Honor system is foundation of Hiebert dairy operation

Greeted along the dirt driveway by Taffy the golden retriever and Clancy the cattle dog, customers walk into the milk house, hold their containers under the spigot and draw raw milk from James Hiebert’s milk tank.

Morning, noon or night, it’s all set up on the honor system-place your money in a Tupperware container, and take home fresh milk.

“We’ve been charging $1.50 a gallon for I don’t know how many years,” Hiebert said. “I’ve just added it up, and we sell over 200 gallons a month that way.”

For more than 30 years, Hiebert has offered this special service to area residents. Currently, his dairy operation in rural Hillsboro also sells to a wholesaler at the rate of 3,000 pounds of milk every two days.

So why is he offering fresh, unpasteurized milk locally?

“It came automatically,” Hiebert said. “We can’t go into town and peddle it out. It’s at your own risk when you buy milk.”

Hiebert’s wholesale dairy operation is licensed with the Kansas Department of Agriculture.

“We have a Grade A permit,” Hiebert said. “We have an inspector who comes every two months, and he inspects the facilities.”

Selling raw milk for human consumption is legal in 28 out of 50 states, according to www.realmilk.

In Kansas, raw milk and raw-milk-products are legal if sold on the farm to the final consumer. Advertising is limited to a sign on the premises, and the sign must state that the products are raw, unpasteurized and ungraded.

Hiebert doesn’t need a sign-his customers know what he sells and they sometimes bring along friends, who want the experience of enjoying the taste of fresh milk.

One of seven boys, Hiebert, 70, learned as a youngster how to milk cows by hand.

“We got our first milker in about 1945, after World War II,” Hiebert said. “Before that, we always milked by hand. We had about 25 cows to milk.”

He and wife Lillian live in a family farmhouse that was built when Hiebert was only 5 years old. The two have been married for about 47 years, and their family includes four boys, five girls and about 15 grandchildren.

Fifteen years into their marriage, they moved onto the family farm and bought a small herd of Holsteins. A farmer and dairy man, Hiebert now works on a total of 440 acres-harvesting wheat, milo and alfalfa.

“Then, we have corn for the dairy for silage,” he said. “The alfalfa is also a crop for the dairy-to feed the cattle.”

At one point, the dairy-herd size increased to about 60 cows. But today, the number is down to about 32 cows.

“We’re ready to retire, so we have a small dairy now,” Hiebert said.

With the help of one son, working with his father on a daily basis, Hiebert’s dairy operation includes feeding and milking the cattle seven days a week.

“We go every day,” he said. “That’s so the wife can get us out of the house.”

The daily routine includes milking between 6:30 a.m. to 8 a.m. and then again between 5:30 p.m. and 7 p.m.

The milk-station area is equipped to handle eight cows at one time. Father and son wash the cow teats, and then use an iodine-solution dip to disinfect them before and after milking.

“We milk with a milker,” Hiebert said. “We have a herringbone set up-four milkers on each side with automatic take offs. So when we’re done, the milker comes off the cow by itself.”

Milk is automatically pumped into a stainless-steel bulk tank that is washed clean after each fill.

“There’s a little spigot at the bottom, and our milk customers can help themselves,” Hiebert said.

The bulk tank holds as much as 800 gallons of milk at one time, although it’s not usually filled to capacity these days. Milk in that tank is picked up on a regular basis and is trucked to Ottawa.

“Then, another tanker picks it up and probably takes it to Arkansas,” Hiebert said.

Many of his regular customers are aware of the semi-hauler’s schedule and know which days the tank is full. If they don’t check the schedule, they pull up to the milk house and discover an empty tank.

“A lot of them, they know the schedule better than we do,” Hiebert said. “They have to keep that schedule on their own calendar. But, we also answer the phones a lot of times, and they’ll say, ‘Is there milk today?'”

As part of his dairy operation, Hiebert breeds his dairy cattle using artificial insemination when they reach the age of about 2 1/2 years. To keep the cows producing milk, he wants them to calve every year.

Before a cow calves, Hiebert keeps her dry for two months prior to giving birth.

“They have a vacation,” Hiebert said. “That’s the way it’s supposed to work. Then, when they have a calf, we start milking them right away.”

Hiebert keeps the heifers for future stock and eventually sells the bull calves. “We don’t usually leave the calf with the mother very long-maybe one night or day sometimes,” he said.

“A lot of times, we try to feed the calf some colostrum-the first milk from the cow.” Colostrum is secreted for a few days after calving and is high in protein and antibodies.

“We feed them with a nipple bottle for awhile,” Hiebert said. “We maybe do a little longer than some, maybe a month or so, and then we change over to a bucket. We generally milk the cows in a separate bucket, and that goes to feed the calves and also the dogs and cats around here-they get milk, too.”

Although he supplements the cattle feed with protein, Hiebert said he is under strict guidelines not to sell any milk containing any drugs, such as penicillin.

“If we give them a penicillin shot or we treat them for something, that shows up in the test,” Hiebert said. “It’s a very sensitive test. The milk hauler does it right here, because he wouldn’t want to contaminate his whole tank.”

The price is right, and the product is fresh, but why do customers choose to buy raw milk?

One regular customer from Wichita was told by his physician to avoid pasteurized milk and find a farmer who offers raw milk.

“I don’t know why he told him that,” Hiebert said. “Because homogenized/pasteurized milk is supposed to be good for you.”

So maybe it’s the taste.

“It’s a little bit like our grandson says,” Hiebert said. “He says, ‘Boy, I hope mom will get milk from Grandpa, because I can’t stand this bought milk anymore.'”

Fresh raw milk is the only milk filling glasses in the Hiebert kitchen. “We never buy milk,” he said. And even the Hiebert cattle are butchered and supply the family with meat.

“That’s the way we improve our dairy, is to haul the bad ones off to market,” Hiebert said. “And then we have sold some to the locker-some big heifers maybe that didn’t breed or some steers or whatever.”

Hiebert said selling raw milk in this area is unusual.

“It’s because most of the other people are selling to a different company-the Dairy Farmers of America,” he said.

“And they want you to sign a contract that you will not sell to anybody else. And therefore, there aren’t too many people who do like we do here.”

In 30 years of offering milk on the honor system, Hiebert said he could only remember a couple of times when money was taken from the collection container.

“But that’s not too bad,” he said. “We try to take all the checks and bills out of there every night if we possibly can, but we don’t take all the change out.”

Hiebert said he enjoys the dairy operation even more today than in the past. “Since we have less cows, I think I enjoy it more because it’s not pressing quite so hard,” he said. “And we try to keep the cows that are docile and tame.”

But at one point, Hiebert warned his family he planned to quit operating the dairy when he turned 70.

“I’m 70, and I haven’t quit yet,” he said with a smile. “Our milk customers say we can’t-we can’t quit yet.”

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