In the dead of winter, Chris Litchke of Litchke-Kimmes Farms, Superior, could work an eight- to 12-hour day.

Chris Litchke uses a tractor to shoot out hay for bedding to dry out the pen for the cattle. Jed Carlson / Telegram
Chris Litchke uses a tractor to shoot out hay for bedding to dry out the pen for the cattle. Jed Carlson / Telegram
Come March 10, when calving begins, it's long hours tending to the cows as they bring another generation into the world.

"Last night was my best night of sleep in about three weeks, and I got 3 ½ hours," Litchke said Friday afternoon, April 5.

Back in 1989, he purchased 648 acres of land near a farm owned by the late-Joe Kimmes.

"What made me want to farm, even though I was a city kid ... I was intrigued by the outdoors," Litchke said. "I thought it was so cool that I could actually make a living outdoors, raising and being with animals."

In 2005, Litchke added another 798 acres - buying the Kimmes farm - and today he manages about 425 head, which peaks during calving season. In the last three weeks, the herd has grown by more than 55 calves.

"As a farmer, you're asked to put God's creation before yourself - the land and the animals - and that dictates crazy hours," Litchke said. "I believe I do it. I believe my family steps up and helps me do it. Oh, God, we couldn't make it if I didn't have my sons (Zach and Daniel), my wife (Julie) and daughter. I've got my 13-year-old daughter (Emily), who might be the best worker I've ever had."

A sign at Litchke Farms, Superior. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
A sign at Litchke Farms, Superior. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
For the Litchke family, farming is a labor of love, but one that is becoming increasingly difficult to rely on as the main source of income. Litchke, who owns one of the larger farms in Douglas County, said the family is doing OK, but without the meat processing plant he owns that allows him to sell some of what they raise retail and the black dirt business he operates for a month in late spring, it would be a struggle.

It's a common challenge for farmers in Northern Wisconsin, said Mark Liebaert, owner of Riverside Ranch in Amnicon and a member of the Wisconsin Farmers Union.

About 20 years ago, Farmers Union came out with a statement in support of family farms, which were defined as farms where most of the income came from farming, Liebaert said. At the time, he said, it didn't apply to farmers in Northern Wisconsin.

"Every one of them, even if the guys were milking cows, had a wife working off the farm who was providing them with insurance and made more money than they did," Liebaert said. "Not one of them qualified. Even a full-time dairy farmer had a wife that was working as a nurse somewhere."

Liebaert said with market conditions as they are, there aren't many family farmers that could make it without a family member holding an off-farm job. In many cases, the farmers hold off-farm jobs as well.

"I don't have a clue how somebody under the commodity-based economy that farmers deal with right now, how they would make enough money to cover insurances on their health, house, vehicles, farm," Liebaert said. "Just our farm insurance alone is a couple grand. That is just to cover us so if someone gets hurt or somebody steals."

He said the plan doesn't cover crop damage or animals that are killed.

Litchke said commodity markets for beef were "sky high" a few years ago, which drove up prices with suppliers that support the beef industry. But when the price a spring calf for dropped back down from a high of $1,200, those costs didn't go down.

Last fall, his spring calves sold for $629, Litchke said.

From about March 10 through the end of August, Litchke estimates he'll be working about 18-hour days. Litchke said the intense calving period ends around the time spring road restrictions come off in early May, which is when his black dirt business picks up as farmers prepare for planting.

For the next month, Litchke said he's on the dump truck or feeding cows around the clock for the next month, and then haying season begins.

"The only time I get a break is on rainy days in the summertime," Litchke said.

Despite the hard work and the low return, Litchke said farming "gets in your blood."

"I want to truly make a difference," Litchke said. "We're harvesting the grass, feeding it to animals and you feel like you're doing something that makes a difference."

Chris Litchke checks on some of the newborn calves at Litchke Farms on Friday afternoon, April 5. (Jed Carlson / Telegram)
Chris Litchke checks on some of the newborn calves at Litchke Farms on Friday afternoon, April 5. (Jed Carlson / Telegram)
And it's a job Litchke said farmers are reluctant to give up.

"You just don't quit," Litchke said. "And you don't know when to quit. They go out and have other jobs, and they mortgage their house to keep the farm going, and I know so many people doing stuff like this - I'm not there - but that's what they do ... that sort of thing makes you feel like you're making a difference in the world."

Litchke said he encourages people to support their local farmers markets before there are no farmers left in the area.

"We end up having to depend a lot of years on outside income," Liebaert said. "Sometimes you think you're working to keep the farm going. And in cases of bad years, that's exactly what happens. And farmers are willing to do that. They're willing to work another job to offset the losses produced by a farm."

In some cases, Liebaert said that's why farms are disappearing.

"Most farmers never consider farm-work work," Liebaert said. "It's what we like to do."