By Charlie Warner
Imagine a married couple being in the teaching profession for a combined 20 years, the bulk of that in the Twin Cities metro area, and then deciding to take up dairy farming in Houston County.
And imagine being in the dairy business for 28 years and deciding to make a substantial investment in their dairy operation at a time in life when most farming couples are selling out.
That, in a nutshell, is what Caledonia-area dairy farmers Fred and Barbara Arnold have done.
The Arnolds own and operate a dairy/beef farm between Caledonia and Spring Grove. They milk 120 cows twice a day, tend to a 130-animal beef operation and own and/or lease 1,000 acres of farm land. The vast majority of what they raise on those 1,000 acres goes right back into their dairy and beef cows.
While Barbara comes by dairy farming naturally, (the farm has been in her family for 102 years) Fred doesn’t.
Fred grew up in north central Iowa and was the son of a farm implement dealer. He didn’t know a whole lot about farming, but he did have considerable knowledge of farm equipment.
Fred was a musician and attended Luther College in Decorah where he received his teaching degree in music. His first teaching gig was at Canton High School in 1960.
“That’s so long ago, it wasn’t even Mabel-Canton,” Fred said with a laugh.
While in his first year of teaching general music and band at Canton, Fred was having troubles with his flute players.
“I was a trumpet player and although I learned how to play all the instruments in band, I struggled with the flute,” Fred recalled.
Spring Grove High School had a band instructor who excelled with woodwinds. So Fred contacted Donald Gjerdrum to get some advice. Gjerdrum had a senior in his band named Barbara Sylling, who was an accomplished flutist.
Love at first sight
“I met this young lady, who was a senior in high school. I was right out of college and five years older than she. When I first saw her, it was history.”
After Barbara graduated from Spring Grove High, she and Fred began to date. They later married and Barbara earned her music teaching degree from St. Olaf.
The two music teachers worked in the St. Paul Public School system and then the Rosemount/Apple Valley School District.
Back on the farm
In the summer of 1973 Fred and Barbara decided to give dairy farming a trial run. Barbara’s father Leonard Sylling wanted to get out of farming. Neither of his sons were interested in taking over the operation. So Fred and Barbara spent the summer on the Wilmington Township farm. They decided it was time for a change, gave their notices to the Rosemount/Apple Valley School District, finished out their teaching year and took over the farm in June of 1974.
“For me, it was on the job training,” Fred said shaking his head. “Barbara grew up on this farm. It was a great move for us. And Leonard and Russ Krech (former Houston County Extension agent) were great teachers.”
When Fred and Barbara took over in 1974, Leonard had one of the larger dairy operations in the area with a 60-cow herd. And it was quite modern for the times, with a newly-installed pipeline milk delivery system.
Back then the entire countryside was dotted with dairy farms. Fred recalled that their farm was surrounded with dairy farms. “Quite a few of them have sold their herds,” Fred noted. “There’s still some of the larger operations left, but it sure isn’t the way it was nearly 40 years ago when we started.”
A diversified operation
The Arnolds’ farming operation is a diversified one. Along with an ever-growing dairy herd, they also had a substantial beef operation.
By 1978, their dairy barn was maxed out and they put up a free-stall barn that would hold 135 animals. They also added two tall blue Harvestore silos and a liquid manure handling and storage system.
Fred and Barbara rode out the highs and the lows of the farming industry in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2002 they started talking about retiring. Milking cows twice a day for nearly 30 years and Fred in his mid-60s, the urge to call it quits, sell the cows, the equipment and the land was quite strong.
“Nobody in their right mind would have bought a tie-stall operation with a pipeline,” Fred said. “And we didn’t want to see everything we had worked for during the past 30 years just disappear.”
Major update in 2002
So instead of selling out, the Arnolds built a new double-six herringbone dairy parlor, a free-stall barn and increased their dairy herd to 120 animals.
“It was a tough decision to make. But we are glad we did it, most of the time,” Fred said. “We just couldn’t see abandoning the operation…having it cease to exist. By modernizing it, we’re hoping when we do retire, we will be able to sell it and the dairy operation will continue.”
The Arnolds employ three full-time and seven part-time persons. They milk twice a day, with Barbara still taking a very active role with the milking chores.
“That’s her domain,” Fred said pointing to the dairy barn.
Changes in the industry
Improvements in the genetics of the cows has been quite dramatic, according to Fred. When he and his wife first took the farm over, the top cows were producing 15,000 pounds of milk per year. Now almost all their cows are producing 25,000 pounds per year and there are some dairy cows in the area that have hit the 30,000 pound mark.
Feed rations also have a lot to do with the massive increase in productivity. It’s “new and improved” all the time.
“There are some very smart people out there coming up with new ideas all the time,” Fred said.
When asked if they ever thought years ago when they were both music teachers in the Twin Cities that they would be spending their lives on a dairy farm in Houston County, both Fred and Barbara said they never considered it.
“But it was a very good decision. This farm has been in Barbara’s family for more than 100 years. We are both very happy here,” Fred concluded.
You can contact Charlie Warner at [email protected]