The Dykstras operate D&S Hilltop Farms, which consists of a 300-plus head dairy operation and approximately 2,000 acres of corn, soybeans, alfalfa, oats and pasture. Steve and Esther are raising the third generation on the family farm in Bigelow Township.
While the Dykstras won’t be able to attend the Farmfest recognition — it’s the same day as the 4-H dairy show at the Nobles County Fair — they are appreciative of the honor. Selection is made each year by the Nobles County Extension Committee, and the awards are presented by University of Minnesota Extension.
The Dykstras’ ties to Bigelow Township began in 1969 when, while Dorward was serving in Vietnam with the Army Reserves, his wife and two young children moved to a farm purchased by Dorward’s father.
Dorward was sent to Vietnam in September 1968, four years after he and Shirley married, and a day after their daughter Cindy was born.
“We were living across the line in Iowa,” shared Shirley. “When Dorward left for Vietnam, I had one that was two years old (Gary) and one that was two days old.”
When the farm in Bigelow Township came up for sale, Shirley tried to ask Dorward over ham radio if she should purchase the place. He couldn’t hear what she said, though, so his dad stepped in and bought it for them.
Shirley moved with the two little kids in early March 1969, and Dorward came home from the war on June 18th. After six years of military service, he received an early out because he was a farmer.
While Shirley worried a bit about the reunion with the daughter he’d only met once, she soon realized there was nothing to worry about.
“I gave her to him and she smiled at him and it was like, ‘Where have you been?’” she recalled.
With Dorward’s return, the couple moved their small dairy herd (it was cared for by Dorward’s sister and brother-in-law while he was away) to the new farm. They had a dozen cows, with plans to grow the herd.
It was just before calving season, though, when the cows were moved, and they lost all but one of the calves due to a bacterial bug. Shirley said if they’d moved the cows earlier in the pregnancy, they would have developed immunity and passed it to their offspring.
In time, the Dykstras grew not only their dairy herd, but their family. They added two more children — Steve and Cherilyn — and increased the dairy herd from 20 cows to 40, and then to 80 … and then Shirley stopped suggesting they had enough.
When Steve, who graduated from Faith Christian High School in 1990, was ready to join in the family business, he suggested they continue to grow the herd.
The Dykstras operate one of the smaller dairies in Nobles County. Their herd is mostly Holsteins, with a few Brown Swiss heifers and cows that are 4-H show animals for Steve and Esther’s six children.
The farm has nine full-time employees, who primarily handle the milking. The cows are milked at 5 a.m., 1 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. daily — a schedule that has been in place for the past 28 years.
The switch was made from two milkings per day to three in 1993 — the same year flooding wiped out the corn and they had to plow it under. Adding a third milking into the schedule resulted in a 10% increase in milk production, which helped make up for the crop loss, shared Steve.
All of the milk produced at D&S Hilltop Farms is marketed to AMPI in Sanborn, Iowa, to be processed into a variety of cheeses.
The technological advancements in farming between Dorward’s start (with horses) and that of Steve and Esther’s oldest son, Carl, are nothing short of incredible.
These days, Carl can keep an eye on the operation — monitoring everything from planting progress to yield — through an app on his iPad while he’s away at college. He is taking business classes at Dordt University this fall after completing two years in the agriculture program. Carl also crop-shares 80 acres with his maternal grandfather, and helps Steve and Esther full-time on the family farm.
Like his dad, Carl took an interest in farming by the time he was able to walk.
“That’s all (Steve) knew was farming and fishing — and not in that order,” joked Shirley. “He didn’t care about anything but being with his dad.”
And when Carl was little, he refused to return to daycare after the first week because he wanted to stay home and farm, added Esther.
Steve said he started driving tractor at age 6, and rented his first piece of land the year he graduated from high school. He and Esther married three years later, and they moved to the home farm in 2000, when Dorward and Shirley purchased an acreage two miles away on Lake Ocheda.
By then, the dairy had been converted from stanchions to a double-4 parlor, meaning they could milk eight cows at a time. Today, they have expanded the parlor to a double-10.
“We calve from September to December,” added Esther. “Each calf is genetically tested so we can tell if it’s a good quality calf.
Heifers that rank in the top 75% are kept for building the cow herd, added Steve. All of the bull calves are sold at birth.
The Dykstras installed a robotic calf feeder several years ago to reduce the amount of manual labor during chores. Whether they will add more robotics, such as robotic milkers, is up to the kids, Steve said.
“That sounds like our line,” Shirley added with a laugh.
While Carl is pursuing agriculture, daughter Karen will be a college freshman this fall. Trent, 16, attends Western Christian in Hull, Iowa; Stephanie, 14, attends Worthington High School; Paula, 12, will be a seventh grader at Worthington Christian School this fall, and Lanae, 9, will be a fourth grader.
The Dykstras are active on a variety of boards, committees and councils, with Dorward in his third term on the Bigelow Township Board. He previously served on the United Co-op Elevator board when it was in Bigelow. He and Shirley are also involved with the Bigelow Asian American Christian Reformed Church council, and Shirley led Bible School in the summer for more than 40 years. A long-time substitute teacher at a few area schools, she was also very active in organizing and leading private English as a second language classes out of the Bigelow church for 15 years.
Steve currently serves as a delegate for the southwest region of AMPI, and is a past member of the Worthington Christian School board and church council. Meanwhile, Esther serves on the Nobles County American Dairy Association.
Steve and Esther’s daughter, Karen, is serving her third year as a Nobles County Dairy Princess, and all of their children either were or are active in 4-H as members of the Elk Tip Toppers. Their older kids were and are involved in the FFA.