July 22, 2023 at 8:00 a.m.
And Then There Was One
Drawn to the challenge of dairy farming
WISHEK, N.D. – Curt Rohweder and his daughter, Denise Rohweder, are busy people. Not only do they operate the last dairy farm in McIntosh County, but Curt raises Thoroughbred horses for racing and Denise trains Doberman pinschers for showing. She also works as a realtor.
“I think we are competitive people,” Denise said.
Seven hundred cows, mostly Holsteins, are milked on their farm twice each day in a double-6 parallel parlor. It has been fitted with a GEA automated system that monitors and directs cow movement in and out of the parlor, saving on labor.
“It just keeps loading cows,” Curt said.
Curt’s son, Dave, oversees the farm’s dairy heifers after they are old enough to go on grass or to the lot, and he manages their herd of 350 Angus beef cows. All calves are raised on site, and steer calves are sold when they are 700-800 pounds. The family also raises 2,000 acres of alfalfa and corn.
The milking herd is housed in freestall barns bedded with sand that comes from the Rohweders’ land. This year, the Rohweders transitioned from bull breeding to implementing A.I. They also began using the CowManager system, which has improved overall herd health.
The farm has 25 employees for help in running the dairy, caring for livestock, handling mechanical maintenance and doing fieldwork.
“We have a really good crew,” Denise said. “Most of our guys have been here 10 years or more.”
The dairy’s milk is picked up once a day and hauled 60 miles southwest to the Dairy Farmers of America processing plant in Pollock, South Dakota.
Although both Curt and Denise said they enjoy dairy farming, neither chose the profession. It chose them.
Curt owned and ran the Wishek Livestock Auction for over 20 years, beginning in the 1970s. In 1990, a challenge arose when he suddenly found himself with a herd of over 150 dairy cows on his hands.
“I used to lease out dairy cows, and I got a large group back from one dairy that wasn’t making it, so I needed a place to milk them,” Curt said. “That’s how this all evolved.”
A farm near Wishek that had gone through two different owners since the 1940s was now sitting idle. It had a milking facility with possibilities, so Curt leased the place at first and then purchased it a few years later. He put his love of a challenge to good use. His dairy operation began to grow.
“We expanded it from there – added barns, a different parlor,” Curt said. “I had to expand the lagoon and add a larger milk tank. When you start adding cows, everything else is too small.”
He had his son’s help as he expanded, with Dave taking over the beef herd operation at a separate location. He also had his wife, Sheryl, always in his corner. She recently retired from her career as a registered nurse.
“She is the glue that holds us all together,” Curt said.
However, by the end of the 1990s, Curt needed his daughter’s help with his businesses as well.
“I was never going to be involved in dairy, but then I got talked into coming back,” Denise said. “I started working in the (Wishek Livestock Auction) office and helping with things around the dairy, but I veered toward the dairy operation. It was something I really enjoyed, and I decided it was really important to me.”
With the dairy farm growing, Curt decided to sell the auction business, but Denise still manages the office for the new owner in between helping manage the dairy farm and being a realtor.
“Kind of on a whim about 20 years ago, I decided to get my (real estate) license, and it used to be kind of a part-time thing,” Denise said. “But, in the last couple of years, a lot of people have been migrating out to this area for the peace and quiet, so it’s gotten quite busy. I probably sell as many homes in a month now as I used to in a year.”
However, as real estate has been seeing a bump in sales, dairy farms have continued to decline in the area. The Rohweders have no dairy-farming neighbors.
“(The nearest dairy) is about 34 or 35 miles northwest of us in Logan County,” Curt said.
Being remote, though, is one of the things both father and daughter said they like about farming in McIntosh County.
“We don’t have a large population to contend with,” Curt said. “We don’t get many complaints because somebody moved next to us and built a home and doesn’t like the smell of cow manure.”
“It’s the peace and quiet (I like),” she said. “We’re miles and miles away from people.”
The location allows space for both father and daughter to nurture their other interests in animals. For Curt, it is horses.
“We are raising Thoroughbred horses that we retain ownership of and send to the racetracks,” Curt said. “I got started in it in 1979 when I got my first Thoroughbred.”
A friend was raising them, and Curt bought a mare from him with the goal of raising foals from her. The friend also had a stud horse.
“That was going too slow, so I purchased a horse out of a sale in Nebraska, and it won its first race,” Curt said. “Then I was hooked on horse racing.”
Curt has raised competitive horses through the years. One in the 1980s was a champion at several derbies in Canada and, as a 3-year-old, won both the North Dakota and the Minnesota derbies. When a horse is in running form, it races about every two weeks. Currently, Curt’s horses compete in Shakopee, Minnesota, from May to September. Before that, they race in Nebraska.
“With mares, babies, yearlings, 2-year-olds, stud horses and the running horses that are running age, we have about 40,” Curt said.
Meanwhile, Denise has animals of her own. When she came back to Wishek in 2000, she had a Doberman pinscher, but she decided to buy a Weimaraner as well. The breeder talked her into showing it in competition.
“I was hooked,” Denise said. “I ended up meeting one of the top Doberman breeders of all time and got a puppy from her. He was my first show Doberman. I spent about 15 years learning about the breed and started raising them.”
Occasionally, one of her dogs will be bred to have a litter. She sells the puppies mostly to returning clients. Currently, she has five Dobermans.
“I’ve been to pretty much every state in the country and in Canada showing Dobermans,” Denise said. “They are the most loyal dog you will find; they would lay down their life for you in a minute.”
How do Curt and Denise keep so many interests and parts of their businesses going?
“Not much sleep,” Denise said.
With milk prices where they currently sit, both said dairy farming is at one of its most challenging times.
“It’s not for the faint-hearted,” Curt said. “We’d like more stable milk prices than what we have at present. They’ve taken more than a third of our (dairy) income away from what we had a year ago. … We were getting a decent milk price last year, but now it’s below the cost of production, so no new purchases and we’re in survival mode at the moment.”
“If we can figure out a way to stabilize prices so that people can figure out a budget and a way to make it work year to year, we wouldn’t be losing all of our dairy farms,” she said.
However, both continue to take on the challenge and keep dairy farming on their diverse list of careers. Denise said she also enjoys promoting the dairy industry in ways that inform people about where their food comes from.
“I’ve just grown to really love it, and it’s something I’m really passionate about,” Denise said. “We have amazing help (on the farm), so it makes everything really easy, and when you enjoy what you do, you don’t think about slowing down.”
Curt has no plan to slow down either.
“I like the challenges of trying to raise feed for the next year for the cows, trying to have a good somatic cell count, getting decent production and having a nice-looking herd of dairy cows,” he said. “I probably would have slowed down a lot already if it wasn’t for the kids working with me, but when you get up in the morning, you’ve got to have a little something to do. Otherwise, it’s a really long day.”
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