Over the 22 plus years this column has appeared on a weekly basis (I did miss one week about six years ago while having an operation) readers have often sent or expressed opinions on my writings.
On occasion, a writer (usually a city person who never actually farmed) will express the opinion that all the ills of farming (low prices, high expenses, falling farm numbers) are because "big dairy farmers force little farmers out of business."
They usually pinpoint a 30-cow dairy herd on a small farm of 80-160 acres, operated by mom, dad and the kids as the ideal dairy farm.
Farms bigger than that are evil, uncivilized, environmentally bad and are responsible for the downfall of civilization. Even worse, they are "corporate dairies."
Not only do readers who disagree with my columns describing new, big dairies (Larson Acres, Rock Prairie Dairy or Cottonwood Dairy as examples) express such thoughts, but you'll hear them repeated at every DNR public hearing dealing with a proposed new mega dairy, letters to the editor in newspapers, magazines and on internet sites.
It's a common and interesting observation, but not the reason why farms are ever bigger and fewer.
A visit to one of the big antique farm equipment shows held across the state each year might help the nay sayers understand what has happened to dairy farming over the years.
My visit to the 49th Annual Badger Steam & Gas Engine show at Baraboo last week tells the story of how and why farms have changed over the years.
What was the best era to be a dairy farmer?
Some will say it was before scientists began tampering with farm crops, food was all-natural, no genetic modification, you ate what you grew and food was raised and bought local.
That would be about 1945 and the end of World War II: Horses were still the primary "power units" on farms: Hybrid corn was just beginning to be planted; Vernal alfalfa was still a research project and there were far more horses than tractors and farm equipment was still of the 1930s vintage as the war had stopped any farm mechanization.
Dairy barns were small, just big enough to house the average dairy herd of 15 cows. Cows were milked by hand as electricity was still new and was used mainly just to provide light in the barn and house.
The industrial revolution had not yet hit dairying: Hay was put up with a hay loader and stored loose in the barn; oats were cut with a binder, shocked by hand (thistles and all) and processed through the neighborhood threshing machine; most tractors had steel wheels with lugs; silo fillers and corn shredders were still the norm and family labor and an occasional hired man did the work.
The farm family ate chicken raised on the farm, mother delivered eggs weekly to customers in town, a hog and steer (half was sold to a neighbor) were annually butchered and the meat stored in a locker plant. Oranges, peaches and bananas were a rarity .
While mechanical power had been around for 50 years beginning with the huge steam engines and moving to tractors, all of which were slow, small (20-30 HP) and just developing as a farm implement, the 1950s saw a major change in Wisconsin farming.
The grain combine became practical. By 1960 some 300,000 Allis Chalmers Model 66 All-Crop Harvesters (five foot cut) had been sold, and in the late 1950s the self-propelled combine came on the scene.
Corn pickers meant the end of "bang board" wagons and corn shredders and, although the forage harvester had been around since the early 30s, it did not come into common use until the late 1950s.
Power take off-propelled choppers followed by self propelled units meant the hard labor of forage and grain harvesting was replaced by automation.
Although the first milking machine was invented in 1879 (it didn't work), hand milking was still the norm until about 60 years ago when the nation's farms were electrified.
Even then, milking machines meant carrying milk buckets to the milk can. The advent of pipelines, bulk milk handling and parlors enabled dairy farming to get away from the limits of human labor.
The grandfathers of today's dairy farmers marveled at the great dairy herds of the day: Pabst Farms at Oconomowoc and it's great show cows, Brook Hill Farm at Genesee Depot milking 900 cows in 1920, Piper Brothers Farm at Watertown who started their own A.I. breeding service in 1946 and Wern Farms at Waukesha who were successful in the show ring and had door-to-door milk routes in Chicago and Milwaukee.
They have all gone from the dairy scene and their outstanding milk production was less than half of the Wisconsin average of 20,000 pounds per cow today.
Add in the great strides made in livestock housing, animal nutrition and veterinary medicine making for today's meat and milk production that would be unbelievable to a farmer of 50 or 100 years ago.
A team of oxen could work a farm of a few acres, a team of horses could provide the power for perhaps 40 acres and a 1960 tractor would enable a farmer to work a couple hundred acres of land.
A threshing ring crew of 1950 would require 6-10 wagons, a half dozen "pitchers" who forked the grain bundles to the man on the flat rack making the load, three men to move the grain to the bin, the owner of the thresher and a half dozen women making the noon dinner. The result at days end - probably 20 acres of oats harvested.
Today a combine with a 35-foot head, traveling at three mph can harvest 150 acres of soybeans in a days time as semis haul the beans to an elevator.
How many acres can a John Deere tractor pulling a 64-foot wide piece of tillage equipment at eight mph in a mile square North Dakota field work up in a day? A lot of land.
In the early 1900s one farmer produced enough food for his family and about two other people. Today, one farmer produces food for about 150 other eaters.
Which is better? A farmer with 10 cows in 1950, each producing 25 pounds of milk per day that was put in milk cans, cooled in water in a stock tank and hauled to a creamery in an unrefrigerated truck. Or, the milking parlor of today with milk going directly to a cooler into a semi trailer and to the dairy.
Has there ever been a farmer who didn't search for and buy equipment and technology that was not more efficient, used less labor or worked better than what he was currently using? I doubt it. The 400 or so tractors and acres of other farm equipment at the Baraboo show tell that story.
Yes, there are fewer farms and farmers today than there were last year or 50 years ago.
No, progressive farmers don't force small farmers out of business. Blame technology like the Appleby twine knotter invented in 1878 by John Appleby at Mazomanie that allowed grain to be tied in bundles (and hay in bales today) or Henry Wallace who brought hybrid corn to farming so long ago.
Blame also the farmers' heritage, ambition and desire to do things ever better and consumers who want fresh, safe, convenient, healthy food - instantly and always.
Even if one wanted to limit modern farming,- what would be eliminated? Electricity, refrigerators, trucks, tractors, indoor plumbing, health care for animals and people, milking machines? You tell me.
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 email him at email@example.com.