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Hillans establish dairy with promising future

These 2023 Wisconsin Master Agriculturists from Ladysmith developed a top-notch 500-cow dairy.

Fran O'Leary

March 8, 2023

5 Min Read
Carol and Eric Hillan and their son, Evan in barn with dairy cows
BUILDING A LEGACY: Carol and Eric Hillan and their son, Evan, milk 500 Holstein cows, raise 400 heifers and farm 1,400 owned and rented acres in Rusk County, Wis. When the couple purchased the farm from Carol’s parents in 1986, they were milking 60 cows.Fran O'Leary

Carol Hillan grew up on a dairy farm in Rusk County, Wis., a few miles south of Ladysmith. After graduating from high school, she attended the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, where she was majoring in medical sciences. But during her junior year, her love of cows led her to switch majors and transfer to UW-Madison, where she studied dairy science.

While at UW-Madison, she met Eric, who was double-majoring in dairy science and agronomy. They were both 20 years old and worked at the Dairy Cattle Center — the on-campus dairy farm — and soon started dating.

Eric didn’t grow up on a farm. His love of farming came from spending summers working at his grandparents’ farm in South Dakota.

After they both graduated from UW-Madison in 1981, the couple married in December 1982.

“We rented my parents dairy farm for 3½ years before we purchased it on land contract in April 1986,” Carol says. “We bought the cows, machinery and the farm all at once.”

The Hillans were milking 60 cows and farming 200 acres in 1986. They focused on improving genetics, feed quality and land resources. In 1996, they paid off their land contract, formed a corporation and named their farm Rusk-Rose Holsteins Inc.

“Then we went right back into debt, added onto our barn and milked 115 cows,” Carol says.

Related:Wisconsin’s cream of the crop

In 2003, they built their first freestall barn and put dry cows and heifers in that building. Just two years later, they added onto the freestall barn and built a double-eight milking parlor. They expanded their herd to 250 cows.

“We switched our dry cows and heifers with the milking herd,” Carol says. “We moved our cows to the freestall barn and moved our heifers and dry cows to the old dairy barn.”

By 2009, they increased their herd size to 360 cows. In 2014, the couple built a robotic calf barn with automated calf feeders that allows calves to feed themselves.

Dave Kammel, UW-Madison biological systems engineering professor, and their son, Evan, put the plans together for the calf barn. “Dave designed a lot of our barns,” Eric says.

Next generation

Evan, 34, came back to the farm in 2015 after graduating from UW-Eau Claire with a bachelor’s degree in entrepreneurial management, earning an MBA from Indiana University Kelley School of Business, and working a couple of years off the farm. Evan is the fourth generation of Carol’s family to farm in Ladysmith.

That same year, the farm across the road came up for sale and the Hillans purchased it, bringing their total number of owned acres to 800. They rent an additional 600 acres.

Related:Who’s who in Wisconsin agriculture, 2023 edition

Their crop program includes 300 acres of alfalfa, 500 acres of corn for silage, 500 acres of corn for grain, and 100 acres of winter wheat. In 2018, they added a 3 million-gallon manure lagoon. In 2020, they built a second freestall barn for cows.

Today, the Hillans milk 500 cows with a rolling herd average of 32,000 pounds of milk. Their somatic cell count averages 100,000 or less. They have received Land O’Lakes milk quality awards each of the past 15 years.

They also raise 400 heifers, which are housed in two freestall barns.

“We still use the old barn for bred heifers,” Eric says.

In 2021, they installed Ida, a health and activity monitoring system, to help boost their cows’ reproduction and overall health.

The Hillans are conservation-minded and make taking care of their land and natural resources a high priority. They no-till 95% of their corn ground and all of their winter wheat. They also grow cover crops on their wheat and corn silage ground.

The Hillans employ 11 full-time and part-time employees on the farm. “Without them, we wouldn’t be in business,” Eric says.

Several of their employees have worked on the farm for more than 20 years.

“Loren Shirk has worked for us for 30 years,” Eric says. “He left in 2002 to start his own business and then came back in 2003 and was our herdsman until 2010. Now he feeds on the weekends for us.”

Both Eric and Carol spend a lot of time in the barns every day caring for cattle, seeing what’s going on and taking care of details.

“Our vet said, ‘You have employees to help you do the work, you don’t have employees to do the work,’” Eric says.

Off the farm

Over the years, the Hillans have been involved in a variety of organizations, boards and activities. They are both members of Professional Dairy Producers (PDPW). Eric served on the PDPW board of directors, including two years as president. Both Carol and Eric were involved in the PDPW Mentoring Program.

The couple are members of Farm Bureau at the county and state levels. Eric served as president of the Rusk County Farm Bureau and as state chairman of the Farm Bureau Dairy Committee. He testified at the federal milk marketing hearings in Washington, D.C., for Farm Bureau.

The Hillans helped start the Ladysmith Community Farmers Market, which has been in existence for 30 years. Carol was a 4-H leader and is an alumni member of the Association of Women in Agriculture.

Eric and Carol are happy that Evan decided to join them on the farm.

“Evan is a very detail-oriented person,” Eric says. “He is quite a global thinker and strategic thinker. The future of the dairy rests more on his shoulders in what direction it will be taking, but we know it will be in good hands.

“A lot of Carol’s and my careers are in the rearview mirror, and Evan’s career is in the windshield.”

The couple are grateful for being able to farm and be successful at it. “We can’t imagine doing anything else,” Eric says. Carol agrees, saying, “Farming is a great occupation.”

Master Agriculturist at a glance

Eric and Carol Hillan
Ages: Both are 63
Location: Ladysmith, Rusk County
Farming enterprises: Holstein cows and heifers, crops
Size of farm: 800 owned acres, 600 rented acres, 500 Holstein cows, 400 Holstein heifers
Family: Son Evan

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Master Agriculturists

About the Author(s)

Fran O'Leary

Wisconsin Agriculturist Editor

Even though Fran was born and raised on a farm in Illinois, she has spent most of her life in Wisconsin. She moved to the state when she was 18 years old and later graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater with a bachelor's degree in journalism.

Fran has 25 years of experience writing, editing and taking pictures. Before becoming editor of the Wisconsin Agriculturist in 2003, she worked at Johnson Hill Press in Fort Atkinson as a writer and editor of farm business publications and at the Janesville Gazette in Janesville as farm editor and feature writer. Later, she signed on as a public relations associate at Bader Rutter in Brookfield, and served as managing editor and farm editor at The Reporter, a daily newspaper in Fond du Lac.

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