“You can choose not to go to college. But if you don’t go, you won’t be farming with me.” Those were the words Curtney Carlson, third-generation owner of Carlson Dairy in Pennock, MN said to his son Chad in the early 90s when Chad wanted to stay home and farm instead of going to the University of Minnesota. Those words changed Chad's life, and the life of his younger brother Carl, and ultimately influenced the entire dairy operation and its future.
Chad and Carl went to college and earned degrees in agriculture. Both brothers attended the University of Minnesota on wrestling scholarships. “We milk cows and we wrestle,” Carl Carlson jokes.
Carlson Dairy, founded in 1891 by Curtney’s grandparents, is perhaps best known for the devastating 2017 storm that destroyed half of the farm. The storm, however, is only part of the story. What the Carlsons have accomplished since the storm is also noteworthy.
Chad and his wife, Kindra, and Carl and wife Kellie, run the operation as a team, with distinct roles and responsibilities — and a close partnership with Curtney and his wife Louise. All four of the fourth-generation dairy operators have college degrees and collectively credit their education for the ongoing success of the farm. “The margins are tight, and there are peaks and valleys,” Chad says, underscoring the importance of an education in effectively managing a multi-million dairy business. From technology innovations to sustainable farming practices to consumer education, the work involved in running a dairy business goes well beyond milking cows.
Curtney and Louise’s strong belief in the value of an education has been firmly established for the fifth generation of the Carlson Dairy family, which includes two kids already in college (studying fields like agriculture and veterinary medicine) and five more who will go when it’s their time. “There’s always an open door if the kids want to come back to the farm after college, but they have to get an education and learn how to run a business first,” says Carl Carlson.
Kindra Carlson, who manages the dairy’s finances, also cites the value of outside experts. “We’ve been deliberate about partnering with the best dairy business consultants, bankers, insurance agents, nutritionists and veterinarians over the years,” she said. And those relationships were invaluable in the aftermath of the storm. Kindra’s first call was to Troy Stevens, Bremer insurance agent, who, along with other partners, was at the farm assessing damage on the Sunday morning of the storm.
Within days of the storm, this team of experts came together around Chad and Kindra’s kitchen table to discuss strategy and next steps. “We had lost half the farm. Many lenders would have walked away. But Bremer took time to understand and analyze the situation, and really stepped up to the plate as a partner, as they always have over the decades we’ve been banking with Bremer,” said Kindra.
The Carlsons had been contemplating the addition of a robotic milking parlor before the storm. Storm damage to their double-18 parallel parlor accelerated their decision to purchase a 60-stall GEA DairyProQ rotary robotic milking system, which has been in operation since June. As one of just a handful of this type of carousels in the U.S., the system can milk up to 60 cows at a time, significantly reducing labor costs. The carousel gently cleans, stimulates and milks the cows in one nine-minute turn. “It’s more consistent for the cows, and the gentle rotation is relaxing for them,” said Carl Carlson, who is responsible for managing the herd and the new parlor. “A single operator can supervise the entire routine, from attachment to dipping and cleaning. And the DairyProQ includes DairyNet, a computer-assisted herd management system that allows us to monitor not just the milking of our cows, but their individual health as well. It even has an easy-to-use app that I keep on my phone. It’s an incredible step forward in dairy farming.”
With 1600 cows, Carlson Dairy is a 24-hour operation during which cows are milked three times per day, 60 cows at a time. It’s also a family business — and the cows are part of the family. “They worry about their comfort and if something happens to one cow, it’s a big deal,” Kellie said as she described Chad and Carl’s commitment to the herd. When the two fourth-generation Carlsons took over in the 90s, they planned to expand the herd to 400. Instead, they’ve quadrupled that expansion goal. Both fondly recall when Curtney went from 30 to 60 cows in 1979. “We sure didn’t think we would get this big. We had no idea we would grow like this,” says Chad.
All three Carlson families live within a mile of one another in close proximity to the dairy. When asked how they manage a family business with three generations in the mix — six adult perspectives and seven growing kids with ideas of their own — they talk about the storm and how it changed their relationships. “We’re not sweating the small stuff anymore, and we don’t procrastinate on having the important strategic discussions about the future,” Kellie said. The Carlsons know, first hand, how life can change in the blink of an eye. Like a forest fire, the storm’s devastation was followed by new growth and revitalization, driven by the Carlsons’ resilience and the outpouring of support from people far and near.
“We were humbled and floored by the people who came to our door offering to help. They got us back on our feet – and we still feel their support a year and a half later. We’re better today because of the storm,” said Chad Carlson.
This fourth-generation family farm is paving the way for the fifth generation in ways that will help ensure Carlson Dairy’s future. And Bremer is proud to be one of the partners helping them make it happen.