grown from there. We tried to do it mostly with slow, internal growth.”
Their most recent addition was a 480-cow freestall barn about five years ago. The farm now includes three freestall barns and a double-16 parlor.
They raise feed for their 1,200-cow herd on about 2,000 acres, half owned and half rented. Buttles employs 22 people on the farm.
“[Having employees] can be the best part and it can be the worst part of farming,” he says. “We have key people who have been with us a long time who make it easy. But trying to find new people is tough right now.
“People have always been the key here — having great people who take good care of cows and who like cows.”
Stone-Front Farm has a rolling herd average of 30,058 pounds of milk with 1,291 pounds of butterfat (4.3%) and 914 pounds of protein (3.04%).
A good share of that production can be attributed to the daughters and granddaughters of Hilda.
“We have a lot of her daughters and granddaughters in the herd, and we’ve sold some genetics from the family, too,” Buttles says. “The one thing the family does is they all milk well. It’s not an accident. They just flat-out milk.”
Buttles has a propensity to keep cows in his herd much longer than the industry average. While some cows may live considerably longer, the average productive life of a Holstein is about four years, according to Holstein Association USA.
“Older cows just tend to make more milk — they know the deal,” he says. “I really like good cows. That’s the part [of dairying] I have always enjoyed. Seeing good cows is pretty exciting to me.”
Buttles says he doesn’t know if his family will add another generation to the long line of dairy farmers. He and his wife, Lynette, have two daughters, ages 14 and 11, and he’s not sure if they will want to take over the farm someday.
“Time will tell,” he says.
Massey lives near Barneveld, Wis.