To a cow, this might be heaven.
The Sobeck family farm, a sprawling and gently rolling property a few miles south of Winona, has undergone a great deal of change in recent years — nearly all of it revolving around the comfort of its dairy cows.
In 2015, the family built a new barn outfitted with the latest technology and the highest luxuries: robotic milking stations with treat dispensers, scratchers for the cows’ hard-to-reach itches, fans and windows for cross ventilation — and, perhaps best of all, beds of sand for the cows to sink their hooves into.
“It’s like a day at the beach, an elite hotel for cows,” said Jim Sobeck, who helps run the farm and whose father purchased the 1,300-acre property in 1950. On Wednesday, the farm will host an expected crowd of hundreds for Family Night on the Farm, an annual event organized by the Winona Area Chamber of Commerce.
“There’s a disconnect from the city to the country, and this is a good way to show people, especially kids, where their milk comes from,” Jim said. “Once, I had a conversation with someone who thought chocolate milk came from black cows.”
Family Night on the Farm seeks to educate the broader community on the subject of dairy farming and to celebrate agriculture’s role as an economic engine of Winona County.
Attractions include family-style picnics, hayrack rides, games, live entertainment, a petting zoo and tours of the Sobeck family farm.
The Sobecks, who settled here in the 1860s, are as qualified as anyone to talk dairy farming.
Chris Sobeck, Jim’s nephew, figures he’s the sixth generation of Sobecks to milk cows and grow crops in this corner of the state. Standing in the family’s state-of-the-art barn, he can point in almost any direction and identify a piece of farmland that his family once owned.
He can even link the Sobecks’ first dairy farm to one of the founders of Winona. An ancestor is said to have purchased the land from Henry Huff, the city’s first aristocrat, in the late 1860s.
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Farming is in the family’s blood.
“I did some other things for a while, went to college and worked in corporate relocation,” Chris said. “I couldn’t stand it, sitting in a cubicle and working for shareholders. I don’t get 20 days of paid vacation anymore, but this is much more gratifying. I like the feeling of working for yourself.”
While the family’s mission hasn’t changed since the mid-1800s, its methods sure have.
The Sobecks’ robotic milking system is so advanced that it seems futuristic, almost alien. The robots use lasers to detect the cows’ teats, and track milk output on a computer that’s programmed to call the Sobecks if there’s a late-night malfunction. The robots even wash and blow dry the cows at the end of the process.
These advancements have also come at no obvious expense to the cows — to the contrary, according to Chris.
For one thing, the cows have been known to line up for the robots before they’re even ready to be milked, possibly in search of a treat.
The pregnant cows, which are moved to a pasture for two months, have been wandering up to the barn, trying to get inside.
And over the past few years, the cows have produced more milk than ever before — strong evidence that the Sobeck farm is moving in the right direction, evolving in the right ways.
“Happy cows,” Chris said, “make more milk.”
“There’s a disconnect from the city to the country, and this is a good way to show people, especially kids, where their milk comes from.” Jim Sobeck, farmer