Every farmer follows a different path when getting started, and Rick Dado’s path to dairy farming was truly unique.
He grew up on the University of Wisconsin-River Falls dairy farm where his father, Gary, was herd manager and taught a dairy herd management course. In 1976, Rick’s family moved to Amery, where he met his future wife, Gwen Betzold. Both were interested in agriculture and active in 4-H and FFA. Both would go on to serve as state FFA officers. Rick was also state FFA president in 1984-85.
Rick explored his interest in dairying by obtaining a B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. in dairy science and dairy nutrition. He held a faculty position at Southern Illinois University and then worked for Consolidated Nutrition in Michigan. Gwen earned B.S. and M.S. degrees in ag education and taught high school agriculture.
In 2000, the Dados, along with their four children, moved to Gwen’s parents’ dairy farm in Amery. By this time, Rick and Gwen were in their mid-30s and had years of off-farm education and work experience.
“Nobody has an innate right to be part of a business,” says Rick. “We’re here because we had an invitation to come back and farm with Gwen’s parents.”
One of the first projects Rick worked on was an expansion that took the herd from 200 cows up to the current 510 cows, using high-quality, registered Holsteins from Canada. In 2007, Rick and Gwen purchased the farm from Gwen’s parents, Merle and Thelma Betzold, and her brother Sheldon. They renamed the farm Four Hands Holsteins Inc. after their four children.
“It’s our goal to make improvements on the farm each day,” Rick says. “Gwen and I are partners in this endeavor; it takes both of us, along with our family and employees, to make this work. We’ve come a long way from where we started.”
The farm’s rolling herd average is 31,540 pounds of milk. This can be attributed to a keen eye for detail in cow comfort, superior genetics and high-quality feed.
Calves are started in individual hutches until weaning at 11 weeks of age, when they are moved to group housing. They are fed individually with pasteurized milk using a new milk shuttle to save time and work. Prebreeding-age heifers are kept on pasture and at breeding age are moved to a new freestall barn designed specifically for better heat detection and breeding. Pregnant heifers and dry cows are housed in a freestall barn with access to pasture. Sand bedding is used in all freestalls. Milking takes place three times per day in a flat-barn parlor.
All cattle are registered Holsteins, which isn’t typical for a herd of this size. Rick believes in this practice for marketing purposes, and it allows him to track pedigrees. His breeding philosophy is based on the premise of breeding high-producing cows that could also be show-worthy.
Crops and caring for the herd are of equal importance at Four Hands Holsteins.
“Not only do you have to run an efficient and productive dairy farm, but you must also know how to grow and put up quality crops,” Rick says. “From my standpoint, it’s 50-50 as to which enterprise generates the most profit, cows or crops.”
Over the past 16 years, the farm has increased from 600 to 1,400 acres, with corn, alfalfa and grass as the primary crops. Rick works closely with an agronomist and a custom operator to produce a high quantity of high-quality feed. Last year, the farm’s corn averaged 220 bushels per acre. This spring, Rick plans to plant low-lignin alfalfa and brown midrib corn hybrids.
The Dados’ children — Bethany, 23; Ethan, 21; Trent, 20; and Meikah, 18, are all pursuing degrees in college that will lead them to working in the ag industry.
“We’re excited to know that growing up on our farm has had a positive impact on them,” Gwen says. “The relationship our kids were able to have with their grandparents is valuable. It was one of the reasons we came home. Not all families can have that type of camaraderie.”
Throughout high school, all four kids experienced a high level of success in 4-H and FFA dairy judging, dairy quiz bowl, and FFA speaking contests, Rick says. “They’ve continued that success as college students, as well. We’re looking forward to seeing their future growth.”
The Dados enjoy promoting the dairy industry by donating milk to many community events, “leasing” their cattle to local students to show at the county and state fairs, and hosting an annual second-grade day on the farm.
Rick says he has given careful consideration to the question of what makes a Master Agriculturist.
“First and foremost, you have to be a communicator. You can’t accomplish everything alone,” he says. “We’re hands-on here and don’t ask employees to do anything we wouldn’t do. You know your communication with employees has been effective when the team watches out for one another.
“Next, you have to be aware of emerging technologies and methods,” Rick adds. “You have to know what it takes to achieve top results in all areas of the operation. We rely on outside experts in the field who work day in and day out in their area of expertise. This leads to being open-minded.”
Prioritizing family before cows is another point to be made for successful farmers, Rick says. “There has to be stability in your household, because this job gets harder if there is chaos. You have to have fun together and on the farm. Why else would you be doing it?
“And lastly, we’re grateful for what we have. We’ve been able to raise our family and achieve many of the goals we’ve set out to accomplish. This farm is not only our livelihood, it is our legacy.”
Giebel writes from Baraboo.
2017 Master Agriculturist
Location: Amery, Polk County
Farming enterprises: Holstein cows, crops
Size of farm: 1,900 owned and rented acres, 510 cows
Years farming: 17
Family: Wife, Gwen; daughters, Bethany and Meikah; and sons, Ethan and Trent