Camera system monitors cattle, employees
By TERRELL WILLIAMS
For the Capital Press
GOODING, Idaho -- Three families take award-winning care of the 450 milk cows at the 190-acre Hilt Dairy south of Gooding, Idaho.
Chuck Hilt owns 50 percent of the cows and is the herd manager. The advantage of having a dairy of a moderate size, he said, is that he makes the management decisions of every animal and all aspects of their care from birth to maturity.
"It can be more of a family dairy," he said. "We have employees, but not 300.
"We raise every heifer calf born on the place. It's a closed herd, so the animals we milk here are animals that were born here. We don't buy any outside livestock. ... You can bring in other people's problems and disease."
Hilt has computer records of every cow, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, their milk production and percentages of butterfat and protein of their milk. Average production per cow is about 82 pounds per day. Hilt does not use BST -- bovine somatotropin -- a controversial hormone that causes cows to stay at peak production for a longer period.
"We stay away from BST because we decided we would put our time into management of the postpartum cow and got just as good results," he said.
A system of video cameras in the barns and on outside poles records activity, so Hilt can monitor the maternity pen and review what has gone on everywhere for up to eight days.
"We had cameras long before this animal deal (of cow abuse) busted out," he said, calling the cameras a preventive measure. "You can't watch every employee and everything they're doing, especially the guy that's milking when you're sound asleep. So, with the cameras, they're held accountable."
The Hilt Dairy farm was purchased by Chuck's parents, Daryl and Elaine Hilt, in 1979. Elaine raised the calves and kept books. Daryl farmed and ran the dairy. Chuck and his brothers Richard and David, and sister Arlene, milked cows and did chores. Daryl and Elaine still own the property and 33 percent of the cows.
After high school graduation in 1984, Chuck went to California and became an electrician.
"I wanted to get as far away from this dairy as I could," he said.
Then he got married and decided Idaho was a better place to raise a family, so he returned in 1996. His son Jed, now 14, helps with chores, while daughter Kiersten, 19, is in college.
Chuck's wife, Monica, does bookwork and is the self-described "go-fer" and helper.
"I'm proud of my husband," she said. "Not only is he a good family man, but he's the hardest working man I know. He does the electrical work, he's a farmer, mechanic, milker, and he manages people. I feel bad because he has to go through all the weather, when it's freezing cold, or 100 degrees. But he loves it. He loves his animals."
David Hilt also fled the nest and became a welder. But he, too, returned with his family to Gooding. He now helps manage the farming operation and owns the remaining percentage of cows.
Milk from the 2,500-gallon holding tank at Hilt Dairy tank is picked up twice a day. The milk, which has won several awards for quality, is sold to Magic Valley Quality Milk, a producers co-op that sells to Glanbia Foods, Inc., and to Jerome Cheese Company, Inc., but also to buyers outside Magic Valley.
"We have customers all over," Chuck said. "The dairymen are the board members."
Since 2008, he said, the dairy business has been more difficult.
"Before, you would work hard, do well, make money, enjoy life," he said. "When 2009 hit, we all lost huge amounts of equity that we'd built up. ... It's a volatile business, but we're still here. That's better than some guys have experienced."
Daryl, 70, said he is ready to retire, although he still helps with chores.
"Our family is close together," he said. "We're not as big as most dairies, but in some ways, it's an advantage. You can keep closer tabs on everything."
Location: Gooding, Idaho
Size: 190 acres
Owners: Daryl and Elaine Hilt, Chuck and Monica Hilt, David and Katrina Hilt
Number of employees: Nine
Number of cows: 450 milking cows, plus replacement heifers from their calves
Co-op membership: Magic Valley Quality Milk, a producers co-op with its dairymen as the board members, with a general manager, a production marketer, its own trucks and a truck manager