September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.

What it means to farm 'up north'

Christianson brothers milk cows, farm 1,900 acres in NW MN
Curt Christianson milks one of the 50 cows in the Christiansons’ dairy herd. The brothers milk their cows twice a day in a tiestall barn. Craig usually joins Curt for milking, while Brede does the feeding, and all three take their turns doing fieldwork.<br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->PHOTO SUBMITTED
Curt Christianson milks one of the 50 cows in the Christiansons’ dairy herd. The brothers milk their cows twice a day in a tiestall barn. Craig usually joins Curt for milking, while Brede does the feeding, and all three take their turns doing fieldwork.<br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->PHOTO SUBMITTED

By By Jennifer Burggraff- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

GREENBUSH, Minn. - Located just 11 miles south of the Canadian border in northwestern Minnesota, the Christianson brothers - Brede, Craig and Curt - know what it means to live "up north." To them, it means working side-by-side as fourth generation dairy farmers on their family's farm, meeting head-on the challenges that come with being one of only a dozen dairy farms left in the county.
"It's not always easy, but we want it to work so we make it work," Brede Christianson said.
The Christianson brothers have been farming in partnership since 2009 on the Greenbush, Minn., farm that was homesteaded by their great-grandfather in the early 1900s. Brede was the first to come back to the farm full time, joining their father in 1999.
"Ever since I was a kid, all I ever wanted to do is farm," he said. "A big thing is you are your own boss, running your own business. You have the freedom to do what you want."
Today, the brothers milk around 50 cows twice a day in a tiestall barn, raise all their heifer and bull calves, run a 40-head beef cow/calf herd and farm around 1,900 acres of owned and rented land. Their crops include wheat, soybeans, sunflowers, oats, silage corn and alfalfa, which supply the majority of their feed needs. Grain corn is their only regularly purchased commodity.
"We were raising corn for a while, but it wasn't cost effective," Brede said. "If we could get 100 bushels [per acre] we were doing well."
A shortened growing season made growing even a 75-day variety challenging. Other crops, however, thrive.
"We are in a pretty decent area [for raising crops], with clay/loam soil," he said. "Everything is flat ... and there's pretty good clay soil underneath, so it holds the moisture we get."
The Christianson farm is on the edge of the farmland in Roseau County; just four miles north of them is swampland.
The last two years, Brede said, have been drier than normal, taking a toll on this year's hay crop.
"This year we had a tough time getting hay. We had to cut our neighbor's CRP ground," Brede said. "But everything else is excellent. We got rains at just the right times to keep things going."
The area is good for raising cattle, with plentiful pasture. The Christiansons pasture their youngstock and dry cows. Their 40 beef cows are also on pasture and are in the midst of their fall calving season. The Christiansons calve all their beef cows in fall to avoid problems due to cold, wet weather in spring.
"It goes really smoothly, though it does get a little hectic with harvest," Brede said of fall calving.
The partnership between Brede, Craig and Curt has kept the workload on the farm manageable for everyone and has allowed them to grow and diversify beyond just dairy cows. The brothers work together, but each has his own niche. Craig and Curt do the milking while Brede feeds. For fieldwork, Brede runs the combine and does much of the harvesting and spraying. Craig and Curt do the tillage and run the planters.
"We all take our turns in the field. Nobody is stuck in the barn," Brede said. "... I like harvesting, running the combine. That's always been my favorite part - seeing the results of [all our work]. It's always fun to see how things turn out, and you don't know until you get through it with the combine."
Open communication and including everyone in the decision-making process have been keys to keeping the relationship strong between the brothers.
"We do get along pretty good," Brede said. "Everything is kept as open as possible ... It's been working good."
Their challenges lie elsewhere - mainly in being one of only 12 dairy farms left in Roseau County, where the dairy infrastructure leaves something to be desired.
"We are kind of out of the loop up here," Brede said.
While there is a veterinarian in town - "I hope he doesn't retire soon," Brede said - the next closest are in Plummer and Red Lake Falls, Minn., each more than one hour away. For dairy equipment service, the Christiansons call Clark's Dairy Supply in Carlson, Minn., about 30 minutes away. Dairy equipment parts, however, come from Detroit Lakes, Minn. - about three hours south - and the nearest silo repair service is in Osakis, Minn., a 4.5 hour drive.
"There's nothing around here," Brede said. "We usually fix and repair our own stuff. Any common parts we keep on hand in the shop so we are ready. We've also salvaged parts from other farmers that are retired."
Despite the challenges, there are benefits to farming in the remote areas of northwestern Minnesota. Land costs are less in Roseau County due to the growing conditions and the soil, and neighbor relations are good.
"It's very rural up here, so we don't have to worry about residential," Brede said.
The Christianson brothers have a good thing going, but how long they will be able to continue the dairy tradition on their family's farm is uncertain. They currently ship their milk to Thief River Falls, Minn.; if that plant were to close down - a very real possibility as more farmers near retirement age - they could be without a market. The next nearest plants are in Fargo, N.D., and Perham, Minn., both at least three-hour drives.
"If we are the only ones left up here we might not be able to get anyone to pick up our milk," Brede said. "It would be nice to keep the dairy cows. It's a nice steady job; even when the crops are bad, you still have a paycheck."
It's a challenge they'll face when it comes, just as they have all the other challenges that have come their way - with the brothers standing side-by-side and doing what they can to continue dairying in northwestern Minnesota.

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