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Kansas family done with dairying

MANKATO, Kan. (AP)--Barnyard animals were still in their huddles when Lucille Kohn bolted through the back door of her ranch-style home.

With a green hood cinched down tight, she stomped into what remained of a bitterly cold night, with the cuffs of her blue jeans tucked into rubber boots, donning gloves.

Kohn grabbed a huge flashlight and with Queenie, the family's German Shepherd, at her side, they brought in the cows. It was 6 a.m., milking time at the Kohn farm south of Mankato.

She followed the same routine for 44 years, until Jan. 16, when the dairy shut down, probably for good.

The last of the couple's dairy cows were loaded into trailers and hauled to Mankato Livestock Jan. 16.

After decades of milking in the morning and evening, seldom venturing far from home, and missing family and school activities, Lucille, 61, decided last fall, "It's time to quit."

To gracefully get out of the business--as part of a buyout agreement through their milk cooperative, Dairy Farmers of America, and other co-ops across the nation--the cows had to be sold for slaughter, eliminated from the pipeline.

"Milk prices went down. They want to take out some cows to get production down, so they can get their price back up," Kohn said.

In the days leading up to that solemn occasion, talk of her retirement from the dairy business brought tears to Lucille's eyes and choked up her husband, Robert, 70. He worried what the end of this era would do to his wife.

As it turned out, it's all for the better, said Lucille, in her signature matter-of-fact tone.

"I even went up there and saw 'em sell. I'm glad they're gone, haven't missed them a bit," she said.

Still conditioned to run the dairy, Lucille wakes up at 5:30 every morning, and Queenie's "still barking and ready to go."

But Lucille goes back to sleep and rises a little before 7. There are eggs to gather, and chickens, lambs and calves to feed.

"I'm not going to get back into dairying," she said. "I had a guy call the other day, wanting the cooler. If he wants it, he can buy it."

Those words were priceless to Robert, who is ready for a change.

"It's been a way of life. I'm not that scared, but for her, I'm not so sure," Robert said.

The industry is losing a good one, said Rick Brumfield, Clay Center, the Kohns' field representative for Dairy Farmers of America, based in Kansas City, Mo.

"She was a good dairy farmer production-wise. She liked her animals and cared for them, and gave dairy farmers a good name," Brumfield said.

The Kohns benefited from the "Cooperatives Working Together" program that helps the industry control production and price, he said. About 70 percent of American dairy farmers contribute a small portion of what they're paid to the program.

"If there is a surplus in milk production, it triggers a buyout," Brumfield said.

Producers looking to stop milking, or replace some of their herd, submit a bid. Those who are accepted are paid for a year's production, based on their bid, Brumfield said. The last buyout cycle this past fall brought bids of $4 to $7 for every 100 pounds of milk, he said. The going rate for milk is around $15 a hundredweight, he said, but it fluctuates throughout the year.

"They'll get paid their bid price and they get the price of their cows from the sale," Brumfield said. He estimates the final combined income amounts to "probably as much or more" as a year's milk income.

"For the Kohns, it's good timing. They were going to get out and sell their cows anyway. It gives them a little shot in the arm," Brumfield said.

The milk checks will be missed, Robert said, but there are other benefits.

"I've got to figure out where to replace those (milk income) dollars, but expenses are going to be less," he said.

For decades, their lives were hinged to the dairy.

"When we would leave, we wouldn't ever go anywhere. We had to be right back," said their daughter, Bonnie Kohn, 40, who lives about a mile away.

There is still plenty of work to do, Lucille said, mentioning hours of chores, their cow-calf herd that produces cattle for their beef, and time-consuming farming, but the grind of dairying is over.

"At least you can go and do something now. Before you always had to hurry," she said. "By the time you'd get to church on Sunday morning, you were beat."

Lucille volunteers at St. Theresa Catholic Church, Mankato.

The Kohns are eager to enjoy some of their freedom.

Lucille and Robert visited Yellowstone National Park on their honeymoon, but they've not seen the mountains since. Lucille has never ventured farther south than the Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson. By and large, she's stayed in Jewell County.

Lucille is ready to explore a bit. A fan of country western music, she'd entertain a road trip to Branson, Mo., and maybe a visit to one of those casinos.

But her milking career will remain part of her legacy.

"It takes a special person to milk cows," Bonnie said.

And a tough one, too.

"Last year, when we had all the ice, she was out there by herself. She had dust pneumonia, looked green, and she was out there," Bonnie said. "Once she stepped on a rusty nail. You didn't see that lady cry, but you knew she was hurting."

Reared on a farm, Lucille is an outdoors lover with a penchant for animals. She learned how to milk by hand, sitting on a stool and squirting the white liquid bounty into a bucket.

"We sold the cream and fed the milk to the calves," she recalled. "We put (cream) in can coolers and the milk truck would pick it up. After that, we went to bulk tanks."

The Kohns were married in 1963, and dairying was quickly added to Lucille's duties.

Early on, Robert made yearly custom harvesting runs from Texas to the Dakotas, leaving the chores and farming to Lucille.

To supplement income, and give her another reason to be out of the house, she began milking--again, by hand--four or five cows. The automatic milking machine was added in 1965. There were other improvements through the years as the herd grew to as large as 95 head. A new barn, designed by Robert, was built in 1978.

The dairy was Lucille's show, and when she was milking, you'd best stay out of her way.

"That's always been her job. We don't go in the barn," said her son, Brad Kohn, 43. A farmer near Ionia, he lives about eight miles from his parents' farmstead.

Lucille preferred her routine, which involved no other humans. The cows were used to it, too, she said, and didn't like it when males were lurking.

"They get spooked when they see me," Robert said. "You can't have somebody in there tryin' to help, or she'll run over 'em. She's gotta move."

It wasn't a burden to Lucille, who enjoyed it in her younger days.

"I am a livestock person. I can get along with the animals. If you can't, you're up a creek. They won't get along with you," she said.

About the only males who were tolerated in the barn were her two young grandsons, Camryn, 7, and Cabyn Winkel, 5. They are the sons of the Kohns' first-born, Carla Winkel, 44, of Beloit.

"When they come up here, they've just gotta go with me to get those cows in," Lucille said. "My oldest grandson (Brett Kohn, 20, Bonnie's son), I had a cow he'd sit on while she was out there in the lot."

Those are precious memories, but grandma insists she's finished milking, unless a neighbor could use some help from time to time.

Lucille hopes it's during warmer months.

"I won't miss milking in the winter time," she said. "You've gotta bed those cows down, put straw out for them. There's a lot of work to it."

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