ELGIN, Minn. – Building or upgrading a dairy can cause stressors for many dairy farmers; however, the Fessendens and Reiters felt more at ease with their budget for their new dairy facility after receiving a Livestock Investment Grant from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
    “Receiving the grant is making a big difference in our ability to move forward with our project timeline and continue to improve our overall farm,” Brenda Fessenden said.

    Fessenden received a grant for the 2019 and 2020 fiscal years to build a robotic milking facility with room for 120 cows. She farms together her husband, Sam, along with her parents, Craig and Cathy Reiter, on the Reiters’ farmsite near Elgin.
    Minnesota livestock farmers are eligible to apply for a portion of the $789,000 available as part of the LIG program for the 2021 fiscal year. The MDA will reimburse 10% of the first $250,000 of an eligible project with a $25,000 maximum each year and a lifetime maximum of $50,000.
    Projects eligible for the grant money include buildings or facilities for the production of livestock or livestock products; development of pasture for use by livestock; and equipment for livestock housing, confinement, feeding and waste management.
    Applications for the grant must be received by 4 p.m. Nov. 4.
    “For Minnesota’s dairy industry, the progress that has been made really focuses on improving the operation to stay competitive in current markets and for future generations,” said Courtney VanderMey, livestock investment administrator for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. “The application in some cases can serve as a planning stage for projects you want to complete in 2021. This would be a good opportunity to start analyzing your budget and bringing your ideas forward into the planning phase.”
    Last year, 25 of the 39 grant recipients were dairy producers. Among the 25, $478,000 was awarded to their projects, with an average of $19,000 per project.
    “This is a competitive grant, but I highly encourage people to apply,” VanderMey said. “Less funds are available than in past years, which does add to the competitiveness of the grant.”
    The money people received last year helped farms add robotic technology, improve calf housing, update freestall housing, work on manure management, improve water quality, increase cow comfort and prioritize safety.
    Fessenden put her grant money toward the purchase of robotic milking units, fans, compressors and other equipment.
    “This grant was a big deal for us. As we were developing our cash flow this additional money made the project more feasible,” Fessenden said. “It made our timeline more appropriate. Instead of needing to wait longer and continue to build our money, it allowed us to move forward.”
    Plus, Fessenden said because of the grant, the family has been able to invest in other areas of the dairy, including remodeling a dry cow barn. They also plan to remodel a calving area in the upcoming six months.
    The automated milking venture brings the Reiter family back into the dairy industry after they sold their herd in 2011. When the Fessendens worked in the industry for several years after college, they realized they wanted a dairy of their own.
    “I think it’s a great industry to be a part of,” Fessenden said. “That’s why we decided to start this business with my parents.”
    For the past three years, the Fessendens and Reiters have been planning and building their new facility – a 3-row sand-bedded freestall barn with natural ventilation and two robotic milkers. The first cows went through the setup Sept. 22.
    “It’s very exciting and at times it seems a little crazy, but Sam and I are very lucky my parents were willing to do this with us, and they were willing to get back into it,” Fessenden said. “We used to milk in a stanchion barn which was fairly labor intense so this is a better fit all around when we think about how we are using our time.”
    Robots were the only option they were willing to pursue in order to achieve their desired lifestyle with flexibility in order to accommodate family life, especially now that the Fessendens’ have a 6-month-old daughter, Hannah.
    “We want to focus on how we can be excellent care takers of the land and at the same time make sure we’re having fun with it and enjoying what we’re doing,” Fessenden said. “That’s what we’re striving for as we move forward with our dairy.”
    In the application process, grant money needs to be allocated to specific items if part of a larger project. Fessenden said her family submitted an itemized list of their entire project along with reference letters from consultants and extension agents they worked with. They also submitted bids they received for robots and other equipment.
    “I believe we do a good job shopping around and  pricing things out, but the grant asked for multiple bids so it ensured that we looked at numerous options,” Fessenden said.  
    Paperwork for the grant should not be a reason not to apply, she said.
    “It’s a very manageable application,” she said. “It’s a fantastic program. I would strongly encourage other people to apply for it. … It helped us a lot.”