Some 1,400 dairy farmers and industry representatives enjoyed two days of listening, learning and conversing last week at the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (PDPW) annual business conference.
Attendees had the opportunity to participate in 19 seminars and keynote presentations, visit the 125 commercial exhibits, enjoy ice cream breaks and greet old friends and make new.
This was the organization's 21st business meeting - the first was held at the Hotel Mead in Wisconsin Rapids in March 1993 - of what the PDPW acclaims as "Dairy's Premier Educational Event."
Quoting from my written words in this column of April 2, 1993:
"Just what we need - another farm organization - because if there was ever a group of people with organizations, it's dairy farmers...and...so why a group of farmers calling themselves professional?
...this group wants to go far beyond the normal plow, plant, harvest and deliver subjects featured at the agricultural education meetings farmers are exposed to...I think this group of dairy producers are seeking the next level - business techniques, family communication, interchange of ideas, seeking solutions and to meet the ever-changing ag business head on...It's nonpolitical, won't advocate any specific style of farming and is for all types and style of dairy operations. "
Two decades later, the PDPW has most certainly succeeded in those efforts and membership continues to grow in spite of the major changes dairy agriculture has seen in those 21 years."
Today there are just over 11,000 licensed dairy farms averaging 110 cows in Wisconsin compared to 30,000 herds with 52 cows per herd in 1993. Today the 1.2 million cows average 21,500 pounds of milk compared to the 14,800 pounds the 1.5 million cows averaged 21 years ago. That's change.
In contrast to what is often perceived by the public, no two of the farms are exactly alike and all but a few herds are family owned and operated by people who select their own mode of operation.
There are the very small herds (one-29 cows) that are probably owned by Amish families who follow their religious beliefs or part-time farmers; bigger herds (30-99 cows) often called "traditional" dairies usually consisting of a small family unit (parents and growing children); larger herds (100-500 cows) that may include a second family (sons and or daughters) and the even larger dairies (500 or more cows) in which the families have expanded their farm to include multi-family units using hired employees as the labor force.
There is no definition that says which type of dairy operation is best - each fits the circumstances determined by the family .
For many decades the old rule of farm transfer was "the oldest son to the oldest son and women didn't count." That seemed to "sort of work" until the last third of the twentieth century when technology, economics and lifestyles made for dramatic changes.
No longer did some dairy farmers want to work 24/7 for 365 days a year with no vacations and seldom a day off.
Dairy sons and daughters got college degrees with the idea of returning to the farm and their parents welcomed them back to share in the management, financial and operation participation.
Meanwhile the traditional high school and extension agricultural resources made some change in direction, away from production agriculture and toward rural and industrial development.
The result was that the dairy/agricultural suppliers began offering high-tech consulting services and meetings that dairy producers often paid to attend.
The first meeting that I remember attending where dairy farmers paid an admittance fee was a "Path To The Future" seminar at Tomah, one of a series sponsored by Germania Dairy Automation in the early 1980s.
Rolf Reisgies, then owner of Germania, remembers that his company was very concerned as to whether anyone would show up, but of course they did. "This allowed us to provide better instructional materials and speakers," he says.
The PDPW has kept apace (and ahead) of the changing dairy scene as this year's annual business conference showed: Seminars ranging from farm safety dealing with employee training land communication: price risk and opportunity; dairy globalization and a dozen other subjects of the times.
The 125 commercial exhibits in the Hall of Ideas were equally of the times, among them were:
• Udder Tech, Inc. (uddertechinc.com) first came onto the dairy scene 19 years ago at World Dairy Expo when Cheryl Mohn, Lakeville, MN dairy farmer (with husband Bruce), school teacher and mother of three, brought 200 "Towel Totes" to a shared booth and sold only 20.
Not discouraged, Cheryl knew that the towel tote (a fanny pack worn in front) she made to save running for paper towels while milking her own cows was a time saver and would be a success with other cow milkers. Of course it was and is.
Today Mohn's company offers dozens of labor saving and comfort dairy items ranging from boots to jackets to sleeved aprons and markets to a nationwide market and overseas. Oh, the Mohn cows were sold last year and Cheryl is out of the milking business but continues to produce innovative products for dairying.
• DATA LLC, of Cascade (dudesag.com) might have been the newest exhibitor at the conference as owner Nate Dudenhoeffer was introducing "Scalehawk," his automated-scale weight-recording system by which a truck driver can weigh, record and save commodity weight information that can be viewed on computer or smart phone.
• Nelson-Jameson, Marshfield, (nelsonjameson.com), longtime supplier to dairy plants, now sells a wide array of testing equipment such as antibiotic and colostrum test kits direct to dairy producers. Josh Sabo, farm products specialists says they formerly worked through the dairy plants and milk haulers but the changing industry now encourages producers to do many of the tests.
• Dick Meyer, Coloma (800-220-5471) was not a new exhibitor. He has been grooving concrete barn floors to preclude cow slippage for 27 years. City folks don't understand such things but larger dairy facilities and more water use prompts farmers to look at cow safety as the 53-million square feet of concrete his company has grooved, shows.
The PDPW 2013 business conference offered something for every dairy producer but as a group of dairymen commented, "you can learn so much here but look around and you'll see the top dairy producers in the state, where are the producers who need to modernize, to feed better and to manage better? They should be here."
"No surprise," I commented. "That's always the way education is, the leaders lead and the uninformed wonder what happened."
The PDPW offers the education and opportunity for a $100 membership and conference fee of $175 for one day and $250 for both days to get a priceless amount of information for dairy success. A good deal as 1,400 folks proved.
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.