’til The Cows Come Home

The curious faces of children peer out farmhouse windows, greeting recent visitors to the Hansen Family dairy farm in northeast Iowa.

Those little faces are the seventh generation of the family to be raised on the land since the 1860s.

Although the dairy operation near Hudson, Iowa, may be reminiscent of a different era, Jay Hansen (’71 agricultural education), his wife Jeanne and their family are keyed in to current consumer trends.

Their workday begins before 4 a.m. with the first milking. The cows will be milked again at 4 p.m. Every 12 hours, every day, the milking continues.

“We’re a little old fashioned,” Jay says.  Our animals spend as much time outside as possible.”

Hansen’s herd of 175 Holsteins gives more than 1,200 gallons of milk per day.  They raise their own replacement heifers and have an additional 25 dry cows. They don’t use growth hormones to produce milk and their milk is non-homogenized.

Coming home to farm

About 10 years ago, the Hansens expanded the herd to allow two of their sons to join the operation. When their other two sons expressed interest in joining the operation, Jay knew they would need to expand again to support five families.

In response, they added on-farm processing.  Their first milk was bottled in 2004, and within two years, the Hansens were selling all the milk they could produce.

“We were introduced to the processing idea by Iowa State’s Ron Orth with the Iowa Institute of Cooperatives.  After studying as many ‘what if’ scenarios as possible, we started processing and things have just worked out,” Hansen says.
Jay can sound like a marketing analyst.  He talks in terms like market radius (25 miles surrounding the farm) and managing supply and demand.  He says they initially focused on smaller grocery stores, daycares and nursing homes.  In time, larger grocery stores contacted Hansen to stock their products due to customer requests.

“Our product sells itself. It has flavor to die for. Once they taste it, people keep coming back,” Hansen says.

Hansen is quick to point out he’s “no entrepreneur.” What he admits to, is being innovative. “We’re just doing what farmers have done for years—finding innovative ways to make money.”

Today their dairy enterprises consist of J&J Dairy, their Holstein herd; Hansen’s Farm Fresh Dairy, farm-processed creamery products; Moo Roo, a Waterloo retail store serving up their hard-dip ice cream and selling their milk, cheese curds, butter, cream and other local products; and Hansen’s Farm Fresh Dairy Outlet in Cedar Falls. In total they have nearly 20 employees in addition to 7 family members involved in various roles.

A typical day at the Hansen farm?

One recent spring day included milking, making cheese curds, draining butter, loading and making deliveries, grooming hooves and catching a loose bull. And that was just before noon.

It’s hard to imagine how they keep everything straight.  But both Jay and Jeanne have a supporting team of family members who help keep everything running smoothly.

Blair (’00 dairy science), the third oldest of the Hansen children, handles herd feeding, nutrition and the family’s crop program growing alfalfa and corn.  Son Blake is in charge of herd management and milking, and Blake‘s wife, Jordan, manages the farm’s website.

Oldest son Brent is in charge of sales and delivery, making 125 weekly stops.  Youngest son Brad, an ISU elementary education grad, works in processing and prepping product. The Hansen’s fifth child, daughter Lynn, is a fellow Iowa Stater with a degree in elementary education. She lives in Omaha with her husband and children.

Jeanne is in charge of public relations, which includes a thriving agritourism business that attracts nearly 3,000 school children, 4-Hers, seniors and other visitors annually.

The Hansens believe they are marketing more than milk. It’s a relationship with their customers. The trust is apparent with on-farm pick up of products available on the honor system. Each day as many as 30 customers help themselves to what they need from a cooler adjacent to the processing area, signing in and leaving payment in a drop box.

The family recently took on a new marketing partnership with Hawkeye Foodservice Distributers, which wants to sell more locally grown food to restaurants and food suppliers. Jay says it has significantly broadened their products’ reach.

Jay and Jeanne continue to innovate. They are building a unique domed home and visitor’s center in preparation for future generations of Hansens.