Gustafson family of Willmar are Good Farm Neighbor winners

By Heather Thorstensen

WILLMAR, Minn. — The Gustafson family of Willmar has been named the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s November Good Farm Neighbor Award winners.

The award honors farmers who show concern for their neighbors, their animals and the environment.

Three generations of Gustafson men run their custom feed operation. There’s Neil and his son, Tom, and Tom’s sons, Riley and Wade.


Neil still helps with daily chores at the age of 80. Riley manages the cattle and keeps records while Wade does grain and field work.

"I’m the guy they bounce stuff off of," said Tom. "We always try to work together. Constant conversation between us is very important. That’s the hardest thing of the whole operation."

They raise 1,200 to 1,400 dairy replacement heifers on two farm sites. The cattle arrive when they are 12 weeks old and usually leave a month or two prior to calving. Some heifers are there for 18 months, others are there as little as six months.

The Gustafsons got into the replacements business after they stopped milking in 1993. The people they sold their cattle to asked if the family could continue raising heifers. Today they raise replacements for seven or eight dairy operations.

Tom said there is a lot of housing near the farm so they make an effort to be good neighbors by getting all required permits and abiding by all regulations set by Kandiyohi County and the state.

Tom, Wade and Riley have acheived the recognition of Dairy Quality Assurance Five-Star Heifer Growers. The DQA Five-Star program is country-wide and serves as a third-party verification for milk markets.

The program is based on self-audits, herd veterinarian verification and the DQA Center analysis of production practices and protocols. The Gustafsons received the award by focusing on daily care, feeding and heifer welfare. It also shows the family’s concern for environmental stewardship, employee safety, biosecurity and animal health.

"It’s the best management practices, (that’s) what we do," Tom said.


They keep up-to-date manure management plans. They use corn stalks for bedding, which becomes a manure pack. They also collect manure from feed bunk platforms. Then platform manure and the manure packs are mixed for fertilizer. Manure is piled on the field, where it composts during summer, and it’s spread in the fall.

They think about the little things, such as not overfilling spreaders to avoid leaving manure on the road when they haul it. They also don’t spread on holiday weekends, when neighbors could be having parties, and consider which way the wind blows when they spread.

"You don’t want to ruin someone’s birthday party with the smell of manure," Tom said.

He feels happy to get the award but is also frustrated that some people aren’t aware of the care his family and other livestock producers put into their operations when it comes to the environment and animal welfare.

"We’re very concerned about the environment. I’ve got three granddaughters. I don’t want to ruin their water. Why would I want to do that?" he asked. "...I wish people would understand how we are concerned...We want our animals to be happy, they don’t do well if we don’t keep them happy, give them a little T.L.C. We do that. We do it because we love it. When you work 24/7 with animals, you have to have that kind of love."

Good Farm Neighbor Award winners are nominated, then selected by a committee representing the University of Minnesota, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council, the Minnesota Corn Growers Association and the MDA.

Nomination forms are available online at The forms may be e-mailed to or mailed to Good Farm Neighbor Award, Minnesota Department of Agriculture, 625 North Robert Street, St. Paul, MN 55155.

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