Dairy farming is not only a job, but a lifestyle
The day begins early at the Karsky Dairy, owned and operated by Dean and LeeAnn Karsky, of rural Dickinson.
By 4 a.m., Dean is milking the first of 180 cows. Not long after, his daughter, Rachel Howie, arrives from Dickinson to help milk and feed the calves.
After four hours of milking, Dean still has barns to clean, straw to lay down or feed to grind and distribute. He might be tied up with a cow that is having difficulty calving. Rachel heads back home.
Dean takes a break at 10 a.m. to eat, and by 3 p.m., the four-hour milking routine starts all over again.
The life of a dairy producer is unique. Unless he has reliable hired hands, he's pretty much tied to the farm seven days a week.
"Sundays and holidays, the same thing—there's no days off," Dean said. "I love what I'm doing. You have to like what you're doing to stay in the business."
"If you have help and they are reliable, it's not so bad," Rachel added. "I know prices suck and its expensive to buy feed, but I like being around cows. They don't talk back to you and the calves are so much fun."
Dean, age 59, is a third-generation dairy producer on the farm started by his grandpa, Lewis Karsky. He started with milking stanchions on the farm located four miles west of Dickinson.
Dean was around age 5 or 6 when his dad, Raymond Karsky, took over the operation.
"We had 20 cows, and moved from one cow to another—I always was on my knees," he said. "You filled a bucket with milk and dumped it into the bulk tank."
Dean helped milk as a little boy and before going to school. The tradition extended to Dean's kids—sons Ryan and Derrick and daughter Rachel.
"We helped at night and on weekends," Rachel added.
Dean invested in a modern dairy operation in 2002. He can milk 20 cows at a time, and the machines are connected to piping that leads to the bulk tank.
His granddad would be amazed.
"We've got barns for every animal in the place," said Dean, as he prepared for the approaching snowstorm of March 5-6.
The dairy cows are confined to a free-stall barn during their months of producing milk—separated into four groups. They are turned out to the feedlot for six weeks prior to calving, and then back into the barns.The dry cows, heifers and calves are fed outside.
The Karskys milk around 180 cows year round—hence they are calving all the time. As herd manager, Rachel is responsible for artificial insemination, vaccination, helping with the milking and calves. She leaves the manure removal and feeding to her dad.
Ideally, Dean likes to have several hired milkers to rotate the responsibilities.
"We just lost two—nobody wants to milk cows," Dean said. "Right now, we're enrolled in a cultural exchange program. The first person comes the second week in April. The reason they come is to learn your culture."
Their Grade A milk is sold to Dairy Farmers of America. The milk from the bulk tank is shipped out every two days (four milkings), but there's room for a fifth milking in the event of a storm. After that, it goes down the drain, he said.
It's delivered to Pollock, S.D., where its made into cheese under label of Borden Cheese. Occasionally, it's sold to Dean's Foods out of Mandan where the milk is bottled under the label Land O'Lakes.
"There's more milk out there than consumed and a producer's excess milk goes to cheese. We never know where the milk is going," Dean said.
Earning a living as a dairy producer has been tough in recent years—just ask the Karskys.
"We're in a drought for last two years. Three years ago we produced 26 ton of corn silage. Last year we were down to 2.4 ton. We went from two bales an acre to a quarter bale per acre of hay," Dean said. "We're buying hay out of Manitoba, Canada—the last three loads came out of Ashley."
On the other hand, the price of milk has declined. A few years ago, milk was $22 or $23 per hundred pounds. Their last check was $13.25—a break- even price is $17 to $18.
Dean attributes the decline in prices to a glut of milk—imported milk, cheese and whey products.
"A farmer is his worst enemy. When prices were $25 you're going to produce like hell. When grain is $11 a bushel, a farmer will seed every acre—period," he said.
The Karsky's herd is a mixture of breeds—Holsteins, Brown Swiss and Jerseys. The Holsteins produce more milk per cow, but the Jerseys average higher butterfat.
"Holsteins also eat more, are more destructive in the barn and don't breed back as fast," Rachel added.
They are fed a mixture of barley, corn, minerals, soybean meal, canola meal, corn distillers, corn silage and dry hay. They drink Southwest water by necessity.
"We have a well, but we can't use it because its high in nitrates. If the cows drink it, they start dying. When we first started milking, we lost 20 cows," Rachel said.
The cows are registered with specific names. Walking along the feed line, Rachel points out Alecia, Seymore, Hollow, Kiwi, Delaney, Decaf and Joni. Even more impressive, she knows their names just by looking at their udders in the milking parlor.
"They all have names—every single one of them. There's Licorice, Cookie and Apple. You can tell when I'm hungry," she said with a smile. "It's not as hard as you would think. Once you're around them all the time, you'll know."
She's also memorized the newborn calves—Charlotte, Meredith, Jennie and Blush. At birth, she may wrap them in blankets or a coat for warmth. The radio plays day and night to desensitize them to noise.
The Karskys keep track of their herd by computer chips implanted in their ears.The computer can tell if they're eating, chewing their cud, if they are in heat or have a fever. And just as interesting, Rachel breeds 40 percent of the cows with sex-identified semen, so that the calves are born female.
Rachel uses Cow Manager software that sends out green and red alerts— Is she eating? Is she in heat? Is she drinking enough water?
"Everything I want to know about this cow is on the computer—I check it everyday, sometimes each hour to see what their doing," Rachel said.
Grand champion ribbons scattered about the office validate pride in the herd. They have shown their cows at the North Dakota State Fair and the West River Ag Expo. Rachel's favorite award is her South Heart FFA banner, "2000 State Champion Dairy Showmanship."
Looking down the road, Rachel and Dustin's sons Kaisen, and Kelby, each were given three cows and have already participated in the open category of showmanship at the State Fair.
The dairy industry in North Dakota continues to decline—from 350 licensed dairy herds in 2002 down to 86 in 2017 (a dairy industry statistic.)
So what's the future of Karsky's dairy in 10 years? Dean doesn't know at this point, but he said with confidence, "There will always be milk."