Gene Bitzer and his son, Donald Bitzer, milk 90 cows in a double-10 pit parlor on their farm near Warroad, Minnesota. The dairy is less than a mile from the shores of Lake of the Woods and ships milk 180 miles south. 
PHOTO SUBMITTED
Gene Bitzer and his son, Donald Bitzer, milk 90 cows in a double-10 pit parlor on their farm near Warroad, Minnesota. The dairy is less than a mile from the shores of Lake of the Woods and ships milk 180 miles south. PHOTO SUBMITTED
    WARROAD, Minn. – Dairy has no doubt had its challenges the past few years, but the Bitzer family’s way of life was set up to be a little tougher than most. A dairy farm nestled up to the western shore of Lake of the Woods in far northern Minnesota, the Bitzers often struggle with wet weather, cold and isolation.
    Gene Bitzer and his wife, Marilyn, and their son, Donald, with his wife, Julie, dairy in a partnership near Warroad, about 5 miles from the Canadian border. One of just three dairies in Roseau County, the Bitzers milk 90 cows in a double-10 parlor and run a combined 2,500 acres of crop land together.
    An issue that comes with isolation is a lack of infrastructure that is essential to a dairy farm.
    “It’s hard to get the nutritionist up here,” Gene said. “I’ve been asking and looking around for a while but finally found someone from Pierz to come up, so we’ll see how those adjustments go.”
    Lyle Mattson, their vet, only visits the dairy once a month.
    “If we have an issue, we usually have to figure it out ourselves,” Gene said. “He’s from Greenbush, about an hour away.”
    Thankfully, Mattson can talk Gene and Donald through a lot of issues or at least help with a diagnosis over the phone.
    The Bitzers milk is shipped to Perham, 180 miles away, and their breeding material comes from Fargo, North Dakota, about a four-hour drive. They do all the artificial insemination themselves.
    The father-son duo works well together, tag-teaming morning and evening chores with the help of their hired man.
    “I feed calves morning and night on the dairy, but I really do whatever needs to be done,” Donald said.
    During the winter days, they fix machinery.  
    “We have a heated shop and do all of our repair work,” Donald said. “The nearest equipment dealership is in Thief River Falls, about 90 miles away.”
    Donald and Julie have four children, a son and three daughters. Their son is grown and drives truck full time. He will haul grain for the farm occasionally but mostly hauls logs and for other local projects. The three daughters are at home.
    Donald raises the heifers and steers at his home, about 6 miles from the farm. He also raises 115 beef cattle on a piece of land he owns that stretches along the south shore of the lake.
    Warroad gets 25 inches of rain and about 3.5 feet of snow per year, on average. The farm is about a mile from the lake and receives additional moisture the city does not.
    “There’s some sort of lake effect,” Gene said. “We have super wet years, and the last few especially have been hard.”
    The climate near the lake is wet, and average years even have their challenges when trying to grow a crop.
    “I don’t remember a single year of drought,” Gene said. “That’s one problem we don’t have.”
    Harvest time in 2019 was tough for a lot of Upper Midwest farmers, but for the Bitzers, it altered their entire next year of feed plans.
    “It was so wet in the fall of 2019 that we were low on feed last year and this year too,” Gene said. “Most of our hay was too wet to harvest and then was winterkilled or drowned out.”
    The challenge continued in 2020, and by the time it was clear to plant, it was nearly autumn.
    “Instead of risking another year of winter kill, we left it and hope to plant this spring,” Gene said.
    Typically, the Bitzers plant corn to chop for feed, hay to make baleage and small grains as cash crops.
    “We grow some wheat, soybeans and sunflowers too,” Gene said.
    Because they struggled to put up a good crop of hay in 2020, Gene said they are limiting the number of cows milking.
    “We usually milk about 110 but have been cutting back because we just don’t have the feed for them,” Gene said.
    Gene does not have the option to purchase hay from neighbors.
    “Nobody around here has hay at all,” Gene said. “Maybe some have a little grass hay for beef cows.”
    While it is a busy life, it is one the Bitzers are built for.
    “I just love it,” Donald said. “I like the cows. It’s busy, but you’re always at home, so that’s nice.”
    Gene likes it too.
    “Working with cows is easier than working with people,” he said.
    The mighty challenges do not stand up to the love the Bitzers have for their way of life.