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Radtkes build small organic dairy farm

Brandon Roiger Published on 11 September 2015

After taking a beginning farmers class, Rich and Carol Radtke were excited to remodel their barn and start a dairy operation with the help of their daughter, Madison. That dream was nearly plundered when the barn burnt to the ground on March 4, 2014.

Not long after, a local community member, Jim Rothers of ABC Bin Co. LLC., approached Rich and told him to put a plan together and design a barn. When they met again, he told Rich to have the contractor send the bill his way.



“There was about $40,000 or $50,000 of bills we never saw,” Rich says. There’s a debt with him the family won’t ever be able to repay, Rich and Carol agree.

“But there’s no agreement,” Rich says. “He just said, ‘I want the story. I just want to be able to tell the story.’”

The story starts like this: More than a year later, the Radtkes couldn’t be doing better. When people caught wind of their story, within a week or two, the family had received nearly $11,000 in donations and Carol started a T-shirt fundraiser for thousands more.

They now serve as a model of how a family can start a small dairy farm from scratch with the support of others. With the help of Rothers, they started building a parlor in June 2014 and finished Jan. 19. The next day it was inspected and ready to sell Grade A milk.

The first milk truck from Organic Valley came on Jan. 23. The truck arrives every other day, regardless if it is a holiday.


Their operation started before the barn was built, with 20 heifers and one cow milked by Carol by hand. They got the cattle from an organic dairy near Grove City, Minnesota, about 20 miles away.

All of the construction and cement work in the building was local. The man who did the welding, Mike Lindquist of Murdock, Minnesota, even sold 14 of his Ayrshire cows to the Radtkes to milk. The other dairy cattle are registered Jersey and Jersey crossbreds.

The parlor itself is a low-cost design that has been common in New Zealand for the last 20 to 30 years, Rich says.

The parlor design was based off of research by Dr. Larry Tranel, with the Iowa State University Extension as an outreach dairy specialist, and Vance Haugen, Rich says.

He says the floor slopes downward from the middle to keep the feet comfortable of whoever is milking the cows. The room is slanted at an angle so the cows don’t rush as they come in.

The Radtkes have a bulk tank that holds 600 gallons, which equals about 5,000 pounds.


“We’ve only hit 1,500 pounds of milk once,” Rich says. He doesn’t expect to fill it to its capacity anytime soon.

Carol and Madison normally do the milking. If one of them is away, Rich can step in. “We work much better together,” Carol says with a laugh about Madison.

In order to keep track of the herd, the Radtkes use DairyLive herd management software. They can use a smartphone to log in and record information about each cow.

Rich says the parlor didn’t have a heater when they first built it. When the snow came in and didn’t leave, they decided to buy a shop heater.

“It was the best $500 we’ve ever spent,” Rich says. “We keep it 40 degrees all the time except for about an hour-and-a-half twice a day, then it bumps up to 60 degrees.”

The farm just started using UdderOne Transparent Technology, one of the only teat cup liners in the world made with polyurethane material.

Rich says the material from normal equipment has carbon filler in it that can leach into the milk. This liner doesn’t have any fillers.

Carol likes the ability to see the milk flow and be sure the teat is correct in the liner. “You know it’s milking correctly then,” she says.

“That’s probably the coolest thing we got,” Rich says. Besides the farm-wide Ayrstone/Ayrmesh WiFi HUB, he noted. It provides WiFi up to a mile away from the house.

The Radtkes moved to the farm in 2008 and were organic-certified in 2011. Lindquist, the same man who welded some of the equipment together and sold the Radtkes his Ayrshire dairy cattle, helped them with the certification process.

“Without Mike and his willingness to help a greenhorn, Carol and I would not be farming today – much less farming organically,” Rich says. “Every new farmer should have a mentor or two.”

Rich says the farm is making $32 or $33 per 100 pounds of milk, whereas a conventional farm might be around $16 or $17, Carol says.

“You can stay small and make a modest living,” Rich says.

See the Radtke's monthly cash flow executive summary for the last year (PDF, 54KB).

Rich, Carol and Madison RadtkeThe farm doesn’t use corn or soy. The cattle are fed naturally by the pastures or given hay in the winter. The hay has been a little too high-quality, so the farm adds grain by feeding ground oats in the spring to bring down the protein level, Rich says.

The family has 60 acres of pastures for the cattle to graze.

The farm uses Ritchie water fountains, which only cost about $35 to heat during the year. A typical stock tank sometimes can cost $25 or $30 each month for the Radtkes to heat. After a couple years, the Ritchie pays itself out.

“And they look good too,” Rich says.

The yard has a bedding pack that slowly composts, but it is dry and produces heat so the cows are really comfortable during the winter, he says.

Even one of the dogs on the farm gave up her doghouse to sleep with the cows because it was warm. Carol says she thought it was a newborn calf when she first noticed it.

They received a loan for $126,000 through the USDA’s Farm Service Agency. Of that, $80,000 was for cows. The interest rate was 1.35 percent.

“It’s ridiculously low,” Rich says. “The conventional banks were at 5.5 or 6 percent at that time.”

A lot of the equipment was bought used or given to the family. The bulk tank and compressor were bought for $600 from a family down the road.

The building was less than $70,000 to build and stands at 32 feet x 48 feet. Rich found the European design from a toy model and based the building around it.

“It’s very efficient,” Rich says. “And if you’re Carol, it’s very easy to work with.”

The family uses a skid steer every few days for feeding hay, a four-wheeler every day to bring the cows in for milking and a tractor to cut hay every once in a while. That’s it, though.

“The inputs on this model are so low,” Rich says. “Our big cost is making hay.”

The calves are fed milk from the farm, and although it is a trade-off, Rich says the calves are exceptional. The bull calves sell for $600 under 10 days old.

Rich and Carol did their beginning farmer training through the Land Stewardship Project, where they set goals to establish a dairy, build a community and start an enterprise to accomplish those goals.

“What we’ve always tried to convey is that you can start off small before thinking big,” Rich says. “I’d rather have a small dairy than no dairy.”

Rich says the family aspect of it makes everything easier. “They’re a part of this just as much as I am,” Rich says of Carol and Madison.

“I like our farm; we’re sustainable, and that’s what’s important,” Carol says.

Rich asked Carol if she would let him do this again, and she said yes – without hesitation.

“Only with goats,” their daughter Madison joked. She’s hoping to add dairy goats into the operation in the next year or two. She will be a senior at Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg High School this year.

She doesn’t like the dairy cattle much, but her parents agreed they respond very well to her.

“She does a good job,” Carol said of Madison.

“I still don’t like them,” Madison responded with a smile.  PD

Brandon Roiger is a freelance writer and a junior in agricultural education at the University of Minnesota.

Rich and Carol Radtke
(320) 599-4142

Company website

PHOTO 1: The Radtkes have certified organic dairy cattle from multiple breeds including Ayrshire, Jersey and Holstein lineage.

PHOTO 2: Rich and Carol Radtke did their beginning farmer training through the Land Stewardship Project, where they set goals to establish a dairy, build a community and start an enterprise to accomplish those goals. Their daughter, Madison, has become a major part of the operation. She, along with Carol, milk the cows every day. Photos by Brandon Roiger.

Fast facts of the operation:

  • Custom-hired hay harvest three times per year: $6,000/year
  • Seed/planting: $1,000/year
  • Heating for milking facility: <$100/month
  • Electricity for milking facility: $250/month
  • Diesel fuel for farm operation: 300 gallons/year
  • Gasoline for farm operation: 150 gallons/year