While many small dairies across the country are failing, a small Kansas dairy with slightly more than 130 cows is thriving.
Although it is still hard work, and the margins remain small, the dairy has remained in the black throughout the pandemic.
For Hildebrand Farms, a family-owned business in Junction City, cows make up their livelihood. That’s why they treat the little ladies to home-produced grains and fields where they can romp around all day.
"They’re going to do better if we take care of them," said Melissa Hildebrand-Reed, the farm’s operations manager. "The cows’ ideal temperature is about 40 degrees."
During the 1920s, Arnold and Rose Hildebrand came over from Switzerland, eventually moving to Junction City, where they bought a few cows. Their children and grandchildren expanded the farm and decided to create Hildebrand Farms. The family began bottling milk offsite, and in 2008 they brought the bottling plant to their farm and started selling their milk bottles statewide. Currently, the Hildebrands sell to more than 120 stores throughout the state.
"One cow will support a grocery store," Hildebrand-Reed said. "They produce eight gallons a day."
In addition to the Holsteins, the farm has quite a few calves and a pasture full of steers. Along with their milk, the dairy processes beef and harvests grains.
Hildebrand is one of 300 dairies in Kansas and one of approximately 30,000 small dairy farms nationwide. According to the Kansas Department of Agriculture, approximately 80% to 85% of the milk produced in the state is produced in western Kansas on 29 large farms.
Milk production in Kansas during September 2020 totaled 332 million pounds: this was up 7% from September 2019, according to the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service. The average number of milk cows was 171,000 head, 8,000 head more than September 2019.
Hildebrand wants to be as ecologically friendly as possible. By growing their own grains to feed their animals and using glass bottles, which they recycle, they are trying to lessen their footprint.
"Using glass is more expensive, but it tastes better," said David Hildebrand, who along with his brother, Alan Hildebrand – Melissa’s father – owns and helps run the dairy. Other family members are also instrumental in the farm’s operation.
During the beginning months of COVID-19, Hildebrand had a shortage of people and businesses returning bottles. Because of this, they had to order more. Normally, they replace about 20% of their bottles, but during the spring of 2020, they had to replace half of them.
"It hurts," Hildebrand-Reed said. "We worked out systems, and it got straightened out."
Along with the usual whole, 2% and skim, Hildebrand produces a cream line variety, which is pasteurized but not homogenized, forming the cream at the top. Pasteurization is a heating method to kill pathogenic microorganisms, while homogenization breaks down the milk into smaller units so it mixes more easily.
Along with cream, the company sells chocolate, root beer and strawberry milk. And for the holidays, they bring out the eggnog. This year, they have a holiday bottle design.
"My favorite is root beer," said Cinder Varelman, a customer from Junction City. "It’s unique."
At their retail store in Junction City, they serve homemade ice cream. Currently, the flavor is pumpkin spice.
"It’s delicious," Varelman said. "Their ice cream has the perfect consistency. It’s beautiful ice cream."
U.S. Army Sgt. Peter Tibbetts, of Augusta, Maine, agreed.
"It reminds me of the pumpkin festival back home," he said. "It’s always good."
At 93, Margaret Hildebrand, the family matriarch, is still looking out for the calves, making sure they are healthy and safe. The family hopes to pass the farm on to generations to come. Each generation continues to grow and modernize the business.
"Our next large investment is robotic milkers," Hildebrand-Reed said.
Labor of love
"It’s been tough because we have a lot of labor," David said. "We have a lot of costs."
Usually, the farm is open to tours, but because of COVID-19, they have stopped them for now. But the store remains open, and the cows remain visible from the storefront.
"We have a history of bridging the gap between the farm and the public," Hildebrand-Reed said. "We want to be a mom and pop Kansas dairy. We don’t want to be national. We want to be a Kansas brand."