Challenge. Commitment. Cows.

It's not a typical mix of priorities for a service member, but Brenda Dutcher makes it work.

The lifelong dairy farmer recently re-enlisted for six more years with the Nebraska Army National Guard.

Like any Guard member, Dutcher faces a balancing act as she manages her job and her military commitment. But for Dutcher, it’s a family affair: All four of her children are in either the Nebraska or Kansas National Guard. Together, they transition between farm chores and drill weekends.

"Everything has to go together like clockwork," Dutcher said. The early mornings on the farm actually "fit in well with the military lifestyle."

A new tradition

Dutcher, 48, grew up on the dairy farm in Humboldt, Nebraska, so early mornings are a way of life.

So are other farm tasks: milking more than 100 cows, tending to 40 chickens, even trimming cow hoofs.

Dutcher and her family call their farm Briar Rose, and in addition to the dairy operation, they grow 500 acres of alfalfa, corn and soybeans, mostly to feed the cows. Dutcher's vegetable garden, the chicken eggs, and animals the family raises for meat account for most of the family's food.

For years, the routine was mostly the same for Dutcher: farm work, homeschooling her children, repeat.

But that changed at Husker Harvest Days, a farm show the family attended in 2006. That's when Dutcher's daughter, Cassandra, then 17, stopped by the National Guard booth and decided to sign up. She attended basic training the following summer and has served in the Kansas Army National Guard ever since.

Lots has changed in the intervening years. Cassandra is married and has two young children: Emma, 2, and Oliver, 1. But the Guard and the farm remain constants for Cassandra, who helps with paperwork and daily farm operations.

"It's a challenge, that's for sure," she said of balancing responsibilities. "But it all gets done somehow."

Mama Dutch

Inspired by her daughter's service, an idea occurred to Dutcher. What if she joined the National Guard, too?

"Service is really important to me," she said. "In the back of my mind, I always thought it'd be cool to wear a uniform."

Dutcher decided it was now or never — she was nearing the age cutoff for the Guard.

So in August 2009, she signed up — despite Cassandra asking, "Aren't you too old, Mom?" — and soon found herself facing basic training as a 42-year-old.

Dutcher's farm work and her existing fitness regime set her up for success: She was in good health and good shape from the get-go, she said.

"Going to basic training wasn't that hard for me."

As a squad leader during basic training, Dutcher's fellow guardsmen looked up to her and came to her for advice. Many affectionately called her Mama Dutch.

Never once did she feel like she was too old to complete the training requirements.

"That was pretty inspiring that she made it through," Cassandra said.

'Life is not always easy'

Dutcher is now a staff sergeant in the National Guard, and she’s heading to Virginia in June for the Advanced Leader Course.

Following in the footsteps of their sister and mother, Dutcher’s other children all joined the National Guard. Kristen, 26, and Austin, 25, serve in the Nebraska National Guard; and Justin, 23, serves in the Kansas National Guard. Dutcher and Kristen serve in the same transportation unit.

Staying committed to service is a priority for the entire family, but the cows need attention, too. It helps when everyone's drill weekends are staggered, Dutcher said, but sometimes her husband, Andy, has to keep things running himself.

By now, the family has learned not to let complications ruin things. For instance, three years ago, when Andy had bypass surgery, family members stepped up to care for him and run the farm while he recovered.

"That was tough," Dutcher said. "Life is not always easy."

The family has been facing another challenge recently — fluctuations in market prices for milk. They don't process the cows' milk on the farm; they sell it to Dairy Farmers of America.

"It seems like we're either on the top of the mountain or the bottom of the valley," Dutcher said, explaining that even though they've added 40 cows to their operation over the past year, their income has decreased because expenses are up and milk prices are down.

Balancing priorities

Dutcher tries to maintain a positive attitude as she busily tends to the farm, her Guard responsibilities, and her family — including babysitting her six grandchildren during the day.

"I've always had priorities in life, and I think that helps," she said, naming God, family, the farm and the National Guard.

Dutcher's leadership roles in the military and on the farm complement each other. Plus, she participates in a leadership program through the University of Nebraska.

Getting along well with family members also helps a lot, Dutcher said. They know how to cover for each other, and when to take some time off, like when she and Andy go bowling on Thursday nights.

"So far it's worked really well for us," she said.

Whether the daily agenda involves milking cows, leading her fellow Guardsmen, or responding to an unforeseen issue, Mama Dutch is up for the challenge.

"Things change," she said. "That's one of the things I like about the farm."

A DAY AT BRIAR ROSE DAIRY FARM

Here's what a typical day is like for Brenda Dutcher:

4 a.m. Wake up. Dutcher has a cup of coffee or hot cocoa and heads out to the barn by 4:30 a.m. to begin the first of two milkings of the day. She even puts makeup on — "it keeps the cows happy," she said.

7 a.m. Run. PT was always important to Dutcher, even before joining the National Guard. Her husband, Andy, usually handles the final hour of the 3-hour milking process so Dutcher can exercise. On top of her workout, Dutcher estimates that she walks 2-3 miles while milking the cows. "I guess it's a good exercise program, too," she said of working on a dairy farm.

8 a.m. Breakfast. Dutcher's daughter, Cassandra, arrives, and the family eats breakfast together. The rest of her grandchildren also arrive around this time; Dutcher babysits them during the day.

9 a.m. Morning meeting. Before Andy heads out to feed the cows, the family discusses any pressing issues, like registration for calves, lactation tracking and herd health. Cassandra handles much of the farm's paperwork.

10 a.m.-noon. Dutcher uses the remainder of the morning for tasks such as laundry and vegetable gardening. She often bakes a loaf of bread.

12:30 p.m. Lunch. Dutcher prepares most of the food for the family. In addition to cows, the Dutchers have 40 chickens, so they have a supply of eggs. They also raise some of their own meat.

1:30 p.m. While the grandchildren nap, Dutcher and her family rotate routine tasks, such as mowing, hoof trimming, inspecting and improving equipment, cleaning water tanks, and checking the livestock for flies. Dutcher handles some of the vet-related stuff, such as vaccinations.

4 p.m. Back to the barn to milk the cows for the second and final time of the day.

7 p.m. Dinner.

8:30 p.m. Bedtime.