It ends up as delectable artisan cheese, handcrafted by cheesemakers at Burnett Dairy Cooperative in Grantsburg, WI. It starts out as 220 acres of oats, barley, alfalfa and red clover with another 900 acres in hay—clover, grasses and native Minnesota birds foot trefoil. Add a bit of corn, wheat, a soybean and canola meal vitamin and mineral supplement and water, and you have the ingredients. What is it? Milk!
Now all you need is 70 registered Holstein milk cows, a very large red barn, 150 acres of pasture, and the Pearson family to tend them. And tending them is way more than one full-time job. Jeff Pearson, his wife Lisha, their three daughters, and often Grandma Peggy and Grandpa Marvin can be found in the barn twice a day every single day. That’s in addition to growing their feed and caring for the 50 beef cows out on pasture.
Jeff’s great-grandfather started this all in Cook on the site of what is now the Cook Hospital. His descendants carried it on down through Marvin and Peggy Pearson, who started farming at this location when they married 50 years ago this summer. The present barn is from the 1960s, and the farm is Rice River Holsteins. It spans 1,300 acres in the Angora area. Burnett Dairy Cooperative picks up 9,000 pounds of milk every other day from the milk house here. Milk from 70 cows is secured through milking machines attached to each cow for about seven minutes twice a day and piped through stainless steel tubing to the milk house, where it is cooled from the 102-degree cow temperature to 38 degrees via compressor, then it is stored in a stainless steel tank.
Each cow has a name, the first letter of which designates the family from which she originated. Above her stall is a card with her name, her parentage, pedigree records going back three generations, and data about her milk. The average age of the milk cows in this barn is four and a half years. And each cow has a point score for milk quality, with 97 being the highest. Bernie, the cow behind which I’m standing, scores an 87. When I visit, it’s milking time. The milking machines can do six cows at a time, taking about seven minutes per cow. It takes almost two hours to milk all 70 cows and another 30 minutes to clean up. Each cow yields about 70 pounds of milk per milking, or about 140 pound of milk per day. On the day I visit, Jeff, his wife Lisha, their three daughters, and grandma are all working in the barn.
Two calves were born last night. The oldest daughter feeds them bottles of colostrum. All of the heifers stay here on the farm. They sell a few bull calves, and the rest go to pasture here as beef cattle. So each of the 70 Holsteins being milked was born here. The younger girls take me on a tour. Barn cats are everywhere and very friendly. I climb the precarious ladder to the hayloft to follow the girls. Above this enormous barn is a magical loft, a vast area, with tiny holes in the roofing that make it look like stars are shining through. They love this part of the barn.
I ask how young they were when they started helping—about three, they say. They’re very much at home here in the barn, and they take these skills with them to 4-H, where they win prizes for their work. They are worried about whether we will have a state fair this year with the COVID-19 restrictions. They will miss it very much if we don’t.
The cows have been in for the winter 24/7, but they’ll be out on pasture soon. Initially, they go out during the day until the bugs get bad, then they go out at night. A welcome relief, I’m sure, from the tethered stall they occupy the rest of the time. I wonder how 70 cows exit the barn and go out to pasture? It’s a pretty orderly affair, I’m told. They know their way out and come back, each to her own stall.
They eat and drink at the head of their stall and pee and poop at the tail end, into a conveyor belt barn cleaner that moves the excrement out. Being at the tail end observing, I’m advised to stand back. I do! They drink out of automatic waterers, two cows sharing a waterer. And they consume and average of 28 pounds of corn, oats, wheat and a high protein and mineral supplement along with about 60 pounds of haylage every day. Jeff Pearson grows almost all of what they consume, buying only corn and the protein and mineral supplement. Silos connected to the barn and the huge hayloft store the summer’s harvest for winter feed.
The girls tell me about an annual event every September, when the barn is emptied, power washed and whitewashed. I can’t imagine what that would take. This barn is huge! They say it takes a whole day of work by the whole family. Manure management, on the other hand, is an ongoing operation. Most dairy farms manage the manure so that it can be used as fertilizer for the planted fields. Rice River Holsteins does the same: the barn cleaner system pumps it into a nearby pit and then it’s spread on the tilled fields each year, feeding the crops that feed the cows. The 220 tilled acres are rotated throughout the farm each year. Every process forms a closed loop.
Back to that cheese that’s made from the milk of the cows I just met. It’s made in Wisconsin, no surprise, as Minnesota isn’t known for its cheese making. But, in 1885, there were 46 cheese factories in our state! I wonder if we’ll come back around to that as the local food movement grows. The Iron Range could broaden its production to artisanal cheeses. I can see it now: “Iron Cow Cheddar” or “Laurentian Gouda.” Until that happens, you can buy milk directly from Rice River Holsteins and make your own Iron Range cheese. Or you can look for Burnett Dairy brand cheese at your local store.
Marlise Riffel lives in Virginia, MN. She grew up in Illinois with farming relatives and is a board member of the Iron Range Partnership for Sustainability.