September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.
FARIBAULT, Minn. - When the Ernste family lost their barn and herd of cows in a fire in 2002, they also lost their way of life.
"We didn't know what to do. You really wonder which way to go in your life when that happens," Duke Ernste said.
But it didn't take them long to figure out they couldn't live without cows. Now, over 10 years later, Duke and Mari Lou Ernste have been happily farming with their son, Andy (30), since rebuilding shortly after the fire. The Ernstes milk 58 cows on their dairy in Rice County near Faribault, Minn.
The day of the fire - Sept. 4, 2002 - was a day of devastation for the Ernste family. They lost their barn, entire herd and two silos.
"The priest from the church next door to our farm came over to visit us. I remember he put his hand on my shoulder and said, 'Duke, something good will come out of this,'" Duke said.
He didn't believe him at the time.
"I wish he was here now so I could hug him," Duke said. "He was right."
About a week after the fire, plans were underway to start rebuilding. It's also when Andy asked if he could come back and join the farm after working construction for about two years.
"It's the question a (farming) dad waits for his whole life," Duke said. "We thought it was great Andy wanted to come back. Family and dairy go hand in hand."
The possibility for Andy to join the farm had always been talked about, but never happened. This seemed like the best opportunity for him to join.
"The fieldwork doesn't impress me. I always liked cows," Andy said.
Andy is the second generation in their family to dairy on their farm. Duke and Mari Lou bought the farm in 1989.
When deciding on the type of facility to build, the Ernstes wanted a smaller facility that could be run by only the family without employees. They decided on a 52-cow tiestall barn.
"We knew we could run this, manage this and make it financially. People told me I needed to go bigger, but I didn't think so," Duke said.
By Feb. 3, 2003, the barn was done and cows were back on the farm. They bought a complete herd - milking cows, heifers and calves - from a retiring farmer who wanted to keep his herd together. The cows came with complete records.
"He knew everything about them," Andy said about the farmer.
The new barn had many upgraded features the Ernstes didn't have in their old barn.
"I always thought the old barn was nice ... but I realized how dated it was," Duke said.
The new upgrades included milkers with automatic take-offs.
"One person with four units in the old barn had to work to keep up," Duke said. "Now we have six and it's easy because of the take-offs."
Feed bunks and conveyors to move feed has also made life simpler.
"It was fabulous because there is so much automation," Mari Lou said. "There were no more wheelbarrows."
"I feed the whole herd and never touch a shovel," he said.
Tunnel ventilation with four 48-inch fans along with better lighting and having the barn insulated has made the cows more comfortable the Ernstes said.
"In the winter it's more of a problem keeping the barn cool than warm," Duke said.
To help with this, the Ernstes run one 36-inch fan at all times during the winter.
Since Andy has been farming with his parents, he has been able to bring in his own aspect of farming.
"I would like to see us go to a registered herd," Andy said.
He thinks it will help them keep better records of the cows and, he would like his kids to be able to show cows in 4-H. Currently, the herd is about 30 percent registered.
Andy has also taken over the breeding program on the farm.
"The genetics of our herd has really improved over the past 10 years," Duke said.
The majority of the breeding is done through A.I. along with a clean up bull.
Another goal Andy wants to achieve is to increase milk production.
On the calf side of the farm, the Ernstes decided to build calf pens in the barn in front of one side of cows.
"It really works well for us," Duke said. "Nobody's outside feeding calves."
Their most recent upgrade has been a pasteurizer, which they bought about one year ago.
"The calves are unbelievable. They're so healthy," Duke said. "And it only took three months for the pasteurizer to pay for itself. It was definitely worth it."
For the future, the Ernstes hope their farm keeps going.
"I want to see it passed on to the next ones and make it so it will work for them," Duke said.
Duke and Mari Lou's youngest daughter, Stacy (26), helps out on the farm whenever she can.
"When she's not working her own job, she's milking cows," Duke said.
"It makes life easy and gives us flexibility," Andy said.
There's a possibility the farm might grow to incorporate Stacy in at some point.
Andy hopes his kids might also show interest in the future. He and his wife, Meghan, have three children - Preston (6), Natalie (5) and Ethan (3).
But until the Ernstes decide where they want their future to go, they will enjoy the lifestyle they almost lost.
"Ten years into it, I would do it again in a heartbeat," Duke said about rebuilding. "I don't mind going to my job everyday. Farming is priceless to me."
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