CHATFIELD

A fifth-generation family dairy farm woke up this morning without any cows to milk.

The Hoffman family, named Olmsted County’s Farm Family of the Year in 2018, operates North-Creek Dairy in Chatfield.

When the second section of roofing on the barn that housed all 450 of their cows collapsed on Tuesday, the Hoffmans were pushed to sell their entire herd.

“We just decided it’s time to get these cows out of here and safe,” Gary Hoffman said Tuesday. “We found a buyer, and they’re going to a real good home.”

Three hundred cows were sold to a dairy farm in Lake City, and the rest will be dispersed to various farms in the Lanesboro area. Quickly after they were milked on Tuesday, the cows were loaded into trailers and taken from the farm.

“This Hoffman family, these are great people, and today is tough for them,” said Brian Speltz, a milk quality and market specialist for S&S Dairy Systems. “Just a very emotional day on this farm.”

Speltz, who befriended the Hoffmans shortly after he moved to Chatfield about 10 years ago, was one of the many people who showed up to be there for the family.

Many industry acquaintances, neighbors and other farmers were also there on Tuesday to help the Hoffmans with the emotional and difficult process. Bridget Hoffman said the rush of support for the farm was, “overwhelming in a good way.”

Hoffman history

Brothers John and Corey Hoffman with their father, Gary, manage the 400-acre farm that’s been in their family since 1905, when Gary’s grandfather started it.

Gary’s father and uncle ran the farm until Gary started managing the operation as a high school freshman. He had planned to attend college and become a veterinarian after he graduated high school, but his father got sick and he chose to stay on the farm. He never left.

Gary and his wife, Jo, raised their sons on the farm. John now manages the farm’s cropping and his wife, Danielle, helps with feeding and the calves aside from her job at Mayo Clinic. They have one son.

Corey, who handles the dairy cows, and his wife, Bridget, have a son and a daughter. Bridget also works at Mayo, along with helping run the calf operation.

Collapse

The barn’s roof collapsed under the weight of snow from the weekend’s blizzard. The barn was built in 2009, and an addition to its roof (most of which did not collapse) went up in 2015. Fortunately, no one was injured in either collapse.

Gary Hoffman said the first section of roof broke through Saturday night, killing at least 10 cows.

Corey was unable to get to the farm right away because of the snow. John had to go out with a tractor and fetch his brother. Once the two got back to the farm they never left.

It wasn’t until the second collapse early Tuesday that the situation reached a turning point. Hoffman wasn’t sure how many cows were lost from that break, which came right after they’d cut the barn’s electricity in order for them to be inside of it safely.

The family’s hand was then forced, said Gary Hoffman, with subzero temperatures predicted for the days ahead.

An open barn filled with debris was unsafe for both animals and people. With the cows out of sorts and manure piling up at their feet, Hoffman said they were lucky just to get the cows fed one more time.

“It’s the only thing we can do right now,” said Hoffman of selling the herd. “Maybe it’d be different if the weather was normal.”

After the second break, Bridget Hoffman said the family discussed rehoming the cows instead of selling them, but the logistics behind managing hundreds of cows dispersed at different farms would be impossible.

“Lifelong decisions are made in a matter of hours,” said Speltz. “And that’s what’s happened here.”

What now

Even with the current climate of the dairy industry, Bridget Hoffman said their family had no intention of ever getting out.

“We went from thinking, ‘OK, we’re alright, we’ll get this fixed’, to making the decision to sell cows — almost all of which were raised by us,” she said.

The Hoffmans could make a comeback in the industry in the future. But even for them, starting with a clean slate will be hard.

“We hope so, but I really don’t know,” said Bridget Hoffman of the family’s plans to continue dairy farming. “We’re getting through today, and we have a lot to figure out after that.”

The Hoffmans loved their animals, and it showed in the way they treated them on their last day together. The brothers could tell the animals apart by their faces, even though there were hundreds of them, and they talked to them like old friends.

One cow stumbled out-of-turn down the tunnel that led to an outside trailer, gunk dripping heavily from her nose.

“Hold on, snot,” said a half-smiling Corey Hoffman.

Without hesitation, the cow turned and went back into the barn.

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