7/24/2017 8:45:00 AM Fjerstad: The wonder dairywoman Fosston farmer milks cows on own for 30-plus years
Debbie Fjerstad milks 25 cows on her own near Fosston, Minn. Fjerstad also dabbles in photography, using her Holstein herd as the subject, and shares the photos with her community. PHOTO BY JENNIFER COYNE
Debbie Fjerstad milks 25 cows in a Quonset barn-style stanchion barn. The barn holds the cows in one side, with feed in the other. PHOTO BY JENNIFER COYNE
FOSSTON, Minn. - Debbie Fjerstad does it all and has seen it all on her dairy farm in northern Minnesota; from milking cows to cutting hay, from the '80s farm crisis to the highs of 2014, some would consider her to be dairy's wonder woman. "I'm a workaholic and nothing stops me - I have endless energy," Fjerstad said. "Even when I was pregnant with my two boys, Kolton and Keyston, I worked right up until I went into labor and then was back in the barn the next day." Fjerstad milks 25 cows on her 160-acre farm in Polk County near Fosston, Minn. Every morning, Fjerstad is in the Quonset barn-style stanchion barn, milking and feeding the cows. "If you split the barn down the middle, one half has all my feed it in and the other half is where the cows are milked, and there's a loft for hay," Fjerstad said. Once daybreak arrives, she lets the herd out to pasture and focuses on fieldwork or other tasks around the farm before returning to the barn for evening chores. While Fjerstad purchases most of her feed, including big square bales, she is able to put up 70 acres of hay each year. "I wouldn't be able to farm without Kolton," Fjerstad said. "He cuts the hay, then I rake it, bale it and haul it to the barn." The remaining land is grazing pastures and a nearby lake. "I have to buy all of my feed because I don't have enough acres and I don't have enough equipment; but being able to pasture my animals helps," Fjerstad said. "I follow a certain paddock rotation where the cows will head east and then in a few days after milking, I'll have them head south to a new location." Fjerstad's interest in dairy farming began at a young age, when her parents operated a farm. "I would sleep on the couch, and wake up to the rooster crowing and hear my parents head out to milk cows. I still remember that and I liked that - I've always liked cows," Fjerstad said. Unfortunately, when Fjerstad was 6 years old, her father passed away and the family sold the cows; but that did not deter her from owning her own farm someday. In 1982, Fjerstad purchased her current farm site and began milking cows with buckets. Soon after, in the early '90s, Fjerstad purchased a used pipeline and four units. "That's what I milk with now," Fjerstad said. "All the cows have names and know which stanchion is theirs. When I'm milking, I listen to country music and sing to the cows. I think they like that." When Fjerstad first sold her milk, she was a Grade B farm. However, after updating the milkhouse to include a hand-washing sink and finishing cement work in the pump house in 1998, Fjerstad was able to upgrade to a Grade A license and receive $1 more per hundredweight. Today, Fjerstad and six other area dairy farmers provide milk to Dean Foods in Thief River Falls, Minn., where the milk is processed into ice cream for restaurants across the state. There is only one other nearby farm that is a part of the same cooperative as Fjerstad, and the dairywoman has adapted to the scarce dairy infrastructure in northern Minnesota. "There really isn't anyone around me - it's all beef farms. I'm one of the few small dairies left," Fjerstad said. "But when I do get the opportunity, I ask questions - a lot of questions. I also read a lot and am in a farm management program." Fjerstad then takes the information she gathers to make a sound decision that will better her dairy farm. "As years go on, you really learn more from experience, too," Fjerstad said. For instance, Fjerstad chooses to use a breeding bull when making mating decisions after trying A.I. and realizing it was not the right style of management for her herd. "All I do is work and I really don't have the time or people to do all of that," Fjerstad said about the A.I. practice. "I just let the bull do it, and then I'll test for pregnancies in six or eight weeks." Additionally, while other dairy farmers may use their phones and tablets to record events on the farm, Fjerstad prefers a pen and paper system. "I think a new person starting out would want to use their phone, but for me I have it so small and so simple," Fjerstad said. "I have it all in my head and a file for each cow. I write down all the information - when she calves, what she calves and so on - so I can keep track of her life events." While the industry continues to evolve, and Fjerstad remains rooted in her management practices, there are a few advances she has been able to incorporate within her dairy. "I've had pregnancies confirmed through milk samples and have tried ultrasounds. I also no-till drilled my alfalfa fields this year - it's nice what technology is available," Fjerstad said. Although Fjerstad has never left the farm for a vacation, when she finds any small window of free time she shares her career with the community through photography. Photos of Fjerstad's cattle and farm can be found in the Fosston hospital, as well as on a local calendar. As Fjerstad looks back on her dairying career, she is proud of the farmer she has become and the lifestyle she created through the good times and the bad. She recently started a part-time job, but looks forward to the future as a dairywoman. "I don't know what it's like to get up in the morning and not go to the barn and milk cows," Fjerstad said. "I don't know how I'm ever going to stop milking cows."