May 11, 2023 at 7:58 p.m.
AND THEN THERE WAS ONE
Milking cows in western ND
“We had a blizzard last year in the beginning of April, and we weren’t able to get back into the field until late,” Warren Doe said. “The weather is the most challenging thing with the extreme cold and wind and no trees to protect us. We had 55-below windchill for three, four days in a row this winter.”
Doe and his family milk 250 cows in both a double-8 and a single-12 parlor between New England and Regent. The farm’s milk is picked up twice a week to be processed by Dairy Concepts, 169 miles away in Pollock, South Dakota.
Doe, his wife Gail, son Kory and daughter Ariann run the farm together. Warren and Gail’s grandchildren are now old enough to help as well. All three families live on the farm in separate houses. Doe said he appreciates being able to work with his family.
“Not many people get to do that, and we get along very well,” Doe said.
Even though the winters in Hettinger County are tough, this past winter marking a record snowfall, summer weather has been more of a problem with a drought lasting already more than two years. The family grows 640 acres of mixed grass, 240 acres of oats, 160 acres of barley, 2,100 acres of durum, 600 acres of silage corn and 150 acres of grain corn. They also have 1,000 acres of pasture.
“How do you scrape enough feed together when you are constantly fighting drought?” Doe said. “The snow disappeared, and it’s dry. We’re praying for rain every day even though we have to get the crop in.”
However, after 75 years and three generations of dairy farming, drought is unlikely to stop the Doe family.
“It’s determination,” Doe said. “I guess you have to work hard when you’re on a southwestern North Dakota dairy. It’s also being self-sufficient since there’s no service. It’s getting tough.”
The closest dairy to Doe Dairy is over 40 miles north.
“It’s really sad,” Doe said. “When I was growing up, there were at least 50 dairy farms (in Hettinger County). It seems like every small farm had dairy cows. It went from a slow decline to a rapid decline.”
The biggest decline, Doe said, came around 40 years ago.
“What really hurt was in the 1980s when they had the dairy buyout,” Doe said. “That totally destroyed North Dakota dairy. We lost probably 70% of the dairies because of that.”
The Whole Herd Buyout Program of 1986 was a government plan to decrease milk supplies and raise dairy profits. Farmers signing up for the plan would slaughter or export their entire herds and get out of dairying for five years in return for payments from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Other factors, Doe said, led to dairy decline in his area as well.
“Then, with the high fuel prices and low milk prices, (dairy farmers) just couldn’t hang on,” Doe said. “Before that, if you worked hard, you could always make it, but now it didn’t pay the bills.”
Cash crops have helped Doe Dairy survive.
“If we weren’t diversified out here where we are, it wouldn’t be possible to sustain a dairy by itself,” Doe said.
It also helped that his wife ran her own hair salon business for the first 25 years they were married. Slowly, they expanded the dairy farm.
“If you step back and look 50 years ago to where we are now, our aerial farm photos have changed drastically since 1952,” Doe said.
Doe said his parents first milked around 10 cows in a hip roof barn. He and Gail expanded to 25 cows in a stanchion barn. In 1973, the Does built a double-4 parlor. But, 10 years later, they expanded the parlor to a double-8.
Later, as their children joined in running the farm, they added the second parlor, the single-12.
“It just kept growing and growing,” Doe said. “I don’t know what the next step will be with the way things are going, if we’ll expand or if we’ll just tie another knot in the rope and hang on.”
Cows on the farm are housed in a freestall barn with mattresses. The Does do not add bedding to the mattresses. Their calf barn is heated.
“In this country, everything has to be heated,” Doe said.
Some dairy supplies come from a dealer in Mandan.
“He’s the last dairy supplier in the state,” Doe said.
Other dairy equipment, supplies and parts come on a route from Leedstone out of Melrose, Minnesota, 450 miles away. Doe said his son has become skilled in repairing milking equipment, and they keep extra parts at the farm.
With a late start this spring, they are growing 73-day corn for grain, but they are using 88- to 95-day corn for silage as is usual.
“Our growing season is short, but the new varieties usually make it,” Doe said. “We raise all our own forage.”
The durum, one of their cash crops, is used to make pasta.
“It’s kind of considered a specialty crop,” Doe said. “It’s seeded just like spring wheat.”
Because most farms nearby are crop farms, the Does have another way to earn money – manure.
“We have that value commodity that all the grain farmers want to have,” Doe said.
“It’s not a real fun thing to do, but it’s really valuable.”
The soil and terrain on his farm, Doe said, varies. Parts have heavy loam, but others have sandy soil. Some places have rolling hills, but others are flat.
Doe said he enjoys farming there.
“I guess I just like to work,” Doe said. “A great day is if I can get 300 acres seeded. I love making hay, a good day of baling.”
He said he does not even mind the lack of a vacation.
“We have a motorcycle,” Doe said. “When the work’s all done, which is rare, (Gail and I) like to jump on that bike and take a ride.”
Now 68 years old, Doe said he would like to keep working into his later years like his own parents did. His father quit milking at 62 years old but helped with fieldwork for many years after. He lived to be 90. Doe’s mother milked cows until she was 75 years old.
“I finally had to kick her out of the barn because, if she fell and got hurt, I’d be blamed for it,” Doe said. “She loved to milk cows.”
However, the future, like the weather, is subject to variables.
“My knees are starting to go bad; the cold, damp cement is catching up with me,” Doe said. “Now I’m the old guy on the farm.”
As he looks to the next generations, he said he wonders how the dairy with fare.
“I’d hate to see my kids have to work that hard and not succeed,” Doe said. “Once Gail and I aren’t able to help, it will make it that much tougher. Help is such an issue; you can’t get help here.”
For now, the Doe family will keep dairy farming.
“It’s what I was born into and grew up with, and it rubbed off on the kids, unfortunately,” Doe said. “If my kids weren’t here, there wouldn’t be a dairy here either, but they wanted to do it. It’s going to be tougher for them than it was for me.”