By Lura Roti, South Dakota Farmers Union
Ask Marlow Christensen and his three sons, Dale, Don and Doug, why they chose farming as a career and their responses are similar.
“It’s all we’ve ever known,” explains Dale, who, like his younger brothers, joined the family operation full-time right out of high school.
His brother, Don, adds, “I didn’t think about doing anything else. I enjoy working with the cattle, basically every bit of the work involved – even things like scraping the yards in the mornings.”
Celebrating 51 years of marriage this year, Marlow and his wife, Donna, got their start in farming a year after they married. They rented the farm southwest of Beresford from Marlow’s mom, Lucille (Jensen) Christensen, in 1965. Lucille’s grandpa homesteaded the land in 1887.
Since the beginning, the work of running the feedyard and raising crops has been a family affair. “When the boys were too little to walk, I would put them in their little red wagon and they would sit there and watch us work in the barns,” Donna recalls.
Even today, the family is not incorporated. They all share a percentage of the expenses and profits brought in by the 2,000-head feedyard and crops they market.
All in the Family: Two Generations Operate Family Farm Together Near Beresford
Looking out over his family’s feedyards, Marlow Christensen remembers the days when he was one of many farmer feeders.
Today, the landscape has changed. Marlow and his wife, Donna, and their sons, Dale, Don and Doug, are one of few farm families in the area to operate a feedyard.
Although they have fed out cattle since Marlow and Donna rented the farm in 1965, the feedyard became the focus of their farming operation in 2000 when they got out of the hog business and expanded from a 1,200-head feedyard to a 2,000-head feedyard.
Marlow is careful to distinguish the difference between a farmer feeder and a feedlot. “This is not a feedlot. We do not custom feed any cattle. We own all the cattle in this feedyard,” Marlow explains.
He is also quick to explain that Christensen Farms is not a corporation. He and his sons work together in all aspects of the family farm. They all own a percentage of the cattle and own their own farmland. “We all write a check when we buy the cattle and each get a check once the cattle are sold,” Marlow says. “We farm the land with one big tractor and share expenses based on percentage of ownership.”
Marlow and Donna decided early on that they didn’t want to employ their sons – nor did they want to draw checks from a family farm entity.
“Each person is responsible for his own actions and financial situation,” Marlow says. “At the end of the year, my daughters-in-law and my wife can see what we did individually.”
Working together since childhood, the family remains close knit. “We all go to church together,” Donna says. “When the grandkids were young, the bus would drop them off here almost every day until their moms got home from work.”
It All Began With $7000 in Equity
Instead of attending college, Marlow made it clear to his parents that farming full-time was the path he wanted to take. So, his dad, Ralph, came to him and said that instead of college tuition, he would give him $7,000 worth of livestock and farm machinery.
It was about that same time that Marlow and Donna married. Marlow went to the bank and used the Super M Farmall, 12 gilts, a straight disc, a two-bottom plow, a stack of hay and a three-ring corn crib as equity for a loan to purchase 80-head of feeder cattle.
“My dad never signed a note for me, so we built up our farm slowly. We are honest and try to be good neighbors,” Marlow says.
Being a good neighbor paid off. Over time, as neighbors retired, Marlow and his sons expanded the farm’s footprint by first leasing land from neighbors and then eventually purchasing it. “We’ve been awful lucky that neighbors have come to us asking if we wanted to lease land. We have also had really good landlords, and over the years we’ve purchased just about all our land from our landlords,” Marlow says.
“It’s about being good stewards of the land,” Dale adds. “Our family takes care of the land because we want it to be here for our children and grandchildren.”
With a Department of Energy & Natural Resources (DENR) approved 2,000-head feedyard, Dale and his brothers understand the daily work that goes into intensive land, water and manure management. All waste from the feedyard runs into a containment basin; the water is filtered off and held in a grey water pond which irrigates about 90 acres of corn. The remaining manure is applied to their fields in accordance with their manure management plan, which is updated annually. “We test our soil each year to determine what we can apply – the plan is intensive but it saves us some input costs,” Dale explains.
Weekly, the Christensens inspect the basin and pond’s integrity.
Located within eyesight of Beresford and a stone’s throw from I-29, the Christensens are serious about complying not only with DENR standards, but also with the high standards they set for themselves to maintain a beautiful farm. Each summer the family paints several yards of white fence that borders the interstate edge of the feedyard. “There are a lot of people who drive up and down the interstate each day. This is another way to be a good neighbor,” Dale explains.
Good Corn Prices Are Good for This Cattle Feeder
Farming full-time for 50 years, Marlow, Donna and their sons have seen some tough times in farming. In the darkest days of the 1980s, Marlow says the family pulled together and somehow made it through. “The 80s were tough. We worked hard as a family to get through those years,” Marlow says.
In addition, Marlow says belonging to Farm Credit, a credit cooperative, was also invaluable. “It is so important to have a bank stand behind you – in good times and in bad times.” Marlow served on the Farm Credit Services of America board for 15 years.
Since the beginning, the family has traveled to auction markets across the state to purchase their feeder cattle. “We have to write the check, so we might as well look at cattle before we buy them,” Doug says.
Because of the link between the price of corn and feeder cattle, these farmer feeders aren’t excited about cheap corn. “We, like all other farmers, need a stable price for corn,” Marlow says.
The family raises almost all their own feedstuffs (corn, silage, and earlage), with the exception of the 15 percent of their ration which is dried distillers grains (DDGs). They purchase the byproduct of an ethanol plant in Sioux Center, Iowa, from Co-Products of Milford, Iowa. “We feed DDGs for the moisture and fat it adds to the ration,” Dale explains. “DDGs keep our ration more consistent year-round, especially during the summer months because of the added moisture.”
Although Marlow and Donna remain involved in the family operation, they are semi-retired. Dale’s son, Dean, is attending South Dakota State University and plans to become involved full-time in the family farm when he graduates this May. Dean has already started a small cow/calf herd.
“My goal has never been to farm 10,000 acres; it has always been to enable Dean, the sixth generation, to join the operation if he wanted,” Dale says.