September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.
"Nobody seems to come north because they think it's too cold [up here] to support cattle, but that's not true," Walter said.
One look at his mile-high corn and lush soybeans and nobody would disagree with that statement.
Roger Walter and his brother, Raymond, own and operate Walter Brothers Dairy in Red Lake County near Plummer, Minn. In its 76-year history, the farm has gradually grown into the sprawling 330-cow, 1,200-acre dairy farm it is today. While it hasn't always been easy, the Walters have forged a successful career in an area where dairy farming is becoming a thing of the past.
Walter Brothers Dairy is, basically, the outcome of a drought that occurred more than 60 years ago.
"My grandfather grain farmed in North Dakota," Walter said. "He went through some drought years where they didn't take equipment out of the shed for four years, so [in 1936] my grandfather and dad hopped a train [and came east] until they found green grass."
They ended up in Plummer, Minn., where Walter's grandfather purchased a 160-acre farm site with a house, a barn and endless acres of trees. Walter's grandfather and his wife raised nine children on that farm, milked a small herd of cows and cleared the land.
"Those were tough days," Walter said.
The farm eventually passed on to Walter's father, Herbert, who sold it to his sons, Raymond and Roger, in 1977.
The philosophy, "If something's not working, change it," has prompted many changes on the Walter farm over the years. When Walter's grandparents owned it, they kept only a modest herd of cows. By the time the Walter brothers took over, it boasted 60 cows. Although that number declined for a few years while Raymond worked in Alaska and Roger debated continuing to dairy farm, they now milk 330 cows twice a day in their double-6 parlor.
The cows are housed in a series of five barns, the first built in 1967. The barns have a mixture of stall and bedding types, including sand bedding, mattresses and a bedded pack for fresh cows.
"Every time we did something different it was the new thing at the time," Walter said of his facilities.
Sand is the favored bedding and houses the highest producing group. When they made the switch, they saw a 12-pound production increase across their herd, and a drop in mastitis, Walter said.
While most of the changes made reflected the newest technologies of the time, some were made based on experience, such as replacing the bottom curtains throughout the barns with plywood.
"I'm a strong believer that putting curtains in the bottom is a waste," Walter said.
When there were bottom curtains, the cows would congregate to the center freestalls. Now stalls along the exterior walls are full.
"I believe it has to do with light and dark. Cows equate flies to light," he said.
Fans and tunnel ventilation help keep the cows cool throughout the summer, but heat is still a challenge.
"It's tough getting through the heat," Walter said. "Everyone is concerned about 40-below weather, but at 40-below the cows will still eat to stay alive."
The Walters have been raising their replacement heifers - and their bull calves, as space allows - on the farm since 2006. Prior to that, they sent their heifers to a custom grower. The change came with the building of a hoop-style calf shed. A similar nursery barn was built in 1999, with 30 fiberglass stalls to house the baby calves.
Six years ago, the Walters switched from feeding milk replacer to feeding their calves pasteurized waste milk, a change that came when milk replacer was eating up too much of the budget. Not only did they notice immediate improvements in their calf health from feeding pasteurized waste milk, Walter said their overall herd health improved, as well as their somatic cell count premium.
"We don't hesitate to treat a cow [and keep her out of the tank] now," Walter said. "Our somatic cell count premium went up $13,000 [in one year], so it wasn't hard to pay for a $6,000 pasteurizer."
With 1,200 acres of land, the Walters are able to raise all of their feed needs. They currently grow corn, soybeans, alfalfa/grass mix hay and wheat as a cover crop. The land is flat, dropping 4-5 feet every mile into the Red River Valley. With their heavy soil - including 11-12 inches of clay - no irrigation is needed.
"Most of the time we have too much water," Walter said.
Good crops are not uncommon in that area of northwestern Minnesota, where land is selling for $1,500-2,000 an acre. The Walters have had corn yields top 162 bushels per acre. In one field - planted on April 28, a month earlier than usual - corn stood 8 feet, 2 inches on the Fourth of July.
"We usually like to see knee-high by the Fourth of July," Walter said, smiling.
Their hay crops to date have been equally impressive. This year, the Walters were done chopping first crop hay on May 21. Second crop hay was finished on June 25, just 20 days later than they usually finish first crop. Relative feed values for the two crops, respectively, were 204 and 160.
"Up here you can produce a lot of alfalfa if the weather is right, at 5-7 tons per acre," Walter said.
Hay that is not needed on the farm is sent south, to areas where dairy is more prevalent. Walter Brothers Dairy is currently one of only six farms picked up by their local creamery in Plummer. In the late 1980s, they were one of 89 dairy patrons.
Fewer dairy farmers in the area has meant a weaker dairy infrastructure in northwestern Minnesota. While some dairy equipment comes from Sauk Centre, Minn. - a 3.5 hour drive - there is a dealer 15 miles away in Red Lake Falls. Veterinarians also come from Red Lake Falls, and with the abundance of grain farmers in the area, machinery repair services have never been a problem.
While they've weathered the storms brought on by seven decades of dairy farming, the future of Walter Brothers Dairy - which has been recognized as a Five-Star Dairy - is uncertain. Both Roger and Raymond's children are grown with careers off the farm. With no one stepping in to take over, Walter, who is 57, doesn't deny that the end may be in sight.
"Our next dilemma is, what do we do from here?" he said. "... I think six or seven years down the road we will shut down ... Age is my challenge. I always said I would quit at 50."
He hasn't, however, completely lost hope that someone looking for a start in the dairy industry will one day come knocking on his door.
The farm may be in the northwest corner of the state - where neighboring dairy farms are few and far between - but for the Walter brothers, finding greener pastures led to a successful dairy career.
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