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A combination of technological innovation and traditional values passed down through five generations of dairy farmers has led the Minnesota Milk Producers Association (MMPA) to select the Square Deal Dairy in Randolph from among 3,300 dairy farms across the state as its "Producer of the Year."

"One of the things that is refreshing is they've got their next generation wanting to come back into the dairy," said Bob Lefebvre, MMPA executive director. "They're young men, starting their own families, getting married," Lefebvre said. "These are highly educated, highly motivated, next-generation millennials — it's exciting."

Dakota County has 23 of the 167 dairy farms across the seven-county metro area, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's latest report. But over the past decade, the number of dairy farms across the state has declined 3 to 5 percent a year, according to Marin Bozic, who studies agricultural economics at the University of Minnesota.

The dairy, owned and operated by Blake and Chicky Otte, produces milk for Kemps yogurt and cottage cheese. They employ a dozen workers who help milk 450 cows three times a day on their 1,500-acre property, where they also grow corn silage to feed the cattle. Their three sons — Tyler, Bret and Eric — range in age from 19 to 24, and have already committed to taking over the business, which in an ever-changing industry, is a badge of honor for their parents.

Dairy farming requires intense training and networking to ensure the longevity of workers and equipment.

"We're also willing to help each others succeed," Chicky Otte said of dairy farmers across the state. "That is really big, to know that support is out there."

For instance, when the Otte family wanted to build an advanced milking parlor to better automate their dairy farm 20 years ago, they toured and contacted farms in the surrounding region before finding a model facility in Wisconsin.

The motivation, they said, was simple: better cow comfort and production and more time to balance life. It's that type of dedication to the animals, as well as family ties, that have helped sustain their farm. The Ottes have remained active in their church and children's school athletics.

"You have to have passion. You have to have a family that understands the hours you put in," Blake Otte said.

He still uses his grandfather's tractor and lives in the 1904 farmhouse where he grew up, daily reminders of the family's deep roots.

Otte said to remain in business, though, the family has embraced more modern methods to feed and milk its cattle. The upcoming generation attended college in Minnesota so that they could acquire new skills.

"Not everything is rosy picture every day. We all have problems. We all have breakdowns," Blake Otte said. "You've got to have faith in your operation."

The Ottes and their farm were featured in a YouTube video produced by Kansas-based company DHTV Digital. The video includes family photos and depicts daily life on the farm and around the dinner table, where the Ottes eat a casserole dish chased down with glasses of milk.

Work on the farm seems never-ending but Blake Otte says he never thinks about calling it quits.

"Retirement is funny," he said. "I guess I never even thought about it."

Chicky Otte can see it coming, though — "When the boys kick us off."

Natalie Daher • 612-673-1775