By Mike Schmidt, AEM Industry Advisor Editor

All Russ Kolstad was looking for was an opportunity to make a difference.

The longtime dairy equipment industry leader spent a career designing and engineering heavy duty product offerings that were both simultaneously built to last and do a better job of physiologically milking cows. Now, as the recently retired engineer for dairy and farm machinery manufacturer and AEM member DeLaval looks back upon his near half century spent in manufacturing, he’s appreciative of all the opportunities that were afforded him to make his mark on the industry he loves.

“That was joy,” says Kolstad, who has long been involved with AEM's Dairy Equipment Engineering Committee. “I participated in advancements that were recognized, and that was the glue that held me to the industry all those years.”

Dairy Industry Roots Run Deep

Raised on a dairy farm in central Wisconsin, Kolstad spent his formative years showing cattle, helping with the farming and assisting with his father’s business hauling milk to a local processing plant. An engineer there was kind enough to offer time for both tours and explanations, which sparked Kolstad’s interest in the shiny stainless equipment found at the facility. His initial exposure to the manufacturing side of the industry did not come until years later, however. After completing his undergraduate studies at the University of Wisconsin’s College of Ag, Kolstad commenced with his career in the equipment industry when he accepted a job as an intern for a milking equipment company.  

Kolstad quickly discovered the industry was ripe for changes, and he actively sought out opportunities in which he could help improve and optimize equipment being used for milking. Eventually his efforts led him to attend meetings of groups such as the Milking Machine Manufacturers Council of AEM. According to Kolstad, the groups provided professionals like himself valuable opportunities to network with one another in a commercially neutral environment and come up with ways to develop shared best practices for their customers.

“When I went to my first meeting, my eyes were opened,” says Kolstad. “The leaders at that time, they were willing to put aside their competitive differences long enough to talk about the industry, government, regulations and best practices. And they were talking about ways in which we all could make things better.”

A Passion for Dairy Farming

While Kolstad found lasting success in the industry, he and his wife’s true passion was for dairy farming. When the young professional was in his second year of graduate school, they found themselves presented with an opportunity to start up a partnership dairy farm and quickly jumped for the chance to pursue their dream.

“Unfortunately it collided with the period of time when interest rates started rising to their historic heights,” says Kolstad. “In addition to interest rates going up, milk prices were going down. It was a very difficult time, and in order to keep the farm, we needed an outside income in order to make ends meet at that time.”

Kolstad then took work for a start-up company, the principals of which he had met during his initial industry experience. The company specialized in manufacturing equipment for large herds, and Kolstad helped to design products aimed at improving milking physiology. For someone who grew up on a dairy farm and had left graduate school for the opportunity to establish a second one of his own, the job served as a tremendous opportunity to positively impact the dairy industry while also making a good living.

Kolstad’s work took him across all of North America and around the world, and he quickly realized what he thought was a small, niche industry, actually had both significant visibility and a large technical base.

“To me, it was a pretty small fraternity of dairy-related specialists that had a high visibility in their industry, so you could be recognized,” he explains. “I felt I was regarded as a contributor, and I liked it.”

The Dairy Equipment Industry’s Future

The dairy equipment industry has evolved a great deal in the years since Kolstad got his start, and he credits groups and associations like AEM with helping manufacturers to advance causes important to both them and their customers.  A prime example, he says, occurred in the late 2000s when the influx of robotic milking began to have widespread effects on the industry.

“That’s the main purpose for (these groups),” explains Kolstad. “Manufacturers have very common technical concerns, regulatory concerns and image concerns, and I brought them back to the Milking Machine Manufacturers Council and our Dairy Equipment Engineering Committee. I also got international manufacturers, who were not historically associated with AEM and the Milking Machine Manufacturers Council, to see the value and bring them on board. We’ve been building on this ever since.”

According to Kolstad, automation and robotic milking are among the evolutionary trends poised to have profound impacts on the milking industry now and in the coming years, and it’s up to associations like AEM to help guide manufacturers and develop regulations during these ever-changing times.

“There is going to be an exponential curve, and keeping up with it and staying ahead of it is so important,” he says. “There’s a tremendous amount of new equipment design work being done, and it needs to be handled through the regulatory side and through the value chain side.”

As for his role in the industry moving forward, Kolstad says his immediate plans consist of serving as a part-time consultant for DeLaval, embracing opportunities to work with various association technical groups, and helping the dairy equipment industry leaders of tomorrow in their own efforts to make a difference.

“I’m here to assist the next generation,” he adds.

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