February 24, 2023 at 8:44 p.m.

The winding road to home

Hansen returns to the dairy industry
The Hansen family – Dekker (from left), Stephany, Ledger and Zach – milks 30 organic cows near Viroqua, Wisconsin. The Hansens ship milk to Westby Cooperative Creamery.  PHOTO SUBMITTED
The Hansen family – Dekker (from left), Stephany, Ledger and Zach – milks 30 organic cows near Viroqua, Wisconsin. The Hansens ship milk to Westby Cooperative Creamery. PHOTO SUBMITTED

By Abby [email protected] | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

VIROQUA, Wis. – Zach Hansen has responsibilities to juggle. Besides a full-time job, two small children and a wife expecting triplets, he also milks a herd of 30 organic cows on a farm near Viroqua.
Hansen and his wife, Stephany, bought the farm in November 2020. The road to farm ownership has not been a straight one, but Hansen is reveling in the journey.
“The biggest inspiration is I want my kids to grow up somewhat like I did,” Hansen said.  “Just being able to run around and be around animals and learn how to work.”
Hansen grew up in the Viroqua area on a conventional farm with his parents. His grandparents were on a neighboring farm, and he and his siblings and cousins had the run of the land between the two farms.
Hansen said his grandparents taught him and his cousins how to milk and take care of animals. They all have fond memories of milking, haying and raising tobacco, Hansen said. The families helped each other until Hansen’s parents exited the industry in the late 1990s. Then, when Hansen was 15, his grandfather died, and everything on his farm was sold.
 At the time, Hansen was looking forward to taking over his grandfather’s operation with his cousin, but they were too young.
Hansen’s uncle purchased the farm instead and continues to operate it today. Hansen took jobs milking cows and worked for 10 years for Paul Buhr while finishing high school, attending college and getting married.
“Paul was a huge inspiration into how I operate my dairy today,” Hansen said. “I accredit him to his knowledge in many areas.”
In 2016, Stephany’s grandfather approached them about starting a dairy at a farm he owned, which is where the couple lives today. The barn was an old chicken barn. All the gutters were filled in, and there were no stalls.
While continuing to work at Buhr’s, Hansen gutted and renovated the entire barn. The gutters were dug by hand, and concrete was poured with the help of friends. Hansen purchased all of the equipment used and brought it onto the farm, including tie stalls, a barn cleaner and chain, a bulk tank and milking equipment.
“We sourced all the stuff and pieced it together,” Hansen said. “It was fun. It was kind of like a sense of ownership.”
After about a year of working with Stephany’s grandfather, they decided to go their separate ways. Hansen sold most of his cows, and Stephany’s grandfather bought him out. Hansen’s brother-in-law stepped in at the farm, and Hansen and Stephany moved to town.
After selling their house and buying another one on the edge of town, Hansen raised a heifer calf in the backyard using a dog kennel. The desire to farm was still strong.
 “I just couldn’t get it out of my system,” Hansen said. “All I could think about was that I just wanted to milk cows.”
About a year later, Hansen’s brother-in-law went out on his own; the farm came up for sale. Hansen and Stephany decided to buy it outright and return to the farm they already loved.
It was actually the third time Stephany lived on the farm, because in the 1990s, her parents farmed the property for a couple of years before moving out of state.
“When she was a kid, this was her favorite place to be,” Hansen said. “She always had a dream of being back on this farm.”
The couple sourced an organic herd and brought cattle back to the farm. Hansen said it felt right to farm organically this time.
“I like organic for the crops because I just never really liked all the spraying and pesticides,” Hansen said. “I just think it’s safer for my family. It’s a more natural, old-time way to do it.”
Hansen also watched his parents and grandparents struggle with low milk prices when he was younger. The organic premium was an attractive point to consider, Hansen said.
The couple owns the buildings and 5.5 acres. They rent the pasture ground from Stephany’s grandfather and purchase their feed. Cows are fed corn silage, baleage and a protein mix.
Hansen said it is not always easy to be at the mercy of the milk market and the feed market. His off-farm job helps to subsidize the family and sometimes the farm.
Hansen is working on raising replacements and fine tuning the organic techniques to get a higher milk production. With 35 stalls in the barn, his goal is to milk a barn full.
While Hansen enjoys his off-farm job and spends time hunting, fishing and playing sports when he can, he said his favorite place will always be in the barn with his family.
“My favorite part is milking together with my family,” Hansen said. “Everybody together in the barn, kids running down the walk while we’re milking, and no phones or TVs. Just the radio, the cows and the kids. I love that part of it.”


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