For years the story that Wisconsin dairy farmers are "old" and that there are no young people who want to farm has been repeated time and again.
Then the question is asked: "Who's going to farm when the oldsters retire?"
For years I've tried to refute that theory and have said that there are many, many young farmers (men and women) milking cows across the "dairy state" and a lineup a mile long of those wanting to get into dairying. You just have to get on the farms and take a look.
The confusion may come from the custom of calling the father of the family "the farmer," although one or more sons or daughters may actually be managing and running the dairy while buying out the parent's interest.
The number of family dairy farms has most certainly gone down every year since the mid 1930s and it continues today.
The reasons are several. Chief among them is the steady advance of technology. Horses gave way to tractors, tractors to bigger tractors, the binder to the combine, the hay loader to the baler to the forage chopper and on and on.
Modern technology meant that large families were no long a necessity to operate a dairy farm and if dad and mother did not expand the operation to make it profitable for several family members, the young people head in a different direction.
This brought the ultimate end of the dairy as "mom and pop" farms often cease with the retirement of the parents and are sold to a larger dairy, a hobby farmer or someone seeking a country home.
Many (actually most) of the successful dairy farms of today - those that intend to be in business long term - are multi generational. The list of mega dairies shows that almost all are a form of corporation made up of parents and sons or daughters who are in the process of purchasing the operation long term.
I've written about hundreds of these expanded dairy farms over the years and, would you believe, have often been accused of promotng these as "corporate farms" that will mean the death of Wisconsin dairying.
Sons and daughters joining with parents in operating an expanded dairy that will provide for the future of both generations (and another generation down the road) is the one way commercial dairying can survive long term.
Matt Wipperfurth is a 30-year-old dairyman at Dane in northwest Dane County who, with his wife Janine, milks 300 cows and farms 800 acres of owned and rented land with his parents, William "Bill" and Diane.
Although he is still young, 61-year-old Bill explains, "I'm expendable, I still want to work - which I do every day - but I don't want to make all the decisions, so we are moving the farm to the next generation."
Bill Wipperfurth has done this before - when he and his wife took over the farm from his parents in 1974. Although still in their 20s and having purchased Bill's uncle's farm just up the road, they were faced with a major decision.
"My dad's health wasn't good," Bill says. "One day he announced that the farm was for sale."
Although Bill admits that he wasn't really ready to buy the farm, his dad said he had to decide.
"I made the decision to go ahead - even though I was young - with my parents financing," he says. "But I had to establish my own line of credit."
The Wipperfurth family farm grew in terms of children to five: sons Matt, Jeremy and Joel and daughters Lisa and Laurel. It also grew as a dairy farm from 22 cows, a dozen pigs and about that many beef cattle.
"We were a typical diversified Wisconsin family farm," Diane says.
In 1994 the family built a 99-cow freestall barn, a second 220-cow freestall in 2005 and a commodity shed in 2007.
They have a series of calf facilities, the first one built by Matt while in high school vo-ag class; a hoop barn for 4-8-month-old calves; an older building for bigger heifers and a transition/maternity barn which takes up half the former traditional dairy barn built in 1979 after a barn fire. The other half holds the milking parlor.
In order to accomplish moving the farm to the next generation, the family formed an LLC in 2005 and Matt and Janine began the lengthy process of "transitioning" to ownership. Assuming ownership of the cattle is the first step, to be followed by the personal property and then the land.
Parents and son recognize that in order to keep moving forward there must be enough income to make the process work. Part of that new income is Wipp Brothers Ag Services, LLC (owned by Janine, Matt and Jeremy) that was established in 2006 to do custom manure hauling for local farms in southern Wisconsin. That business now includes six semi trailer tankers, two lagoon pumps, hose and soil incorporation equipment and two agitation boats.
In addition there is a custom harvesting division that includes a Claas chopper, a hay merger, mower and tractor and two 38-foot trailers to haul hay, corn, silage, large square bales and shelled corn. The field equipment is owned by the farm and rented by the custom operation.
Diane Wipperfurth continues to be active on the dairy as the calf raiser and bookkeeper and Janine (Matt's wife) is a school teacher in Lodi in addition to being the mother of three young daughters ages five, seven and nine.
How has he been affected by the drought?
Matt explains that last spring he found himself with extra heifers so he culled his herd to make room, thus resulting in fewer animals during the heat of July and August. And, yes, he is still a bit short of grain for the winter and will buy some corn.
Matt, like so many of the dairy farmers across the state, attended the University of Wisconsin Farm and Industry Short Course.
"This is where you get the basics of farming," he says. "If people think there are no young people interested in dairy farming, they ought to attend a Short Course class or two - they'd see!"
Not all farmers are eager to allow their sons and daughters to get actively involved in the family dairy farm early on. Oft times the parents want to hold on as full-time dairy producers and owners until retirement. Meanwhile, the sons and daughters who might have farmed have gone on to their own lives.
The result is mom and dad, even though they would like to keep the farm in the family, find it's too late and the farm ends up as part of a neighbors' larger expansion.
Diane Wipperfurth admits giving up control is not easy.
"Bill and I had built the farm," she says. "But we realized that if Matt did not have a financial interest in the operation, he would not remain as an employee. "
Bill Wipperfurth, who continues as crop manager, and Diane, the calf expert and bookkeeper, continue their goal of remaining active on the farm as son Matt and Janine continue the transition towards ownership.
The Wipperfurth family began the planning and transition process toward passing the farm early - and, hopefully, like the generation before, it will be successful in all phases for years to come.
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.