Matt Peterson looks over the milking herd Nov. 11 near Willow River, Minnesota. Peterson manages herd health on his family’s dairy farm.
Matt Peterson looks over the milking herd Nov. 11 near Willow River, Minnesota. Peterson manages herd health on his family’s dairy farm. PHOTO BY JENNIFER COYNE
WILLOW RIVER, Minn. – Family has always been at the core of Birch Creek Dairy’s success.
“Everyone gets along, and we all enjoy dairy farming,” Mike Peterson said. “When, and if, that fourth generation is interested in joining us, we’ll make room.”
Peterson is the third generation in his family to milk cows on the farm site his grandparents purchased in 1943. He milks 300 cows and runs 1,200 acres with his brother, Matt, and parents, Stanley and Beverly, in a partnership at Birch Creek Dairy in Pine County near Willow River.
Throughout the years, the dairy farm has supported the Peterson family, and in turn, the family has evolved the farming operation to meet the needs of today’s industry.
“My dad jokes that dairy farming must be in our blood,” Peterson said. “Maybe we’ve gotten used to the unpredictability and enjoy the challenges. We tighten up the belt and do a lot of things ourselves.”
Peterson oversees fieldwork and feeding on the farm. His brother takes care of the cattle – all the herd health, breeding, hoof trimming and issues that may arise with fresh cows. The Petersons’ parents are still very much involved as well, their mother doing the business paperwork and keeping the family fed, and their dad helping with fieldwork.
Another brother works full time off the farm but also feeds one day a week, and the farm has five full-time employees.  
The herd is milked in a double-8 parlor built in 1994.
When Peterson’s parents purchased the farm from Stanley’s parents in 1967, they were milking 42 cows in a tiestall barn. Five years later, the couple added 14 stalls and constructed a housing facility for young calves.
The family’s largest expansion came in 1980.
“We went to 60 cows with two upright silos and an earthen manure pit,” Peterson said. “I was 10 years old.”
Four years later, the family added a lean-to for youngstock.  
Peterson joined the business in 1992 after attending college. Matt, 10 years younger than his older brother, returned about 12 years later.
In 1993, Peterson and his parents went forward with plans to build a freestall barn and parlor. The herd size continued to grow; and right before the construction, the Petersons were milking 120 cows through the tiestall barn.
“Things kept getting delayed, and we didn’t start using the parlor until 1994,” Peterson said. “While we waited for the parlor to get done, we had already bought springers. So, for almost two months we were switching cows three times in the tiestall.”
On Dec. 22, 1994, the Petersons sent cows through the parlor for the first time.
“We took trips out to Michigan and Wisconsin to look at parlor designs, but no one mentioned that when you take tiestall cows and put them in a parlor, that they don’t want to go,” Peterson said. “That first time it took 12 hours to milk. We just about got done and it was time to start again.”
In the last 20 years, the Petersons have made smaller improvements to the dairy, including removing the back side of two bunkers to make feeding more efficient and adding on to the freestall barn for pre-fresh and fresh cows.
The 80-foot freestall addition, done in 2014, created a more permanent maternity area that now allows the Petersons to milk treated and fresh cows separately.
“That was better for labor savings and cow health,” Peterson said. “It’s one of those things you wish you would’ve done 10 years ago.”
In Peterson’s time dairying, he has seen the industry change in Pine County. In what used to be a county speckled with dairy farms, milking cows has become a rarity.
“They switched to beef cows and that was the end of tillage work,” Peterson said. “The trees started to grow and now the fields are half the size they were. If you quit doing anything (on the soil), it will all go back to woods.”
The Petersons compete for land with people who want to purchase hunting property, and they also deal with the challenges of predatory wildlife and the weather patterns that come off Lake Superior.
“If you get a year with the late spring and then frost before Labor Day, then the corn never makes it,” Peterson said. “That was especially true when I was a kid.”
The family also has to make tactical decisions for equipment repairs, veterinarian calls and feed availability being so far removed from dairy infrastructure.
“You have to go almost two hours before you can get anything,” Peterson said. “We haven’t bought hay in a dozen years. That’s why we farm the extra acres, though.”  
Despite the challenges dairy farming has presented the Petersons, the family is adamant there is no other way they would rather spend their days.
For Peterson, it has been a lifestyle that married his passion for farming with the desire to be with family.
“It’s cool to farm together, no doubt about that,” Peterson said. “And, it’s a good place to raise a family. There’s no substitute for anything like that.”