As he watched one silo, then another, collapse on his family dairy farm one day in 2009, Jack Hanke wasn’t thinking about the thousands of dollars it was going to take to rebuild or the countless hours of cleanup ahead.
He needed to get the cattle out of the damaged barn as quickly as possible.
So Jack, his family and the employees at Hanke Farms Inc., rushed into the unstable building to save the cattle. They managed to get them all out just minutes before the barn collapsed under the weight of the silo.
“The next morning, we started our cleanup project,” Jack says. “There was never an idea that it was going to be over. We just did what we needed to do to make things turn out good again.”
In nearly 100 years of operation, the Hanke family has persevered through disasters like the silo collapse, personal tragedy and a changing dairy industry to build a thriving, family and community-centered business.
Jack, his wife Dorene, his twin brother Jim and Jim’s wife Bonnie milk 800 Holsteins and grow corn, alfalfa, wheat and soybeans on 875 acres near Sheboygan Falls, Wis. The next generation of the family is also at work on the farm — Jack’s daughter Heidi Taylor and her husband Doug, along with Jim’s son Jason and his son-in-law Jonathan Anhatt.
Jim beams with pride as he recounts the history of the farm. His great-great-grandfather traveled from Germany to Wisconsin in 1852, settling on a piece of land just north of the dairy, which the Hankes still own. His grandparents founded the dairy farm in 1919.
“We were feeding calves by the time we were 7 or 8 years old,” Jim says. “By the time we were in high school, we were milking cows before going to school in the morning. Milking cows was a pleasure. It was just like being paid to have fun.”
The brothers have intense pride in the dairy and their family. In fact, the dairy seems like more a part of the family than a business operation.
In the most difficult times, the dairy helped keep the family together.
In 1985, Jack and Jim’s mother, Marilyn, died unexpectedly at age 54. Four years later, their sister Cheryl died at only 30 years of age. The brothers were justifiably concerned about their father, Elroy.
“When my mom passed away and then our sister passed away four years later, he focused on the farm,” Jack says of his father, who died 12 years ago. “He didn’t drift off anywhere. He continued doing a good job of farming, but we knew our dad was hurting inside because there was a big void in his life. He made it all work. He did a wonderful job taking care of himself and he made it happen.”
On the surface, most improvements at Hanke Farms appear directly related to animal care or land stewardship. There is always, however, an underlying theme of making life better for the family and employees.
Fifteen years ago, the Hankes were milking more than 200 cows in a tiestall barn. For Jim, it was an enjoyable experience and an ideal way to routinely track each cow’s health.
“You had the chance to baby every cow — maybe baby them too much,” he says.
The system did have its drawbacks, however.
“It was a really nice facility for our dairy cows, but we were milking well over 200 cows, which meant a lot of family labor in the barn,” Jack says. “At that point in time, the decision was made that it was time to progress and take a hold of new technology while keeping the family farm aspect at the top level.”