A labor of love

Mahoneys close 18-year dairying dream

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GLENWOOD CITY, Wis. — In the final days of November, Tom and Debbie Mahoney closed a chapter that encompassed the past 18 years of their lives at Pine Lane Dairy when they dispersed their herd.

“The tractor quit on me one day, and it felt like a sign,” Tom said. “I thought, ‘If I need to buy another tractor, we’re committed for at least another five years.’”

The Glenwood City couple booked their herd dispersal to take place Nov. 30 at Oberholtzer’s Dairy Cattle and Auction Company in Loyal, making plans to sell their 18-cow herd along with the heifers and calves.

“We love this, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing it,” Tom said, of their dairy farming career.

Debbie, a town girl turned farm girl, said it has been an experience she would not trade.

“I have really come to love these girls,” Debbie said. “It is hard to imagine not having them.”

Tom works full time as a technician for Select Sires, and Debbie works full time as a customer service representative for a local phone company.

“We try to get down to the barn by 5:30 in the morning, and then Debbie heads back up around 6 or so to get ready for work and I leave at 7:30,” Tom said. “If I’m lucky, I’m home by 4 in the afternoon, let the dogs out and then head back out to the barn for chores again. We’ve got this down to a science. It is just about as easy as it could get.”

When the Mahoneys decided to begin their dairy farming career 18 years ago, they purchased the small farm and herd of cows from a retiring farmer who was milking nine cows at the time. With their sons, Patrick and Ryan, they embraced their new dairy farm.

“The kids were interested in showing cows, and we were young and crazy,” Tom said. 

The Mahoneys’ farm consists of 43 acres. They grazed their cows during the summer and purchased the majority of their feed from their friends at nearby Luckwaldt Agriculture Inc.

Of the variety of cows the Mahoneys have milked, they have found their favorite breed to be Milking Shorthorn.

“They’re neat cows, moderate-sized and really docile,” Tom said. “They are just very easy going, very hardy and good, solid cows.”

The Mahoneys have enjoyed making the herd their own in a variety of ways, including each of the cows wearing a cow bell. The cows all sold with their bells on.

“Each of them has their own personality,” Debbie said. “I love the clanging of the bells as they move.”

The Mahoneys have been supporters of the Wisconsin Milking Shorthorn Breeders’ Dairyland Sale series, typically purchasing a promising young cow or heifer each year.

“We would move out one of our lower animals and replace her with a good individual with a nice pedigree,” Tom said.

Although they felt they had received a sign from God telling them it was time to move on, that did not necessarily make the prospect of saying that last goodbye to each of their cows any easier. 

Both Tom and Debbie took the day before the sale off, with plans of spending one last day in the barn, soaking in the moments before the cows headed to central Wisconsin Thursday morning to move on to their new homes.

Tom said he spent a lot of time during the last month thinking about his cows and finally decided that a roan cow named Amanda was his favorite.

“She was our first Excellent cow, and she’s our miracle cow,” Tom said. “As a first-calf heifer, she came down with listeria about two weeks after we bought her. She didn’t eat or drink for three days, but she got through it and has never had any repercussions since. She is coming with her fourth calf.”

Next to Amanda stood her daughter Amber, another favorite.

“We have a lot of hopes for Amber,” Tom said. “She is a better cow than her mom was at this age. That is the goal of breeding animals — to make each generation better.”

The day of the sale, the Mahoneys were happy to see a good crowd assembled at the sale barn in Clark County.

“I hope the buyers will appreciate these cows as much as we have,” Tom said while standing in the barn, surveying his herd as a group. “They are good cows, and we are proud of them.”

Tom and Debbie sat in the stands, wiping tears from their eyes as they watched the cows, heifers and calves go through the sale ring one by one, conjuring up memories of the past 18 years. Throughout the sale, the bids were fast and plentiful.

“It was a hard day,” Debbie said. “Just when I think I am all cried out, the tears keep coming. It helps knowing they all have gone to loving new homes, but that doesn’t erase the emptiness I feel in my heart. The barn is cold and too quiet now.”

The Mahoneys know the coming days will feel different and empty without the cows and their bells tolling away the time, but they have made plans for new adventures.

“We’re big into oxen,” Tom said. “It was always my dream to have a team. We have a great team of Brown Swiss oxen — Moose and Bear — and now we’ll have more time to work with and devote to them.”

Each summer, the couple loads the team to attend the Midwest Ox Drovers Association’s annual gathering at Tillers International in Scott, Michigan. They also enjoy sharing the team in parades and at the county fair.

“I’m a third-generation farmer, so we have an old milk wagon from the 1920s or 30s, and we put some milk cans in there and hitch the team up to that,” Tom said.

Tom plans to take his team into the woods this winter to cut wood and said they should get worked with at least twice a week. He said that when he got his first team of oxen, he knew nothing about them and credits Moose and Bear for teaching him well.

The Mahoneys plan to check an oxen mecca off their bucket list, taking a trip to the fabled Fryeburg Fair in Fryeburg, Maine, next October.

They also have the memories they made in their little barn that will remain with them always.

“I have had people walk in here and just smile and tell me this is their dream,” Tom said. “Milking a small herd, just because you love doing it. … We have had a blast doing this.”

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