Rollingstone, MN had 11 inches of snow fall the February night in 2019 Clark Farms’ freestall barn collapsed. Fourteen 1st lactation cows died, and the team worked quickly to relocate the remaining animals to a neighbor’s facility. The farm, already challenged by years of low milk prices, had choices to make.
Becky Clark bet on the future.
“I thought, ‘I can take the money and fix what we have,” said Clark, 38. “But then I thought, ‘Okay, well, the right thing to do is to replace the roof because it was 30 years old, so that’s an extra cost. And then, ‘Okay, well, it wrecked two fans, but really we need eight.’”
Clark decided to make necessary cow comfort upgrades in the barn rebuild, including fans, brushes and sprinkler systems. “If you’re going to make updates for the cows, now is the time to do it,” she thought at the time, “Even though financially, milk-price wise, it was not a good time, we decided that it was something that was going to pay us back.”
“And we took that leap and took on loans to do it. And we’re glad we did, because it definitely paid us back.”
Clark didn’t always picture a farm life for herself. After graduating with a health science degree, she pursued a career in the medical field. But as a fourth-generation dairy farmer, when the opportunity arose to return to the farm, Clark didn’t think twice. “I’ve always loved farming, and so I automatically said yes” when her father asked her if she wanted to assume a vacant manager position on the farm.
Nine years later, she’s made major improvements to farm infrastructure and cow comfort. Clark Farms’ herd has grown from 370 to now-600 milking cows, incorporated sand-bedded freestalls and brisket tubes and improved transition cow comfort, while Clark has recently become sole proprietor of the Land O’Lakes member farm after buying out her parents’ share of the business in 2022.
“Anytime I’ve ever put money into cow comfort, it’s paid me back.”
Clark said she’s committed to the welfare of her animals and is currently undertaking construction of what she calls her “special needs” freestall barn, which includes all cows that may need a little extra attention under one roof, including all treated and transition animals. The barn promotes cow comfort and labor efficiency on the farm.
The herd has excelled under Clark’s watch. The improvements to cow comfort have helped improve pregnancy rates and made for more consistent milk production, she said. “You’re gaining all of that and you’re keeping the cows more comfortable.”
Outside the farm, Clark said she stays busy advocating for agriculture and learning about ways to make her farm more environmentally and economically sustainable. She is a board member for her local farm bureau and the Minnesota Dairy Initiative and participates in the new Driftless Area AG Alliance, a team of farmers who regularly collaborate to learn more about developing sustainability projects and how they can be implemented in their area.
“We’re getting together and just learning from each other,” she said. “Getting experts in the field to come and show us different cover crops or inner seeding or tillage practices, or no-till, and what works. I think if we all work together, we can help make our area more sustainable for the future.”
Clark said she continues to look to the future, even as dairy prices fall even lower than they were the day her barn collapsed. She advocates for enrollment in the USDA’s Dairy Margin Coverage program, a vital safety net for dairy farmers, and uses hedging options, such as the Livestock Gross Margin program, when it’s profitable for the farm.
Most importantly though, Clark said she is thankful to work every day to provide a nutritious product (containing 13 essential nutrients, including 3 of the 4 nutrients of public health concern) to consumers every day.
“Just an honest love of what I do. Getting to do something different every day, getting to take care of the animals and work with the land and the local community,” she said.
“It’s a lot of work, but when it’s something that you love doing, it’s really not work,” she continued. “I think that’s really a privilege in life. There’s tough days and there’s good days, but you get through all of them, and it makes you a tougher person.”