Her favorite place to be

Nielsen fulfills dream to farm while managing two herds

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LAKE MILLS, Wis. — Every morning, Madalyn Nielsen walks down the stairs of her second-story apartment in her grandma’s red brick house to start the workday with her dog, Reed, at her side. The 22-year-old has a lot of responsibility on the farm, but she could not imagine doing anything else.

“I’ve known I wanted to be a farmer ever since I was 3 years old and saw a cow give birth,” Nielsen said.

Nielsen farms with her dad, Christopher, and her grandma, Mary Ann. The Nielsens milk 145 cows and farm 530 acres near Lake Mills. Nielsen milks mornings and nights, feeds calves, does herd records, gives vaccinations, treats sick animals and more.

Nielsen manages two herds, splitting her duties between the two — farm A and farm B — named after the county road on which each is located.

Nielsen and Mary Ann live on farm A, the home farm, where she milks 65 cows with six units. She typically gets help from her dad or a part-time high school student. Five miles away at farm B, a hired hand milks 80 cows.

At farm A, cows are milked and housed in a 65-stall tiestall barn with access to pasture, where they spend nights in nice weather. At farm B, cows are housed in sand-bedded free stalls and milked in a 52-stall stanchion barn.

Keeping somatic cell count low is a focus for the Nielsens, who won a milk quality award from Dairy Farmers of America last year and have had a SCC as low as 32,000.

“We make sure cows are clean and that we keep everything clean to produce quality milk,” Nielsen said. “We also test milk from fresh or treated cows before we ship it.”

Mary Ann and her late husband, Robert, purchased farm B in 1963. They rented farm A before buying it in 1976. They relocated to farm A but continued to milk cows at both places. Mary Ann owns both farms as well as half the cattle, while Nielsen’s dad owns the other half of the herd.

“Dad and I would like this farm to be ours eventually,” Nielsen said.

Nielsen owns 12 registered Brown Swiss which are housed at farm A. The Holstein, Red and White and Jersey herd owned by her dad and grandma is split between the farms.

“I love the Swiss,” said Nielsen, who bought her first animal about six years ago. “Swiss have a stubborn and sassy personality — kind of like me. They are a challenge, but I like a challenge. The calves are hard to raise, but the cows are hardy and rarely get sick.”

Nielsen started working on her grandma’s farm when she was 13 by caring for calves and, later, milking cows. When her aunt Nancy passed away, Nielsen took over naming the calves and managing their records.

Nielsen is responsible for the health of all cows and calves. She is present at every herd check and works with the farm’s nutritionist and veterinarian to make improvements.

“I work with our vet, Dr. Jen Brase of Cattle Creek Veterinary Clinic, a lot,” Nielsen said. “I ask her stuff all the time, and she’s helped me gain a lot of knowledge.”

Calf care is a priority for Nielsen, whose intuition keeps her on top of health issues.

“I just know if they’re not feeling good,” she said. “I don’t want to lose any calves, and I’m a critic with calf care from the moment a calf is born.”

All calves are raised at farm A in outdoor hutches. Nielsen has about 20 calves on milk. She cares for all newborns, including those born at farm B, ensuring they are promptly fed colostrum and receive preventative treatments.

Nielsen also cleans barns, beds calf hutches, does daily herd health checks and helps with fieldwork.

Nielsen attended the University of Wisconsin Farm and Industry Short Course and was a member of the last class to graduate from the Madison campus in 2022. Nielsen said her heart is at home with the cows, and during her first semester, she made the 45-minute drive back and forth each day, milking cows before and after classes.

“I just had to be here,” Nielsen said. “I don’t want to be away from the farm. When I’m not here, I feel like I’m missing something or that I could be doing something better.”

Nielsen has certificates in dairy farm management, management of soils and crops, and foundation of farm and agribusiness management. She is also certified to breed cattle.

“I want to start breeding our cows, but I need a little more training,” she said. “I put what I learned toward our farm and continue to learn more each day.”

Promoting wellness and identifying the first signs of ketosis, milk fever or pneumonia are skills Nielsen learned in the short course that have proven of value in managing the herd.

“I brought a lot of that back and do all the treating of calves and heifers,” Nielsen said. “My dad helps with bigger heifers and cows.”

Nielsen makes culling and purchasing decisions, while her grandma and uncle make financial decisions.

“I always want to do more things on the farm and would like to start getting into the financial aspects too,” Nielsen said.

Nielsen is accustomed to being a leader. She served as president of her high school FFA chapter and received the American FFA Degree. She was a member of the track team and mentored younger students as well.

Nielsen’s short-term goal is to switch to an electronic program for storing all animal records. She would also like to build a dedicated dry cow and maternity pen at farm A with a goal to move all cows to this location. Two farms create twice the challenges, and Nielsen is hoping to consolidate the herds.

“It’s challenging to have two farms,” she said. “We have two of everything. It’s a lot of money and maintenance. I have to be in both places, and sometimes I’m just running around all day. It would be nice to have everything in one spot.”

She has also considered adding a freestall barn and milking parlor at farm A.

“I love the tiestall barn, but it might be easier on my knees,” Nielsen said. “I would retrofit the parlor into the barn. I would also like to get a few really nice cows and sell embryos to earn a little more income beyond milking.”

Currently, other revenue streams for the farm are cash crops and steers.

Nielsen is hands-on, tackling all chores as she fulfills her lifelong dream of being a dairy farmer.

“Even though it’s a hard business, farming is something I would love to do forever,” Nielsen said. “I love cows so much and have great connections with my animals. I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”

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