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Dairy duo

Rick and Gwen Dado dated briefly in high school before splitting up. They were juniors at University of Wisconsin-River Falls and serving as state FFA officers when Rick used the winnings of a dorm cribbage contest to make the calculated move of asking Gwen out.

The couple married after graduation. Rick pursued a graduate degree in dairy genetics and nutrition at University of Wisconsin-Madison while working at a USDA facility there. Gwen taught high school vo-ag at Reedsburg until 1990.

Next came a move to Michigan State University, where Rick earned a doctorate in dairy nutrition, and Gwen received a masters in ag and Extension education.

They spent the next five years in Carbondale, Illinois, where Rick was on the faculty at Southern Illinois University. By 1998, they had moved their family of five back to Michigan.

In 2000, Gwen's parents, Thelma and Merle Betzold, invited the Dados to join their Amery, Wisconsin, dairy operation, which included Gwen's brother, Sheldon.

“We were 36 years old,” Rick says. “We knew if we didn't return to the farm then, the opportunity wouldn't come again.”

So they made a midcourse correction. “I wanted the challenge of doing what I had been teaching and advising others to do,” Rick says. “I wanted to get on the other side of the table. In farming, you can see the fruits of your labor, and dairy cattle are very responsive to inputs. The farm had a large land base, good-quality cattle, and good people to work with.”

Gwen adds an emotional component to their decision. “We lived 12 hours from family for 10 years,” she says. “We wanted to be near them again. It was a huge decision, but we've never had any regrets.”

They grew from 125 cows to 200. One year later, they expanded up to 400 registered Holsteins, built a free stall barn, and installed a manure-handling system.

In 2007, Gwen and Rick purchased the operation. Merle passed away two months later. The Dados, parents of four, named their operation Four Hands Holsteins.

They milk three times daily, with a herd rolling average of about 30,000 pounds. They utilize long-day lighting, and high-quality forage to boost output.

“My background is nutrition, but I've turned over the ration work,” Rick says. He focuses on selecting genetics for balance and production. “I do the breeding for the reproductive program,” he says. “At the end of the day, it's a key factor.”

Gwen uses Quickbooks for billing, data entry, payroll, and taxes. “I'm in charge of calves, books, and kids,” she says. Rick concentrates on financial analysis, and the Dados also work with an accountant.

They have 10 employees. But Rick remains hands-on. “I enjoy physical work and don't expect others to do what I won't do in the cold and snow and muck,” he says. “It gets more employee buy-in; we have very little turnover.”

Bethany, 18, Ethan, 16, Trent, 15, and Meikah, 13, are integral to the operation. They take turns getting up at 3 a.m. to feed calves, and the three oldest fill in as milkers as needed in the summer. Gwen's mom feeds calves and nurtures newborns.

The children show registered cattle at 4-H, FFA, and Holstein Association events. The Dados are 4-H leaders, and Gwen helps coach Bethany and Ethan's winning National FFA Dairy Quiz Bowl team.

Decisions put to the test

Gwen and Rick discuss most decisions. Rick, a self-described analytical, researches and evaluates new practices. In 2005, they began milking fresh cows four times a day. “It was supposed to enhance production and udder health,” he says. “After four years, we've recently dropped back. It helped, but it also led to metabolic issues. Three times a day eases the burden on us and the cows.”

The Dados also added a new risk-management tool. “I used Livestock Gross Margin insurance for the first time last spring to protect against high feed costs and low milk prices,” Rick says. “The advantage over futures hedging is an RMA subsidy for the premium.”

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