As of Sept. 1, there were 10,721 dairy herds in Wisconsin, the lowest number in over 100 years (before such records were kept), with the herd average at 114 cows, the most ever.
Although there are no figures available, we all know that the number of small dairy herds (under 100 cows) are dropping fast while the number of herds with over 100 cows is growing.
Note: For some reason (probably money) no one keeps track of the size of dairy herds and actual figures won't be available until February (maybe) when the recent census data is compiled.
I'd bet that when non farmers and maybe (most) dairy farmers think or talk about bigger dairy herds and dairy expansion, they are picturing mega herds: The 1,000 to 5,000 cow (and bigger) operations that so often make the news and get much of the publicity.
The number of mega dairies seems to have stabilized at somewhere over 300 in the state as the number of new entrepreneurs wanting the huge dairies has seemingly slacked off. Meanwhile, there has been much expansion among the smaller dairies in an effort to stay in business and even bring other family members into the operation.
Robert "Bob" and Christine "Chris" Bjorge were married in 1986 and began dairying in partnership with Bob's dad Bernard, just off Highways 18/151 between Dodgeville and Ridgeway.
They, like so many dairy farmers, started with a relatively small dairy herd and have grown over the years, but it wasn't easy.
The Bjorge dairy dates to 1966 when Bernard and Lucille Bjorge who had been renting a dairy in the Elkhorn area fulfilled their ambition to be in business for themselves by purchasing a farm in Iowa County near Dodgeville.
Bob was the only one (of the five children) that stayed on the farm. He attended UW Farm Short Course, began buying needed farm equipment and ultimately formed a partnership with his parents.
Upon the retirement of his parents in 1988, Bob and Chris purchased the farm.
"You'll remember that the mid to late '80s were the years of the 'farm crisis' and 1988 still goes down as the driest of the dry years," Bob says. "We bought hay from Illinois, added water and put it into the silo. We sold all our livestock except for our 60 milking cows and the heifers."
They survived those tough years and grew their farm and family and in 1999 built a freestall barn with pasture mats and wood shavings for cow comfort and the milking parlor to ease labor
Over the years, the dairy herd gradually grew from 60 cows to 120 to 130 and finally to 170 milking cows.
Unlike many expanding dairy farms, the Bjorges did not add employees as farming operations remained mostly in the hands of Bob and Chris: She milking morning and night, he responsible for the feeding and cropping.
Along the way they added heifer and calf barns, a second Slurry Store and two more Harvestores to the existing three that Bob's dad had built.
The Bjorges raise their cows and heifers on a rather small farmstead located on a side hill on which everything works together and is truly labor efficient.
The Double 8 parlor was built into one end of the white, round roof, traditional dairy barn with the rest of the barn (the bigger portion) serving as the holding area. Not all the steel from the former stanchion barn was removed and the former areas where cows stood serve as entrance and exit lanes to and from the parlor.
There are no headlocks, rather the Bjorges have a chute at the end of the exit lane in which cows to be bred or looked at by a veterinarian can be held. "It works very well." Bob says.
The feed room is located just off one side of the barn and is truly the center of all feeding operations. Feed from all five Harvestores - three (25x80, 20x80 and 20x65) holding haylage, one with corn silage (25x90) and one (20x80) with high moisture corn - can be mixed (in a stationary Kuhn-Knight mixer) in any formulation.
The total mixed ration travels overhead to outside feeders for young stock and dry cows and into the freestall barn for the milking cows. "I can adjust the ration for each side of the freestall, a 48- by 250-foot building with 150 stalls." Bob explains. "The system works great."
The Bjorges have two Slurry Stores (one they built, one Bob's dad built) that hold some 900,000 gallons of manure and are pumped twice yearly. The manure is applied to fields by Bob, who owns his own tanker.
Any complaints about all the Harvestore equipment, I asked?
"No, we have a great relationship with Mark Bittrick and his Badgerland Agri-Systems at Edgerton," Bob says with a chuckle. "Well, there is one sort of complaint, we should have built the last Slurry Store bigger."
Chris Bjorge, in addition to being the milking guru, is the farm accountant and record keeper. "I use a computer program called "Stock Keeper," she says. "It's easy to use and works well for me."
The 170 cows have a rolling herd average of 23,500 pounds of milk that is shipped to Stockton Cheese in Illinois.
The Bjorges are proud of the calf barn that was added six years ago. It has forced air ventilation, removable partitions that are washed and cleaned periodically and offers comfort and healthy conditions.
The couple farms 340 acres, much of it contoured and strip cropped. "It's been that way forever," Bob says. The 170 acres of alfalfa is put in the Harvestores as is the corn. They buy dry hay in big bales locally.
The big machine shed holds a lot of equipment, all of it "Red' in color and except for custom combining and corn planting, the Bjorges do the farming with part time help.
The Bjorges relate that ABS supplies their dairy genetics, Vita Plus at Dodgeville provides the nutrition work, Military Ridge Vet Services at Dodgeville does their pregnancy check and herd health and Hanna Ag at Belleville oversees their agronomy program.
The Bjorges hosted the Iowa county June Dairy Breakfast on the Farm in 2000 but have since added cows and several buildings. "The current 170 cow dairy farm is the result of a gradual process, truly something to be proud of.
WHAT ABOUT THE FUTURE?
Bob and Chris have two children. Jenny, a UW-River Falls graduate who is now in her final year at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine. She plans to be a large animal veterinarian. Their son Jeff, who attended Southwest Wisconsin Technical College at Fennimore, is now an electrician apprentice.
"Son Jeff doesn't plan to be a farmer," Bob and Chris agree. "Jenny is a farmer at heart but who knows where her career will lead her? We have some time left - we'll see."
The Bjorges, who have tripled their cow numbers over 27 years are happy with their current size. They are prime examples of farmers who have quietly grown their dairies and strengthened their position as independent family farmers.
John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or e-mail him at email@example.com.