7/24/2017 9:20:00 AM A journey as a family Pillers overcome hurdles while dairy farming together
The Piller family – (from left) Mikayla, Greg and Wendi – have endured many challenges during their dairy farming journey. The Pillers milk 110 cows on their dairy near Kenyon, Minn. PHOTO BY KRISTA KUZMA
A double-6 herringbone parlor, retrofitted into a tiestall barn in 2002, is used to milk the Pillers’ herd of Holsteins. PHOTO BY KRISTA KUZMA
KENYON, Minn. - To the Pillers, dairy farming means more than just a paycheck and a job. "It's been a journey," Greg Piller said. A journey that Greg has faced with his family - wife, Wendi, and their children, Brock, 26, Mikayla, 23, Chenoa, 21, and Annalie, 15. Although there have been many changes to their herd and farm, the Pillers now milk 110 cows on their dairy near Kenyon, Minn. While Wendi grew up on a dairy farm in western Minnesota, Greg had no experience in the industry. His parents owned a restaurant and hair salon. When the two were married, they lived on a hobby farm raising bull calves they bought from Wendi's dad. But that wasn't enough for Greg. "I wanted to be self employed, and I thought dairy farming would be my best option," he said. In 1989, the couple's dream came to fruition when they bought a herd of 40 cows and rented a farm near Bellechester, Minn. During this time, Wendi was also going to school to be a physical therapist. "It was awful," Greg said about their first hurdle. "There were struggles and I had to get used to the constant demands." In addition to transitioning to a landlord-tenant relationship, Greg had a large learning curve of getting to know the ins and outs of dairy farming. "(Greg) had an auctioneer come out to look at the herd after only milking six months," Wendi said. The auctioneer suggested selling a few of the bottom-end cows, including one with leukemia, one who had a teat stepped on and one who was skittish around people. "After Greg got rid of the problem cows, he decided (dairy farming) wasn't so bad. He realized he didn't have to milk them all," Wendi said. He also asked others for advice and continued to do so over the years. "He picked everybody's brains. He would ask five people the same questions and weigh out what they said," Wendi said. Even though managing the cows was getting easier, they couldn't renew their one-year lease because a neighbor was coming in to take over and eventually buy the site. "We had to sell the cows or find a place to buy," Greg said. "That's when we found this place." They bought their farm in 1990. Since it hadn't been a working dairy since the 1960s, they gutted the barn and took out the old stanchions. They replaced them with 32 tie stalls and added a barn cleaner. "It felt good to have our own place and do things how we wanted," Greg said. Although they were starting to find a groove in their new-found career, the family faced the next hurdle four years later. A trip to the doctor turned into a cancer diagnosis of Hodgkin's Lymphoma. "We struggled that first year. I had a bunch of surgeries and radiation, but we managed to keep the cows," Greg said. When his cancer came back in 1995, Greg had to have chemotherapy treatment along with more surgeries. The Pillers knew they had to sell the cows with Greg's condition and having three young children at the time with Wendi running the farm. "It was tough," Greg said. But they were right back into it a few months later when they bought another herd of 40 cows. "I thought I was able to take care of them, but I physically couldn't handle it. So we sold those cows again," Greg said. Once Greg grew strong enough, he tried working construction before he started raising heifers. Wendi worked off the farm. During his time, Greg was unsure of his future. "Greg was convinced he wasn't going to live 10 years beyond his cancer. He didn't think he would make it past 50," Wendi said. In 2001, Wendi started homeschooling their children. "We wanted to spend time together as a family so the kids could know Greg, and he could spend those years with them around," Wendi said. It also created a great time to try their dairying dream again. In 2002, they converted their tiestall barn into a double-6 herringbone parlor, built a hoop freestall barn and bought a herd of 56 cows. "It was our project to do together," said Greg, who has not had a cancer reoccurrence since 1995. The kids became more involved with chores. One of the first chores Mikayla would do is sit with her brother to watch cows for heat. "He would just sit out there for hours everyday with a notepad and write down cow behavior. So I would hang out with him and watch the cows, too," she said. Mikayla also grew to love dairy through 4-H. As an eleventh birthday present, Mikayla received a calf she had asked for and showed it the following year at the Goodhue County Fair. It was a first-time experience for Mikayla and her siblings. "Neither of our parents showed growing up, and I didn't know anything about it. I don't even think I clipped them the first year. I was at the bottom of the class with my crossbred," she said. Over the years, with help from 4-H leaders and other 4-H dairy members, the Pillers learned to show dairy and how to choose a quality animal. Although she never participated in dairy judging through 4-H, Mikayla joined the judging team her freshman year at South Dakota State University. During college, Mikayla would come home on the weekends and help with chores. "It was always the plan to come back to the farm," she said. "I really like animals in general, but I really love cows. I like working outside, and I like being my own boss." Mikayla graduated from college in December 2015 with a degree in agriculture business with an animal science minor, and returned to the farm to work full-time. As the Pillers learned and as Mikayla became more involved, their focus has shifted toward genetics. "We don't breed for show," Greg said. They typically use what they feel are the best bulls in the industry, using ones who are positive in all traits, produce good udders, and feet and legs, and have high net merit. One of the highlights of their genetic journey has been working to have a 100 percent registered herd. A few years ago, the Pillers started classifying their cows and within the last year two of their cows scored Excellent for the first time. They also focus on cow comfort, which positively impacts cow performance. Their current rolling herd average is 32,400 pounds of milk with a somatic cell count just over 100,000. They said to achieve this, cows need to have quality feed in front of them, along with clean water and the cows must be comfortable. "Every two to three days, we scrub out our waterers because there is mineral in the water," Greg said about providing quality water to drink. Greg is also particular about feed quality. "I taste a lot of stuff or smell it," Greg said. "I'm really fussy with what I eat so I'm fussy with what they eat. I'm a picky eater, and I'm the same with the cows. I'm not just going to feed them anything." Their next hurdle will be deciding the future of the farm as Mikayla contemplates whether her place in the industry will be farm level or working for a dairy company. Although an unsure future can cause emotional strain, they know whatever Mikayla chooses will be not be made without reflection. "This is just one chapter. It's not like we need someone to carry it on for our sake. It has served its purpose. We have been successful," Wendi said. The Pillers made their farm successful by journeying together as a family.