BLACKFOOT – There are many agricultural operations in Bingham County that carry the appellation “Family Farm,” and if that means one that’s handed down from father to son and operated with only family labor, the Hatch Dairy off Rich Lane is the epitome of the term.
The 450-acre Hatch farm has been in the family for three generations, and the people who do the work are Sterling, his father, Brent, his two sons, his wife and his daughter. They milk 60 head of Holsteins every day, run a herd of beef cattle, raise pigs to sell to 4-H livestock club members, and grow and harvest the grain and hay needed to feed them.
At age 42 Sterling is co-manager of the family farm he says was started by his grandfather, David Hatch, as a beef cattle operation in 1946 while he was employed as a fireman at what is now the Idaho National Laboratory.
Brent took over the farm from his father, then added a dairy herd in 1973. Growing up on the farm, Sterling was accustomed to the hard work it requires, and when he went off to college and graduated in 2002, he didn’t hesitate to come back and start working with his father. The farm still belongs to his father, he said, but the two of them share the decisions as well as the labor.
He has a degree in animal science and could find a day job, but guesses he came back because he loves being a farmer. Still, he has one recurring thought regarding the dairy cows.
“I wish we could turn them off Friday afternoon and back on Monday morning.”
The job of milking 60 head of cows morning and night seven days a week is shared between Brent and Sterling, and he talks as he runs them through the milking barn seven at a time. Once they’re in place he washes their udders and teats with soapy water, rinses them, and applies a disinfectant.
When all seven are done he pulls a rope that’s hanging overhead and a measure of barley drops into a feed box at each stanchion. As the cows begin munching on their treat he hooks up the milking machines.
He says the barley is a high energy feed that is kind of like candy to the cows, and feeding it to them as they’re milked is an incentive to get them into the barn. “Otherwise, I’d have to go outside and chase them in. Now all I have to do is open the door.” The barley is carried by auger from a nearby building into a hopper that refills automatically as it empties.
That’s not the only thing the Hatches do to keep their cows content. Rather than keeping them confined in a corral night and day, they have free access to pasture, corral and barn, Sterling said. They spend their days in the pasture in the summer but at the east end there’s a corral and an open barn. When milking time approaches they automatically head for the barn, which also is their refuge in winter.
“They prefer to be outdoors,” he said, “and they stay mostly in the corral in the winter because that’s where they’re fed. But when snow is on the ground they like to be indoors. We fill the stalls in the barn with straw then, and there’s enough they each can have one to lie down in.”
Sterling said if everything goes smoothly, it takes two and a half hours to milk four sets of cows. He starts the morning milking at 6 and the evening milking at 4. When the milking is done, the cows’ teats are again washed, sanitized and dried, lines that carry the milk have to be cleaned with soap and an acid rinse, then rinsed again with clear water.
But his day’s work is not done with the evening milking. There’s always another chore waiting, he said. The Hatches irrigate with a mix of pivot, wheel, and handlines, and the latter need to be moved, as their name implies, by hand.
The pigs need to be fed and cared for as well as the calves born to the milk cows. The job of cleaning the calf pens falls to his youngest son, 11-year-old Parker. His daughter Hannah, 16, has her own chores, including helping with the milking and its aftermath, while son Cooper, 13, helps tend to the pigs and takes on additional chores each year as he grows.
Sterling’s wife, Manu, in addition to running the household, fills in where necessary, he said, and can take on the milking as well. And like all farm wives, she runs to town for parts and most anything else that’s needed at a given moment.
In late winter, there’s calving of the beef cows and heifers, but other than branding and vaccinating the calves and making sure the herd is well and trouble-free, they’re pretty much on their own in a pasture. In the past the Hatches went to summer range with the herd of red and black Angus mixed with a few Herefords (the latter for tradition’s sake, Sterling said, because that’s what his grandpa had), but they lost their grazing lease and now pasture them at home.
They could sell the dairy cows and grow potatoes or some other row crop, he said, but milking gives them a payday every two weeks instead of once a year. “It’s one of the few agriculture businesses where you get a payday more than once a year.”
The dairy cows produce 400 gallons of milk a day. The Hatches belong to the Dairy Farmers of America cooperative which collects and markets their milk. Currently it’s going to a business that makes the cheddar cheese powder for Cheez-It crackers, Sterling said.
The heifer calves born to the milk cows become replacement stock and the bull calves are sold for meat.
They make a decent living off their land, Sterling said, although the cost of medical insurance and a retirement plan are burdensome, and it’s not all work and no play despite what it sounds like.
“Blackfoot is only two and a half hours from a lot of places, like Salt Lake City, Yellowstone Park, Craters of the Moon – there are lots of places within driving distance we can get away to for a weekend.” And they occasionally make it to Germany, where Manu was born and raised.
Why don’t they hire additional help? “We don’t think we’re a big enough operation to justify hiring outside help,” Sterling said.