The family dairy farm can conjure both the picture of a family working side by side, child toddling along in the pasture in dad’s shadow, and also a modern, conservation-minded operation. Both are true representations and are something both local and national spotlight has focused on in recent years. The growing trend in “knowing thy farmer,” and the current dairy crisis have put the dairy farmer in a unique position and they’re holding firm the best they can and looking to the future of their industry by treasuring what they have and where they’ve come from.
Rushford’s Josh and Steph Dahl are fourth generation on their farm. Josh’s great-grandparents Carl and Inga Howe were the first to settle the place in 1889 and begin farming, building their barn in 1905 and the farmhouse in which Josh and Steph live, in 1910. Josh’s grandmother Alette Howe was raised there, marrying Henry Dahl and beginning to farm themselves in 1957. Alette’s brothers, bachelors Harry and Edward also lived and farmed with the family.
In 1973, Josh’s parents, Jerry and Joyce Dahl, took over, buying it from his uncles and settling in a new homestead on the farm. It was there that they raised the six Dahl siblings: Janel, Jon, Jamie, Jason, Josh, and Laura.
Josh didn’t initially plan on farming, instead graduating and heading to Minnesota West Community and Technical College, in Jackson, to train to be a lineman. “I ended up coming back to farming. Guess it’s in my blood,” says Josh. “I grew up doing it and always enjoyed it.”
In 1999, Josh bought into the 440-acre farm. Initially, the family dairy, a traditional, 50-head tie-stall was on his parents’ place. Then Jerry and Josh upgraded to a double eight, parallel parlor at the original home site, milking 16 cows at a time. The improvement was a good move for Dahls and their cooperative, Foremost Farms.
They currently milk around 170 cows. When not milking, the cows enjoy a comfortable life in a free-stall barn. In addition to the milkers, the family has around 15 dry cows, 180 heifers, and 20 calves at any given time. The numbers fluctuate during the year. A new calf barn was constructed in 2016 and a heifer shed, for when they’re not out on pasture, in 2017. That same year, the farm also put in a new 1.9 million gallon, concrete basin manure pit that can be emptied once a year when soil conditions are optimal.
“The calf barn and heifer shed have been huge,” says Josh. “Getting them out of the elements, especially in the cold weather, has been better for everyone, us included. Being able to keep a closer eye on our heifers has in turn made them into much more productive cows.”
The family has also worked closely with the state and county to increase the vitality of their soil and the water quality of their portion of the Root River Watershed. In 2018, they were honored as Conservation Farmers of the Year by the Root River Soil and Water Conservation District. All of the farm’s improvements have been made to increase the health of the animals, with an eye on conservation and both water and soil improvement, and to improve overall efficiency of the farm,
Even with added efficiencies, the days of a dairy farmer are long and strenuous. Josh’s sister Janel focuses on the calves and brother Jon and his family recently moved back and will be joining the operation. The family also employs two additional workers, who arrive for 6 a.m. milking, working until noon, and then return to the farm for another five hours each afternoon. Josh is up early mixing feed for the twice daily milking, as well as for the heifers and dry cows, each with their own particular rations. He also helps with both milkings.
“I have plenty to keep me busy during the day and evenings,” he admits. Besides daily feeding and milking, there’s a whole host of animal management, including overall nutrition, disease prevention, and health care, sorting, and their breeding program. Add to that repair and maintenance on the equipment, management of manure, and the planting, oversight, and harvest of crops.
“I usually get in the house in the evenings anywhere between 9-11 p.m. depending on how the day goes, what I have going on and how many things break during the day,” Josh jokes. “During harvest season, it’s always later; sometimes I work straight through.”
“It’s very rewarding to watch your crops grow, after all the hard work and long hours that you’ve put into them,” he continues. “Same with the calves; watching them grow and turn into good milkers. It makes a guy happy.”
Also making a guy happy has been a supportive wife. Steph grew up in Askov, Minn., between the Twin Cities and Duluth. “Steph has wanted to live on a farm her whole life,” notes Josh. “Both of her parents lived on dairy farms growing up and she spent a lot of time at her grandparents farm when she was young.” The two were fortunate to find each other, having met on the agriculture-lifestyle online dating site, FarmersOnly.com, in 2010. Married in 2013, the pair has welcomed three children to the family farm: twins Cashton and Jaxie, and Bricker.
“It’s been great having a wife who loves the farm, is supportive, and understanding and having kids that absolutely love farming too,” enthuses Josh. “They want to constantly help me with whatever I’m doing, learn what everything is and how it works, and ride with me no matter what I’m driving. They are great little helpers!”
The family has been a boon in tough times and has held tight together through the current dairy crisis. As dairy farms across the country struggle, they are hoping the low milk prices will change soon. “We just hope and pray every day that things get better, so we can continue to do what we love and that our kids will eventually be able to farm here if they choose to,” says Josh. “Farmers put a lot of money back into the local economy.”
Josh, Steph and their family are pushing forward, keeping their family’s tradition close at heart. “I’ve always had a love for farming… the cattle, milking, field work, watching things grow, living in the middle of nowhere. It’s just a peaceful atmosphere and a slower paced life. We both agree that there is no better place to raise kids, than on a farm.”