On a recent spring morning, a chill wind strafes the Lima Ranch west of Lodi.
It sends up missiles of stray alfalfa. Workers bend as they walk into the wind — and keep their jackets zipped to the top.
The wind doesn’t take the edge off Jack Hamm. The dairy’s general manager keeps moving, talking, gesturing.
Hamm strides to the edge of a feeding line and shoves down on a metal lever. A set of stanchions opens, and several dozen cows, having finished their morning meal — a mix of wheat, corn, alfalfa, and even bits of rice hulls — are free to roam.
The animals are Holsteins, sleek and clean.
“Happy cows,” Hamm says, walking briskly toward another control lever. “And happy cows make a happy dairyman.”
Hamm seems, in fact, a happy dairyman. He talks excitedly about his animals and how much they produce; about the new technology and science that affects his industry; about how running a dairy is not a job, but a lifestyle, one his entire family shares.
Hamm takes pride in keeping his animals well-fed, healthy and clean. It is true: A happy cow is also a productive one.
Hamm moves toward the milking barn, toward his upstairs office.
He will show more of his operation, and talk about how this way of work — and life — is threatened.
A window on his world
Hamm enters the milking barn, then hits a set of stairs, nearly racing up them.
“This is how I get my exercise,” he yells back to his visitors, struggling to match his pace.
Upstairs, Hamm points out an interior window that offers a view of the operation below. Cows are being mechanically milked along one side of the huge building. On the other, a surge of water, a mini-wave, rolls down a huge concrete slab, washing away the debris from the cows that just departed after being milked.
“Each cow has to be milked twice a day,” said Hamm, 58. “About 10 gallons production every day.”
Do the math, and the results are impressive. There are about 1,600 cows at the Lima Ranch. That means 16,000 gallons or so of milk are produced at Hamm’s dairy each day.
That’s enough to fill a small swimming pool.
The milk from Jack Hamm’s Holsteins is trucked to the world’s largest cheese factory, in Hilmar. That cheese is shipped all over the world.
So Hamm’s cows near Lodi produce milk for cheese that is on sale right now in Japan and Korea. According to the San Joaquin County Agricultural Commissioner, dairy is the county’s No. 1 agricultural sector by revenue, producing $452 million in 2011. Hamm said, as dairies go, his is only medium-sized.
Being a dairyman is all Hamm ever wanted to do. He realized that even at age six, when he started milking cows on the family farm in his hometown of Calexico. He studied dairy science at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, where he met his future wife Pati Lima, the daughter of John and Helen Lima.
John and Helen operated the dairy off Thornton Road where Hamm is now general manager and partner. Patriarch John Lima passed away in 1986 but Helen continues to live on the ranch property and keep an eye on the operation.
Now, a third generation is working the dairy and farming operation: Jack and Pati’s son, Mike, 30, and daughter, Jennifer, 25.
A magic wand
Hamm turns from the picture window. There is a desk and chair, but Hamm doesn’t sit down. Typically, he is in motion.
The family and crew are connected to their business ’round the clock. There is always a process, a task, whether it is feeding or cleaning or birthing or harvesting.
Hamm follows the Dallas Cowboys, but otherwise has few hobbies. He does love traveling, though, and he and Pati have visited many foreign countries, including Kenya, Australia and Italy.
“I enjoy seeing other cultures, other peoples,” Hamm said.
He grabs a wand from its cradle on his desk and holds it up, like a fishing rod. At the base of the wand is a device about the size of a smartphone.
“This is a computer,” he says. “I can get a ton of information from it.”
Each cow has a little digital ID tag attached to her ear. Hamm waves the wand next to the ID tag, and voila, a trove of information pops up on his mini-computer, including growth and veterinary records.
Asked about the most important quality a dairyman must possess, Hamm doesn’t hesitate.
“Being open,” he says. “These days, you have to be open to new technology, new ideas. You can’t do it the same old way.”
His son Mike said his dad goes out of his way to examine anything that might make the ranch and dairy operation more successful.
“He’s very open-minded,” he said. “He has to be. Things have changed so much in dairy during the last 30 years; it’s not about sitting on a stool next to a bucket anymore.”
At Lima, a nutritionist is employed to analyze the herd’s dietary needs and maximize production. A different feed mix is given to an animal depending on its age and condition. An expectant cow, for example, is fed more protein and less fiber.
Most weeks, there are family meetings where everyone can speak out on operations and improvements.
Hamm embraces DNA analysis to reveal which of his cows produce the most milk, which are healthiest and heartiest. That information is collated with information on the bull which, through artificial insemination, impregnated the cow. Together, it is entered into a database that allows Hamm and family members to improve efficiency.
Hamm is a leader in agricultural circles and was recognized a few years ago as the Lodi Chamber of Commerce’s Agricultural Person of the Year. He serves as first vice president of the San Joaquin County Farm Bureau, and will soon become president.
As much as Hamm is seen as an innovator, he acknowledges some things have not changed and likely won’t.
“Cows still have to be milked every day — including holidays,” Hamm says with a grin.
The cycle of life
Hamm’s Chevy pickup rumbles through a compound of barns and outbuildings.
He swings a finger toward a series of stalls housing individual cows.
“Should be a calf in there,” he says, his eyes scanning, the truck inching along. “Oh, yeah, there’s a little one.”
He stops the truck.
Lying on a fresh bed of rice hulls, a calf is curled next to its mother.
The dairy is about efficiency and logistics. But it is also about life. It starts and ends constantly at the dairy.
Several calves are born each day here. And each day, at least one cow dies or is deemed unproductive, and sent to a meat company to be slaughtered and butchered.
The cows do not carry names. They are, in essence, means of production, not pets. A heifer is expected to start giving milk by 18 months. Most continue producing for 12 or even 15 years.
Even so, there have been a few cows that warranted names and special affection.
Hamm pulls the truck next to the home he and Pati share on the ranch.
He opens a gate, and heads to the backyard, where the surface of a swimming pool is rippled by the wind.
At the bottom though, unmistakable, is the image of a cow.
It is a tile mosaic of Clarice, a show cow.
Pati won top honors at the California State Fair with Clarice. The cow lived more than 15 years, and her memory, in the form of the mosaic, endures.
Hamm starts up the truck and heads beyond the barns and homes toward open fields. He passes a hillock covered with white plastic, weighted with tires.
“Lots of people think these hills are composting manure. They aren’t. It’s silage,” Hamm explains, referring to the fermenting fodder that’s a food staple for the herd.
A harvester driven by Mike is churning across a wheat field. High above the harvester, a swirl of hawks float and then, one by one, dive toward the field.
“Field mice,” Hamm said. “They get exposed and the hawks come down and grab ’em.”
Hamm revels in being outdoors, around animals, glimpsing nature. Years ago, he was ready to boil up at Mike because he noticed his son was stopping every few minutes and climbing out of the harvester.
Mike explained that there were mallard nests in the field. He did not want to destroy them, so he was moving each one.
All was forgiven.
The wheat Mike is cutting will soon become food for the cows. Hamm grows much of the feed for his animals.
But some crops don’t make economic sense for Hamm to cultivate, and the prices for those are steadily rising. One corn mixture, brought in from out of state, has tripled in cost over the last three years as ethanol production has squeezed the corn supply.
Costs are steadily rising, too, for equipment, fertilizer, labor (Hamm employs 15 workers), insurance and, perhaps most nettlesome, government and environmental regulations.
“There are so many regulators — county, state and federal. It seems like they all come at you from different directions,” Hamm said.
Development is creeping closer to California’s dairies, including the Lima Ranch. Growth also pushes toward production hubs, like the one in Hilmar. If those central operations go down, whether it be a cannery, packing shed or a beet processing plant, the farmers relying on them can falter, too.
“Remember all the sugar beets you’d see being trucked?” he asks. “You don’t see those much anymore. That’s because the Spreckles plant in Manteca shut down.”
Hamm fears the blend of increasing red tape and operating costs along sure-on central production centers means trouble for dairy farmers across the state.
“The future? I don’t know the future,” he muses. “So many variables. Part of that will depend on what the kids want to do. But I like this. I’d like to stay right here.”
Hamm wheels the Chevy back toward his office. In the distance, the hawks continue their dance against a pale blue sky.