The lights are on 24 hours a day, seven days a week at Holsteins Unlimited, a dairy farm owned by Mike and Joy Malena near Leigh in northeast Nebraska. With 1,500 Holstein cows to milk three times a day, the family operation never closes.
“That’s one of the challenges of dairy farming – it’s a 24/7 job,” Mike Malena says. “You’re never off, so you have to allocate jobs to others and take turns taking days off.”
Mike started the dairy farm with the help of his dad in 1971 after graduating from the University of Nebraska with a degree in economics and accounting. He grew up on his parents’ farm, where they raised beef cattle and hogs, and farmed 480 acres of corn and alfalfa.
“My dad wasn’t a dairy farmer, but when I told him I wanted to start a dairy, he helped me start one on his property with 40 cows,” Malena recalls. “I never imagined I would one day milk 1,500. I thought I’d start with 40, and I might eventually milk 100. Pretty soon we had 100 and then 200, and it just grew from there.”
Taking care of those animals is a priority.
“I was once told by an older dairyman that the better you treat your animals, the better they treat or return to you,” Malena says. “It is only morally and economically right to treat the animals with the greatest care and respect.”
Today, Mike and his wife, Joy, help oversee the farm and share its ownership with their three grown children and their spouses – daughter, Heather, and son-in-law, Keal; son, Brent, and daughter-in-law, Rachel; and son, Sean, and daughter-in-law, Tiffany, who also owns a dance studio in Clarkson. The Malenas have seven grandchildren who enjoy spending time at the farm and live nearby.
“Sean lives 2.5 miles away, and that’s the farthest,” Malena says, chuckling.
All the family members pitch in with farm work – Heather is the bookkeeper, Joy and Tiffany run errands, and Keal, Brent, Sean and Rachel do whatever is needed each day. Twenty full-time and two part-time employees keep the milking going around the clock.
“We’re milking 24 hours a day with two shifts of people,” Mike says. “The boys arrive at work between 6 and 7 a.m. We do all our own work with our livestock including most of the veterinary work. We also farm 2,200 acres of corn and alfalfa.”
From Cow to Consumer
Holsteins Unlimited sells its milk – 120,000 pounds per day – to Dean Foods in Le Mars, Iowa. Dean Foods decides how the milk will be used, whether it is bottled and sold as fluid milk or made into dairy products like cheese or yogurt.
Farming and providing food for people is a rewarding responsibility, Malena says. “It is gratifying to know that the milk we produce is done in a way to provide the most wholesome food product possible to people,” he says.
At 65, Mike has no plans to retire, but he is leaning more on his offspring to do the hands-on work of the farm and make decisions.
“I help with the big decisions, but we’ve gotten to a point where my wife and I can get away for vacation now and then,” he says. “I was thinking of retiring at 55, but with all the family wanting to continue on, here I am. And I enjoy it.”
Mike feels fortunate that all three of their children decided to work at the dairy.
“I never pushed them to work in agriculture – they made that decision on their own,” he says. “It’s a real blessing to have your children follow in your footsteps.”
Generations of Dairy Farmers
Youngest son, Sean, credits his wholesome upbringing as one reason he chose a career in agriculture.
“All of us children, along with our spouses, were born and raised around Leigh and have grown up in agriculture,” Sean Malena says. “We loved growing up this way, and we wanted to pass on this same experience to our own children. The opportunity to work outdoors on a daily basis, whether it be tending to livestock or seeing the growing cycle through, is something we truly enjoy. The ability to make our own decisions and see how our hard work pays off is a bonus.”
Mike and Joy’s grandchildren are already honing their agriculture skills. One is active in 4-H, and they have their own cattle, sheep, goats and ponies to care for. As for whether they’ll become the next generation of dairy farmers, Mike Malena says, “You never know.”
Along with the challenges, the farm certainly has its rewards.
“I like being my own boss, and it’s rewarding to work with nature – seeing new calves be born and new crops emerge from the ground,” he says. “I like the lifestyle of agriculture. We’re close enough to Columbus to access services, movies and restaurants, yet we live and work out here in the country with this beautiful view.”