Nebraska Farmer Logo

Dairy finds success after humble beginnings

The Malena and Held families and Holsteins Unlimited near Leigh, Neb., are carrying on a 50-year legacy started by Mike and Joy Malena.

Curt Arens, Editor, Nebraska Farmer

May 10, 2024

6 Min Read
Brent, Rachel, Joy, Mike, Tiffany and Sean Malena; and Heather and Keal Held.
FAMILY AFFAIR: It’s all hands on deck for the Malena and Held families at Holsteins Unlimited near Leigh, Neb. The family dairy operation, which started with Mike and Joy Malena and 40 milk cows, has expanded to 1,600 cows — milked three times daily. The dairy expanded over the years as the Malena children joined the business. Today, Mike takes a consultant role in the operation, but he and Joy appreciate the fact that their children wanted to come back to the dairy farm and make a life around the business they started 50 years ago. The family pictured here includes Brent (from left), Rachel, Joy, Mike, Tiffany and Sean Malena, and Heather and Keal Held. Curt Arens

He started out with 40 dairy cows. That was 50 years ago.

Today, Mike Malena, his wife, Joy, and their family milk 1,600 cows three times a day with two shifts of workers at their dairy farm near Leigh, Neb., aptly named Holsteins Unlimited.

“My father quit milking cows when I was about 5 years old,” Mike recalls. On his parents’ farm, they raised beef, swine, corn and alfalfa. And his degree from the University of Nebraska is in economics and accounting, not agriculture. But when Mike returned home to farm and talked with his father about adding a dairy to the operation, his father said, “Yes.”

“Dairy just seemed like a good business to be in, marketing all you produced as milk, a value-added product,” Mike says. “I was in business ownership with my parents. My dad wanted me to do it alone, but I kind of dragged him along, and in 1974, a corporation was added for ownership.”

In the business

The day Mike graduated from college, his first cow had a calf, so he was in the dairy business. “A milking parlor and a concrete stave silo were erected, and around 1972, the first freestall barn was built. We grew to around 100 cows milking for a number of years,” Mike explains.

They added another barn and increased their milking herd to 160 in 1986, expanding to about 350 in the 1990s. Expansions kept coming as their children joined the operation, with the first part of their current facility going up in 2006, a double 24 parallel milking parlor, a special-needs barn and a freestall barn.

Related:Dairying: It’s a family tradition

Curt Arens - Dairy cow at feeder

The herd increased to 1,000 milk cows. Four years later, the special-needs barn expanded, and another freestall barn went up, taking the capacity up to 1,600 cows.

Of course, Mike had some help. He married his wife, Joy, in 1975, and their three children and spouses are now all a part of this business, including Keal and Heather Held, Brent and Rachel Malena and Sean and Tiffany Malena.

Mike, now 75 years old, can’t really call himself retired, but he acts as a consultant with credible institutional memory for the business. “I enjoy doing a lot of office work these days,” he says, “as I had an accounting background.” They also have a team of about 25 full-time employees to keep things running.

Riding out volatility

Riding the tough dairy markets is always a challenge, so their dairy occasionally contracts feed inputs to lock in costs when they can. “Cow care through better facilities providing cow comfort has definitely improved over the years,” Mike says. “Also, adopting cow healthy feed rations has been important. We just try to feed our cows a diet that provides a good outcome, and we experience fewer cow health problems that way.”

Technology plays a big role in their dairy. “We have a lot of technology in the milking parlor, like automatic takeoff milkers, electronic ID and milk weight recording,” Mike adds. “We use Dairy Comp 305 herd management software to manage cow records as well.”

For Mike and Joy, the reward of a lifetime dedication to their dairy farm comes in seeing their children involved.

“It has been most rewarding to see our children want to follow in our footsteps,” Mike says. “I hope agriculture will continue to provide those opportunities for generations to come. It is a great pleasure having the whole family so close by. We get to see our nine grandchildren all the time.”

Getting the dairy message out

The Malena and Held family and their dairy farm, Holsteins Unlimited, are among the latest Nebraska dairies to be involved in a promotional campaign through Nebraska-based Runza restaurants. Over the past three years, the Engelman family and their Classic Dairy near Jansen, Neb., and Thiele Dairy near Clearwater, Neb., also have been featured in Runza ad promotions.

Midwest Dairy represents 4,400 dairy farm families such as these across 10 states, including Nebraska, partnering with restaurants and food services to promote dairy demand and inspire consumer confidence in dairy products and farmer practices. Midwest Dairy has been involved in additional promotions with other restaurants like Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburgers and Godfather’s Pizza.

Courtesy of Midwest Dairy - sample promotion through Runza restaurants and Midwest Dairy

According to Midwest Dairy, promotions they have been involved with through the Runza campaign, specifically, touting the return of the Philly Style Runza sandwich, have reached more than 2.4 million consumers and sold nearly 800,000 incremental pounds of milk.

The customized materials that feature details about these Nebraska dairies and what they contribute in dairy products and to their communities include point-of-sale materials such as table tents, social media posts and product shots that highlight fun facts about dairy included in Runza offerings.

Promotions and offers

“Restaurants use promotions and limited time offers to expose a broad audience to menu innovations and new item introductions intending to appeal to both new and current customers,” says Mike Denning, Midwest Dairy food service demand manager. “We help food service clients amplify and broadcast these promotions when they feature dairy products as the primary ingredient, or as a product innovation. So, the first thing that we accomplish is connecting dairy to real taste and enjoyment.”

Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburgers used funding from Midwest Dairy to create promotions aimed at expanding its customer audience and fulfilling an appetite for new flavors and products, adding three items made with dairy products during a June Dairy Month promotion. The program reached more than 6 million consumers in 34 states.

Likewise, Godfather’s Pizza promoted a limited time offer of a five cheese and sausage pizza in both personal and full sizes. The program with Godfather’s reached more than 2 million customers in 26 states, including locations in all 10 Midwest Dairy states.

“The messaging can be as simple as an image of a long cheese pull from a favorite pizza,” Denning says, “or the excitement captured as you take that first creamy bite of a new frozen custard flavor. We also insert our Undeniably Dairy logo or seal in digital and point-of-sale images to provide background for our primary messages: locally driven, sustainably produced, real enjoyment.”

Learn more at

About the Author(s)

Curt Arens

Editor, Nebraska Farmer

Curt Arens began writing about Nebraska’s farm families when he was in high school. Before joining Farm Progress as a field editor in April 2010, he had worked as a freelance farm writer for 27 years, first for newspapers and then for farm magazines, including Nebraska Farmer.

His real full-time career, however, during that same period was farming his family’s fourth generation land in northeast Nebraska. He also operated his Christmas tree farm and grew black oil sunflowers for wild birdseed. Curt continues to raise corn, soybeans and alfalfa and runs a cow-calf herd.

Curt and his wife Donna have four children, Lauren, Taylor, Zachary and Benjamin. They are active in their church and St. Rose School in Crofton, where Donna teaches and their children attend classes.

Previously, the 1986 University of Nebraska animal science graduate wrote a weekly rural life column, developed a farm radio program and wrote books about farm direct marketing and farmers markets. He received media honors from the Nebraska Forest Service, Center for Rural Affairs and Northeast Nebraska Experimental Farm Association.

He wrote about the spiritual side of farming in his 2008 book, “Down to Earth: Celebrating a Blessed Life on the Land,” garnering a Catholic Press Association award.

Subscribe to receive top agriculture news
Be informed daily with these free e-newsletters

You May Also Like