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ER for cows: Ocheda Dairy to the rescue

WORTHINGTON — When you’re part of a community, stepping up to help neighbors in need comes naturally.

So when the Carlson Dairy farm in Kandiyohi County near Pennock was heavily damaged in a storm early last Sunday morning, leaving hundreds of cows without shelter, sustenance and the means to be milked, it wasn’t surprising that dairy farmers from across Minnesota swiftly leaped into action.

“Within an hour after the storm occurred, 100 people were already on the scene to help,” said Rita Vander Kooi, who owns and operates Ocheda Dairy in Nobles County with her husband Joe and father-in-law Dave.

Hundreds more soon descended on the affected farm, bringing rakes, shovels and willing hands to aid in cleaning up the mess inflicted by the possibly tornadic storm.

But the need to care for the cows while barns and pens were repaired or rebuilt was immediate, and urgent.

“We were driving home from church and were planning to host Joe’s family for lunch when I pulled up my Facebook page,” explained Rita.

There, at the top of her news feed, was an item that had already been shared hundreds of times.

“A lot of my contacts and friends are also dairy farmers, and a genetic company that sells bull semen to dairy farmers, Minnesota Select Sires Co-op, Inc., had put out the call for help,” she said.

Upon arriving home, Joe began loading trailers with equipment, planning to head north toward Willmar to personally assist the farmers in need.

“But I had posted right away, ‘Contact us if we can be of help,’ and even as Joe was loading gear I got a call from a college friend of ours who is a good friend of the Carlsons, saying, ‘Hold everything; we want to send cows your way.’”

The Vander Koois’ operation was chosen not only because it had the space for the cows but also because a certain level of trust already existed between the two dairy families.

“We talk to them at dairy farmers’ events,” explained Rita, and Joe Vander Kooi and Chad Carlson had also connected at a forage harvester meeting last winter.

By 6:30 p.m. Sunday, the first of 11 semis carrying 310 Carlson Dairy cows arrived at Ocheda Dairy; the last semi was unloaded at 11:30 p.m. that night.

“The first priority was water, feed and rest for the animals,” noted Rita.

“These are extremely calm, gentle cows who are showing no signs whatsoever of stress,” she added. “We’ve been blown away by that; they’ve adjusted seamlessly, and we have a really great group of employees taking care of them.

“They’ve been nothing but outstanding in their care for these cows.”

Like Ocheda Dairy, Carlson Dairy is a family-run operation currently in its fourth generation. Curtney and Louise Carlson, along with their two sons and daughters-in-law (Chad and Kindra Carlson and Carl and Kellie Carlson), milk about 1,700 predominantly Holstein cows under normal conditions.

In 2009, Carlson Dairy was chosen the Minnesota Milk Producer Association’s Producer of the Year.

Rita believes God was at work in setting forth the circumstances allowing Ocheda Dairy to be in the position to aid the Carlson Dairy cows in this emergency situation.

“We are just completing a building project — a remodeling and expansion that’s been ongoing for over a year—but due to a combination of several factors, we hadn’t filled the new spaces yet,” she said.

“The project should have been done long ago, but it was so wet last spring that it was delayed into the summer. There were so many coincidences that it can be nothing more than God’s timing.”

Although the Vander Koois, who have four young children, dropped everything and enlisted their skilled and caring employees to accommodate the temporarily homeless cows, they believe it’s a chance for them to pay back some of the kindness that was showed to them two years ago when their daughter, Ava, was injured in an accident.

“We have experienced that overwhelming outpouring of support,” confirmed Rita.

“One of the Carlson wives spoke to me on the phone and was overcome with emotion due to the response, and I said, ‘I know just where you’ve been.”

Rita emphasizes that provisionally increasing their herd by over 20 percent would not be possible without the commitment and buy-in of Ocheda Dairy’s stellar employees.

“Bryan Voss, herd manager, and Corey Boehnke, feed manager, are terrific, and all of our 20 employees have been wonderful about rising to the occasion,” she assured.  

Rita insists Ocheda Dairy is a small part of the extensive network of farmers and others striving to assist the Carlsons, noting that the Carlsons’ heifers are being cared for at three other facilities.

“There’s been a hashtag used — #mndairyunite — that shows what we’re doing here is part of a bigger story,” said Rita.

“This is about dairy farmers all pulling together and showing support, and we’re happy to help because we know they’d do the same thing for us.”

And with June being National Dairy Month, everyone can get involved by simply making a point of purchasing their favorite dairy products — including ice cream.

“Buy some more dairy products because they’re part of a healthy, well-rounded diet,” urged Rita.

While the ravages of a storm aren’t wished upon anyone, a silver lining to this considerable cloud is the selfless response of hundreds.

Summarized Rita, “In Pennock, someone was quoted as saying they’d seen the worst of Mother Nature and the best of human nature.”