Farm Horizons, February 2000

Teamwork makes dairy expansion succeed for Hohags

By Andrea Vargo

The decision to stay on the farm and upgrade facilities was a crucial one for Joan and Dean Hohag of Waverly.

They have been on their farm for 20 years. Although both could get jobs somewhere else, they love the farm lifestyle.

They work well as a team on the farm, but not necessarily together in the same place, said Joan.

Joan is a high-energy person.

"I always want to know how something can be done faster and more efficiently," she stated.

Dean is a steady, low-key person, said Joan.

Each has his or her own speciality. Joan likes the bookkeeping-management-tractor driving part of the job, and Dean loves the dairy cattle and milking, she said.

Three years ago, Dean had a severe staph infection in his knee. He could have died, said Joan.

She had to care for the farm by herself for weeks, and that sparked some serious discussions about their future on the farm.

They felt they needed to plan for the possibility of Dean being injured or worse. It was the realistic thing to do, said Joan.

At that time, they were not milking as many cows, but the whole operation was labor intensive, needing several hired hands.

The couple decided to take the opportunity to put their equity in the farm into an expanded, upgraded facility that would allow Dean to milk, essentially by himself, until he is 70, if he wants to, said Joan.

Now they are down to one person, Kim Cassano of Monticello, that comes in evenings to help milk, said Joan.

Design of the new dairy building started as soon as the decision was made to stay with dairy cows, and began with taking tours of neighboring facilities and talks with salesmen.

A fabric barn appealed to the Hohags, although it was almost as expensive as a conventional barn of the same size, she stated.

The appeal of the fabric barn is in the atmosphere inside. The barn has an open, airy feel, and the fabric lets in a lot of light, year-round, she said.

"It is always cheery, even on cloudy days, and the cows are doing well," said Joan.

They chose the size building they did because of required setbacks and other regulations. The building fits the piece of land it is on almost exactly.

The free stall area of the barn alone is 112 feet by 120 feet, and the milking parlor, mechanical room, and bulk tank area are extra.

"We were looking at a smaller building, but this size was a better use of the land. It fills the space available," Joan explained.

Pre-construction

Since Dean is responsible for the actual milking, it was Joan's job, as the financial manager, to get the financing package together.

She did a lot of homework, and got bids on the financing, just the same as for any other part of the project, she explained.

As the general contractor for the job, Joan did all the leg work and spent many hours on the phone. As each product decision came up, Joan said she got bids for the work or product.

Bids were awarded for the various jobs, not only on competitive price, but on first impressions of the salesmen or contractors the Hohags would have to work with, said Joan.

Many of the product representatives were not used to dealing with a woman as the "boss" of a job, and if she were standing there with Dean, they would just talk to him, not her, she said.

Sometimes, dealing with the day-to-day problems, a particular contractor might have to be "reminded" by Dean that Joan is capable of and responsible for making decisions.

"Sometimes, Dean had to back me up," Joan said.

"Most of the contractors know I'm a partner with Dean, and they respect me for that. Yes, there were some problems where they would make comments, and we would go to the salesman and tell them to put the crew in line," said Joan.

Most of the crews were pretty good to work with, but many hadn't worked with a woman as part of the operation. However, several had worked with farm wives before on jobs and understood the situation, she said.

There were a lot of good contractors that bid competitive prices, she stated.

"And there were a lot of good people we didn't choose," Joan said.

Once the contractors were chosen for the individual jobs, there were many decisions to be made.

There were lots of new problems with the design and construction techniques, because this is a new application for this size and type of building, Joan explained.

For example, ventilation for dairy cows is a big concern.

In the roof of the free stall area is a two-foot wide vent. Snow and rain can come in there.

Snow can be scooped up with the equipment and removed when the main alley is cleaned, and rain can flow into the waste system, but it is still not ideal, according to Joan.

Plastic strip curtains separate the milking pit from the main barn, and the cows have to learn to go through the strips.

Joan said the young heifers learn quickly, but the older cows are a bit more resistant to the idea.

They are coming along, but still need some gentle persuasion at times, she noted.

In order for this system to work properly and be run by one person, the cows need to learn to come in on their own without any help, Joan explained.

The strips are there to keep the milking pit just a little warmer than the free stall area.

The pit has heating cables in the floor, so the person milking has warm feet, she said.

The temperature between where the cows live and the milking parlor should be no more than about 20 degrees different, according to dairy experts, she said.

To control temperature and humidity, the sides of the free stall area have curtains that can be rolled down for ventilation, said Joan.

Some of the local turkey barns have computer-controlled curtains, but the Hohags roll theirs by a hand crank.

There are large doors in each end of the barn that can be opened for air movement, as well.

They are learning that they should open the side curtains before frost on the roof thaws, and that takes the moisture out of the building, said Joan.

Barn tour

Cows in the free stall area are divided into four pens, according to their production records, where they are fed appropriate feed mixes.

Cows are fed from the central alley for all four pens.

Joan mixes the rations and does all the feeding.

In the pens, the animals have individual beds to rest on that have mats and chopped straw for comfort.

Two rows of double beds run down each side of the central alley, and single rows are built along the outer walls.

Cow comfort is the primary driving force behind all the decisions for the barn design, said Joan.

Stalls are designed just a little differently than the current thinking, she said.

Their stalls are a foot longer and have a raised rubber curb to keep the cows from laying too far forward in the stall.

Some barns have a concrete curb, and others have wooden curbs, but the Hohags decided the rubber was more comfortable than concrete and less likely to hold bacteria than wood, because the cows like to lie with one leg over the barrier, Joan noted.

Also, there is a pipe that is a visual barrier in free stalls that is supposed to keep them from crossing over into the stall on the opposite side.

Their pipe is higher than what most other facilities use to prevent the cows from getting wedged in if they try to go through, and some of the smaller cows can go completely underneath, said Joan.

But the curbs keep them from resting in the middle. They also separate the resting cows enough so they aren't breathing in each other's faces, she explained.

While the bed areas are comfortable, the alleyways are concrete with grooves to keep the cows from slipping.

In a track in the concrete floor, a cable attached to a v-shaped barn cleaner moves slowly down the alley where the cows are, scrapping the manure into a flume pipe that carries it to a slurry tank, said Joan.

The floor next to the flume pipe contains electric heating cable and can be used in very cold weather to prevent the manure from freezing.

Joan pointed out that heating cable is also found next to the automatic waterers, to prevent slipping on ice and injury to the cows.

"We have more waterers than recommended, because we feel fresh water is critical to production, and sometimes a boss cow will not allow others to drink at her waterer as often," Joan explained.

All the electric heating cable is off-peak with Wright-Hennepin Electric, and they were really helpful in the placement design of that cable, she said.

Electricity and related issues were a big thing, including placement and size of the lights in the barn.

A lighting expert in the agricultural field designed that portion of the electrical work, said Joan.

While Ralph Diers, local electrician, did all the work, he told Joan he did not have the expertise in the ag design area that was needed.

Ralph was great to work with, said Joan.

At almost the last minute, Joan said it hit her that if they were to eventually need ventilation fans, electric conduit needed to be run somehow to the opposite end of the building from where all the controls are.

"Ralph came and ran conduit through a curb just barely ahead of the workers pouring concrete," laughed Joan.

There were decisions being made, sometimes not even 24 hours ahead of the construction crews, she noted. For one person to milk 80 cows, everything has to mesh perfectly.

The cows are released from their pens, one pen at a time, to enter the holding area in front of the milking parlor.

A special gate is lowered behind them. This gate is operated from the pit and slowly squeezes the cows until they come through the plastic strip curtain.

This gate has a floor scraper on it. As it is moved back to its starting position to get the next group of cows, it cleans the floor and scrapes the manure into the flume pipe.

As the cows come through the curtain and down an alley, the first cow to the far end turns into her milking station.

When she turns, a gate on a swivel, called a butterfly gate, closes to prevent the next cow from coming in with her. It also guides the next cow in line into her own station. Heads go through a sort of stanchion, but there is no pressure on the neck from the sides.

When all the cows are in place, the milker can control the stanchions and with the push of a button, moves the bar across the bottom against their chests a tiny bit. This causes them to take a step back and places the back of the cow closer to the edge of the pit for milking ease.

Milking machines are placed on the cleaned udders, and come off automatically when the cow is milked.

When all 24 cows are milked, the bar in front of them is raised, and they are all released into one of two alleys, Joan pointed out.

The first one leads back to their pen and feed, which is the motivator for them to cooperate in the first place.

The second alley is a little wider, and as the cows crowd into it, they tend to turn sideways to the gate.

Now, when the gate is shut at the beginning of the alley, the cows are trapped for veterinary work or breeding, said Joan.

Then they can return to their pens and their feed.

Consumer prices

"Right now, we have a 20-year low on the price of milk. The whole point is, if corporate America takes over the dairy industry, it will have major control. If consumers don't do something, food will not be cheap anymore. Every consumer should realize, the government is supplying cheap food with subsidies to the farmer, right now," Joan explained

If corporations take, over that will raise the price of food in this country, she said.

"I don't have a problem with the government paying the farmer to supply cheap food to the consumer," she stated.

It just has to be enough money to make it worthwhile for the farmer to stay in business, she said.

This week, the price of whole milk for the farmer is $11.05 per hundred weight, said Dean.

If the price of a gallon of whole milk is $2.68 in the local grocery store, and whole milk weighs 8.6 pounds per gallon, do the math, he said.

The farmer is not getting a very big share of the pie, considering that a lot of that milk is stripped of its butterfat for cheese and butter, and skim milk costs the same as whole milk in the local store.

"That skim milk is essentially pure profit (for the company)," said Dean.

Joan also explained that last month, through the dairy check-off program, they had $179 taken out of their monthly milk check for advertising. That is not an option; they have to participate every month, she said.

Division of labor

Dean does the milking, handles the dairy cows, and sees to the health of the herd, said Joan.

Health problems are not a large part of herd maintenance, since the couple has had a closed herd of registered Holsteins for the last 10 or 12 years, she said.

They use only replacement heifers from their own herd and sell 20 heifers to other dairies each year.

Registered breeding bulls are another source of income, and they market some steers, as well, she said.

Slow, steady growth of the herd will make sure they are doing things properly, said Joan.

Joan takes care of the babies, she said, and does all the feeding. With the snowfall in the winter, she does the snow removal and the tractor work for any barn cleaning needed.

Joan is also a professional photographer and runs her business out of her home. So, for Joan and Dean Hohag, life is evolving into exactly what they want.

The couple has looked at many scenarios and hopes they have planned for most of the possibilities.

If all goes as planned, someday the barn will hold 160 milking cows, and Dean may be at or near the status he held as number one herd in Wright County through most of the 1980s.

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