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Superior cattle farm has its work cut out for it

“Watch out for your fingers,” said Dan Krisak, part-timer at Litchke Farms. “We haven’t lost any yet, but every one of us gets a Band-Aid and keeps going.”

A man cuts large pieces of meat on a bandsaw in an industrial kitchen setting
Dustin Soyring, right, uses a bandsaw to butcher a carcass for a customer while Daniel Litchke, left, wraps cuts of meat as Julie Litchke works on labeling the packages at Litchke Farms south of Superior on Dec. 7.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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SUPERIOR — Julie and Chris Litchke are deep into their “harvesting” season.

While summer is set on raising calves, prepping and selling compost, making tons of hay for cow feed, from Sept. 1 to the end of May, Litchke Farms processes cows raised on-site — and the various pigs, sheep, goats and cattle from other regional homesteads.

A cow tries to lick some of the grass feed off of its nose while it eats
A cow at Litchke Farms tries to lick some of the grass feed off its nose while it eats.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

“The only reason we can make it, we have our own meat plant, we can retail our own product, cut up people’s animals for them,” said Chris Litchke.

The family has been producing beef since 1980 and processing on-site since 2005. Their plant is Wisconsin Department of Agriculture-inspected, and after three acquisitions, they now own 1,500 acres.

It’s a family-run operation, with some help from part-timers, but they’ve got their work cut out for them.

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On a “cutting day” in December, Chris Litchke fed, watered and hauled for the farm’s 150-plus cows. Inside the meat processing plant, there was a constant hum of movement and machinery.

Dan Krisaki, left, and Bob Anderson cut meat off the bone for hamburger for a client at Litchke Farms
Dan Krisak, left, and Bob Anderson cut meat off the bone for hamburger for a client at Litchke Farms.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Dustin Soyring maneuvered hanging halves of beef out of the freezer before sending them through the buzzing bandsaw. Daniel Litchke removed bone particles with a plastic scraper.

In the corner, Dan Krisak and Bob Anderson wore gloves with holes in them, as they whittled the trimmings from “primal cuts” of meat to 3/4-inch thick before tossing them into the whirring mouth of the grinder.

Julie Litchke talks about the butchering process as she labels packages at Litchke Farms
Julie Litchke talks about the butchering process as she labels packages.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

“Watch out for your fingers,” said Krisak, 71. “We haven’t lost any yet, but every one of us gets a Band-Aid and keeps going.”

They think the gloves are going to help them from not cutting themselves, Chris Litchke said, so "they have this false sense of security.” (Gloves aren’t required when handling raw material.)

Julie Litchke wraps custom orders in heavy-duty food film, freezer paper and plastic bags. Each package needs the state-inspected sticker to be sold. Litchke differentiates their farm-raised beef from the meat they process in its packaging and labels: red bags for their beef and black for animals raised elsewhere.

Dustin Soyring pushes a few halves of beef out of the freezer that will be butchered for customers at Litchke Farms
Dustin Soyring pushes a few halves of beef out of the freezer.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

You have to know how to do multiple jobs on a farm, the workers agreed, but asked if they rotate plant duties, Soyring answered quickly with: “My saw,” and Julie Litchke told a “remember that time” story. There are many stories and a lot of jokes to pass the time, she said.

The crew planned to process 18 sides of beef during the News Tribune visit, and cutting days are easily 12 hours. When they finish, every surface and piece of machinery — the floors and walls, hooks, knives, the saw and grinder — are disassembled, washed and sanitized.

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During a harvesting day, animals are dispensed, lifted in the air, bled out and laid on a cradle upside-down. The crew removes the animal innards and the hide, and cuts them in half. They wash the carcasses with hot water and an acid bath (vinegar and water) to change the pH of the meat and cut down on bacteria.

Chris Litchke drives his tractor through falling snow as temperatures hover around 0 degrees while he brings a load of grass feed to his herd at Litchke Farms
Chris Litchke drives his tractor through falling snow as temperatures hover around zero degrees while he brings a load of grass feed to his herd.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

The halves are then refrigerated in a humidity- and temperature-controlled fridge for 10-12 days to dry-age the meat.

State inspection is thorough, but it’s worth that stamp of approval and the ability to sell. “We do eight beef a week and are under the same scrutiny of plants that process 10,000 a day. We have to follow the same rules,” Chris Litchke said.

“We like that they're state-inspected,” said Eric Hanson, of Two Harbors.

Workers cuts chunks of meat for hamburger for a customer
Workers cut chunks of meat for hamburger for a customer Dec. 7 at Litchke Farms near Superior.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Hanson had the ability to slaughter at home, but when his parents sold the meat shop, he had to decide if he was going to build a new one. He's thankful he found the Litchkes, who he said do an excellent job cutting and wrapping and their system is simple.

“It makes it easy for me to drop them off at Chris and Julie’s,” he said.

Purchasing meat from the Litchkes worked well for Kathy Boyle’s family of eight. “We wanted to make sure that we were getting something that was good for our family as they were growing. … Because we ordered so much between all of our kids, we've probably ordered two whole cows,” she said.

While the hamburger may be a little pricier to start, the cost of steak, roasts and prime rib are more expensive at the grocery store, so even it ends up being cheaper when you order a whole side or a quarter, Boyle said.

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Boyle uses their meat for spaghetti, lasagna, tater tot hotdish and hamburgers, and while she’d purchased a half of a cow at a time, she said, the way they wrap it preserves the quality when frozen.

While most of her children have moved out of the home, Boyle continues to buy from the Litchkes because of the quality, they’re always up front with costs, and they’re personable — and buying locally helps farmers make a living.

“They try to keep prices as low as possible, but they also need to make a profit, so they can survive,” she said.

Across the state, there are more food safety labs sprouting, in Madison and River Falls, which allow more folks an entry point into the field, Julie Litchke said, and that’s hopeful, but overall, it’s a challenging industry.

Daniel Litchke looks over at the bin of ground beef as he fills bags for customers at Litchke Farms
Daniel Litchke looks over at the bin of ground beef as he fills bags for customers.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Each spring is a 24/7 job watching the cows, ensuring the calves are shielded from weather conditions, and predators — sleepless nights and busy days.

“The cows have to eat every single day. They don’t care if it’s your birthday,” added Litchke.

It’s not like other jobs, you don’t get weekends off, and if you are able to carve time away, it’s difficult to shut off the worry and detach, Soyring said.

“If you aren’t driven by say love for animals, love for land, you won’t be able to toe the line because the financial reward ain’t enough,” said Chris Litchke.

Chris Litchke works 12-13 hours a day, a necessary reduction for his health, but one that comes at a cost. He fears for the future. He doesn’t want his children to have to work 90-hour weeks, and he doesn’t see how all the work will get done when he has to slow down. There are also financial concerns.

Farmers don’t make a lot of money, but they make draws, he said, adding his children will always have a job and food in their bellies.

For Daniel Litchke, it’s all about working with family, knowing where your meat comes from and exactly how it’s raised. You’re outside, working toward a common goal, added Julie Litchke.

“You’re your own boss, you’re in charge of the decisions, whether it’s right or wrong, you learn,” said Soyring. “I don’t think I’d want to do anything else.”

A cow gets covered in snow on a frigid Wednesday morning, Dec. 7, 2022 at Litchke Farms
A cow gets covered in snow on a frigid morning at Litchke Farms.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Melinda Lavine is an award-winning, multidisciplinary journalist with 16 years professional experience. She joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2014, and today, she writes about the heartbeat of our community: the people.

Melinda grew up in central North Dakota, a first-generation American and the daughter of a military dad.

She earned bachelors degrees in English and Communications from the University of North Dakota in 2006, and started her career at the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald that summer. She helped launch the Herald's features section, as the editor, before moving north to do the same at the DNT.

Contact her: 218-723-5346, mlavine@duluthnews.com.
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