May 16, 2022 at 6:21 p.m.

One generation at a time

Nelsons reflect on dairy career, anticipate the future
Jerry and Deb Nelson stand by their barn April 19 at their farm near Arena. The Nelsons milk 50 cows with their son, Kris. PHOTO BY ABBY WIEDMEYER
Jerry and Deb Nelson stand by their barn April 19 at their farm near Arena. The Nelsons milk 50 cows with their son, Kris. PHOTO BY ABBY WIEDMEYER

By Abby [email protected] | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

ARENA, Wis. – Nels-Vale farm has been home to dairy cows and four generations of Nelsons since 1915. As the times change, Jerry and Deb Nelson reflect on their part in the farm’s story and what the next chapter will look like.
“Experience teaches you a lot,” Jerry said. “I guess if you don’t learn from experience, you probably wouldn’t be farming.”
The Nelsons milk 50 cows in a tiestall barn in Iowa County near Arena.
Jerry’s great-grandfather, Karl Nelson, came to Arena from Norway to join family and friends that had already made the journey. Karl farmed on a couple different farms for five years before purchasing the farm that stayed in the family. The farm began with a few animals and some land which was typical for the era.
“They somehow scraped up money and bought 40 acres,” Jerry said. “They had a cow or two and worked for the neighbors in the village of Arena.”
Henry Nelson, Jerry’s grandfather, expanded the farm in 1915. He had a funeral business with a team of horses that pulled a buggy and a hearse, serving three surrounding towns. When he quit the funeral business, they added some animals and began milking on a larger scale.
Jerry’s father took over the reins after graduating eighth grade.
“Dad always used a rented bull and milked whatever was standing there,” Jerry said. “That’s just how they did things back then.”
Jerry grew up and made plans to get married, knowing he would someday take over the farm. His parents accelerated that plan.
“Ten days before the wedding, Jerry went in for breakfast after chores one day and his mom said, ‘Go get your clothes changed, we’re going to the attorney to sell you the farm today,’” Deb said.     
Jerry and Deb officially bought the farm that day in October 1979. They split the herd with Jerry’s dad the following January. Jerry and Deb stayed on the farm, and his dad went down the road with his half of the cows to continue farming on his own.
“Jerry’s dad probably should have retired, but he wanted to keep milking cows,” Deb said.
Jerry and Deb began shipping their milk to Associated Milk Producers Inc. that same year. Previously, the farm had shipped to a small creamery nearby.
“The creamery was Grade B,” Deb said. “We decided to ship Grade A milk and put an addition on the end of the barn.”
This change opened up opportunities for the young couple to get involved with their milk cooperative. They joined AMPI’s Young Cooperators program where young producers would get together over the summer and an outstanding young cooperator was chosen every year.
“We met people from practically all over the state,” Jerry said.
Deb holds two positions for the AMPI board; district secretary and resolutions. Jerry is finishing his last year as a district director.
Aside from upgrading their milk quality, Jerry and Deb also purchased a few registered animals in an effort to improve the genetics of their herd. They tried to use good bulls and had a few cows go Excellent at 90 points.
“It was a big deal back then to go out and buy a registered animal,” Jerry said. “That was 40 years ago. It was always neat to be able to go back and know what the generations are.”
Today the farm is using more polled bulls. Deb said she is tired of dehorning, and Jerry worries about the animal welfare aspect of it.
Jerry and Deb agreed farming has not always been an easy road.
“There were times we were not sure if we’d make it,” Jerry said.
Deb said that even though they are not organic, there were times they did not spray the crops or use fertilizer. Instead, they would cultivate the corn and use a nutrient management program to maximize the benefits of their manure.
“We were just careful about what we did, what we spent and how we did things,” Deb said. “We were able to raise five kids here.”
One of those children, Kris, is investing in the farm by upgrading equipment. This year, the farm will plant corn with a GPS guided 12-row corn planter. As the precision ag technician at a local implement dealership, Chris is using a more modern method of farming.
The Nelsons think NAME may eventually take over the farm.
“He likes the cows but envisions more of a freestall and robot set up,” Jerry said. “We told him that’s fine but it will be on his dollar.”
Deb said she watched Jerry and his dad transition the farm and the difficulties that come with working with family. She is now watching the same with Jerry and Chris.
“It runs in our family,” Jerry said. “At one point, I wanted to quit school because dairy farming is all I ever wanted to do.”
Jerry said he is not ready to let go of the reins just yet.
“I think of what we had when we first started here,” Jerry said. “The quality I am finally seeing, especially in the youngstock, I wouldn’t want to see them step on a trailer.”
Deb agreed.
“When people ask why he doesn’t quit milking cows, he just says, ‘What else am I going to do?’”


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