Family Matters

It’s noon at Alan and Renee Winner’s dairy farm, and the family of 11 has gathered for the day’s main meal. Plates of lasagna, tossed salad, garlic bread, watermelon and brownies, and, of course, glasses of fresh milk are finished in minutes. An unexpected “baa” interrupts the talk. Laughter breaks out as a stray lamb sneaks in the back door. So goes life at the farm where a large family means a larger portion of the best ingredients of life: security, independence, laughter, love and adventure.

“God has blessed us in so many ways,” Renee said. “And our biggest blessing is our family.”

In 1984, the Winners started with 300 acres and 10 cows. Twenty-six years and nine kids later, the Logan County Farm Bureau members have expanded their farm to 3,000 acres and 230 cows, primarily black and white Holsteins. They attribute part of their success to motivating and training their kids with hands-on learning and individual responsibility. But support is never far away.

“At age 40, I was still calling on my dad daily to ask his advice,” Alan said.

Today, he welcomes questions from his kids and sons-in-law, whether it’s how deep to plant corn or how to care for an animal.

Farm life
At 6 a.m., the Winners begin their morning chores. Zeb (18) and his brother-in-law head out to the cows in the milking parlor. His older sister Audrey (24) and her husband work alongside them, checking the health of the animals.

“She used to be our best little calf feeder then milker,” Renee said about Audrey who, like her older siblings, now oversees many of the chores she did as a youngster. The kids gradually gained more challenging jobs like breeding cows and equipment repair. Renee explained the kids begin by moving the animals or cleaning their udders. When they’re taller, they learn to place milking units on tame, older cows. Soon, they are able to handle the whole parlor routine. Xavier (16), who now milks the afternoon shift, was the most eager to learn. For a couple years, he would step on an old milk crate to gain the extra height to reach the cows.

In the main barn, Alan feeds the herd then others take over. Audrey and Martha (22) take turns at the calf hutches, helping their younger sisters Rita (13), Ruth (11) and Irene (9) feed new calves.

“Our days are too short to run out of things to do,” Alan said.

When the school-aged Winners’ chores are finished, home school lessons begin. Martha teaches math, while Audrey helps with English. Erin (26) drills her siblings on spelling, as she prepares the noon meal. Then there is house work, including the never-ending pile of laundry. They all take turns babysitting the youngest Winner, Orville (2), and the three toddler grandchildren. “He was an uncle when he was born,” said Renee as Orville tags along with her for morning chores.

From spring through fall, the family will plant and harvest 3,000 acres of soybeans, corn, wheat and hay. Rita recently learned to rake hay in the fields with the guidance of her cousin. She drove one tractor while he drove another and instructed her via two-way radio.

In the shop, there are plenty of opportunities to learn mechanics through daily repairs and service.

“You’re never too young to learn if you can fetch a tool or hold a flashlight,” Renee said. Over the years, Renee said all the guys have become gifted mechanics, reducing down time and saving on outside expenses.

Branching out
The family`s latest project is the construction of a new dairy at a second farm three miles away. Everyone in the family is taking interest. They’re discussing new systems for clearing manure, composted bedding for the cows and even robot milkers. Zeb said he’s all for the robots, but others doubt they’re a genuine time saver or worth the $250,000 price tag. To head up the dairy’s construction, Alan hired his nephew who has worked on and off at the farm since he was 13.

Like other construction projects, the whole family is getting involved in pouring concrete, forming walls and nailing studs, rafters and sheeting. They also learn to plumb and wire right alongside their dad who learned the skills working with his late father.

“Our hope is our kids will find something that they enjoy doing,” said Alan, whether that’s farming or not.

Alan and Renee are helping their three oldest children become financially independent. They’re working on the family farm to build savings before going out on their own. All three couples have dairy cows and heifers housed at the main dairy, and each of the sons-in-law rent land to grow grain.

“They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and Alan and I would be pleased if they all wanted to raise their families in the same manner that they were raised. But each one of them has to make that decision for themselves,” Renee said. “If they choose to pursue another occupation, we will help them as best we can.”

She and Alan have followed his parents’ advice – “Don’t put them all in one pile” – recognizing the best way to avoid family squabbles is to not be too close and encourage independence. However, it is their time spent together at a cabin on the property that often provides relief from the sometimes hectic farm life.

“We certainly do have stress but we try to slow down and step away from the busyness as our schedule allows,” Renee said, noting a few family members recently gathered at the cabin. “Several of us went for a walk down the lane and around the pond, while the little girls fished (not alone) and others ate hot wings and watched a ball game. The night before, we gathered there for pizza and to pull homemade taffy. This is how we unwind, escape or get away.”

The family also takes time to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of the “creation we have been blessed to till and tend,” Renee said.

“Prayer is essential on the really hairy days,” she added. And it’s something they do together frequently.

Family fun
The Winners also celebrate events in a big way – birthdays with cake and ice cream are a regular occasion. But the biggest farm event is their annual fall barn dance where for 15 years the family and their now 500-some guests square and line dance.

“When 200 line dance, it’s like the whole barn is moving,” Renee said.

Later this month, the kids will participate in the Logan County Fair. Zeb, Xavier, Rita, Ruth and Irene will show sheep, pigs, horses, dairy beef feeders, heifers and sewing projects. Being away from the farm during hay baling time can be a challenge, but Renee and Alan, both 4-H advisers, value the skills and training their kids gain through the program. In fact, the older children learned from their grandfather to shear their fair sheep, then they later taught their younger siblings. It’s a cherished tradition that, like so many of the Winner activities, weaves the importance of family through a rich farming heritage.

“There is so much pleasure in being together,” Renee said.

Teresa Woodard is a freelance writer from Franklin County.

Sign of Care

“Notice to the help: The rule to be observed in this stable at all times, toward the cattle, young and old, is that of patience and kindness. A man’s usefulness in a herd ceases at once when he loses his temper and bestows rough usage. Men must be patient. Cattle are not reasoning beings. Remember that this is the Home of Mothers. Treat each cow as a Mother should be treated. The giving of milk is a function of Motherhood; rough treatment lessens the flow. That injures me as well as the cow. Always keep these ideas in mind in dealing with my cattle.”

Inside their barn, the Winners display this time-tested quote from W.D. Hoard, who founded Hoard’s Dairyman magazine in 1885.

Some thoughts from the Winners on contemporary farming:

On large farms…
“Our 3,000-acre farm employs nine adult family members and supports six households.  If you do the math, that’s just over 300 acres per person. By sharing equipment, we lower capital costs for our adult kids as they get started in agriculture. We also help each other complete tasks in a safe, efficient manner much like the old-time threshing days.”

On milk safety…
“We love drinking our cows’ milk and are confident it’s a good healthy product! All grade ‘A’ dairy farms’ milking facilities and cows are inspected for cleanliness and every truckload of their milk is tested for bacteria and antibiotic residue.  Dairy farmers couldn’t continue to dairy if we didn’t produce a high quality product!”

On animal care…
“A successful dairy farm requires excellent animal care, so cow comfort and care is number one! We love this way of life and consider our ‘Bovine girls’ part of the family. Our lives definitely revolve around them — milking, feeding, and caring for them and their calves, and planting and harvesting high-nutrient crops to sustain them.”