The 24th annual business conference of the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin again drew a big crowd of some 1,600 dairy producers and dairy industry people to Madison last week. The listened to seminars, producer panels, visited a great trade show and did a lot of networking.
Subject matter ranged from keeping calves healthy to keeping employees happy to managing the farm business in difficult times. In between the seminars and exhibit viewing, there was good food and ice cream and, wherever one looked, there were people talking with people.
Whatever program is offered at a dairy/farmer meeting — it could be a world championship something — dairy folks will find time to talk and learn from each other.
I'll not try to review the formal programs, but here are some things I did learn and people I met.
In spite of the 'down' milk price, this crowd was not talking doom and gloom. But then, these producers are what could be called the 'cream of the crop.' They are meeting goers, innovators, managers and learners who spend little time in complaining or talking about tough times. There were many two-generation families made up of husbands, wives and children in the farm operation.
Everyone is looking at income and outgo. Several producers told me that a close look at their nutrition brought changes which paid off. 'You know,' a top producers said, 'sometimes we tend to go along with what we are doing ... sometimes there are new feeds or systems available. I changed my ration and ended up getting more milk at less cost.'
I asked several other producers, and they had made similar moves and were most pleased. Several had changed nutritionists.
PDPW a plus
I talked with a number of dairymen with herds in the 70- to 100-ow range who have been PDPW members for some time. This organization is for all dairy producers they agreed. Whatever their size, they had better be good managers.
Everyone — farmers and industry — saw the current low milk price as long term and are planning for such. A few, very few, producers have contracted their milk and are receiving $17 (plus or minus) until July/August.
I talked with a young couple from Sebewaing, Michigan: Alexander Poelsma and Amber Iden who dairy north of Detroit. He manages a 2,800-cow dairy at age 20. 'I was in college when dad called and said the dairy manager had left and that I should leave school for a year and help,' he explained.
'I am still on the dairy as my dad is more a 100-cow herd manager and mom does the finances. It took a lot of convincing with my parents in order for them to let me take over management.
'We came from Holland in 2006 and began with 1,000 cows. We did what U.S. dairymen do best; we grew to 2,800 cows and 700 acres of land.'
This was his third year at PDPW. 'You must invest time and effort to learn,' he said, 'and this is were it is.'
I said I had known only one other 20-year-old who was managing a large dairy. That was T.J. Tuls at Rock Prairie Dairy near Janesville. 'Oh, I know him well,' Poelsma said. 'I buy newly calved heifers from him.'
Yes, dairying is a small world indeed.
I met friend Dan Monson, Wiota, former manager of Cedar Grove Dairy in Brodhead and now director of dairy specialists in Fulton, lllinois-based Agri-King, who greeted me with the comment, 'I've got a story for you John. It's sort of a new way some farmers are raising heifers.'
He then introduced me to Kirk Branum, a UW-Platteviile graduate from Wiota, who attended the PDPW Cornerstone Dairy Academy prior to the business conference. Kirk is the dairy reproduction manager at Oshkosh Heifer Development, LLC in Oshkosh, Nebraska.
The heifer-raising facility is located in the sand hills of western Nebraska and is where dairy heifers from a group of Wisconsin farms spend time, at a former feed lot, growing up.
'There are about 7,000 heifers on site,' Branum said. 'The capacity is double that. Animals come in at four to five months of age and go home 45 days prior to freshening. They are bred A.I. with the bull that the owner chooses.'
He explained that there are nine employees with a local veterinarian who conducts regular pregnancy checks, and feed is contracted from local farmers.
'They were really happy to see us set this heifer facility up,' Branum explained.
When the former feed lot closed, they were left without a close-by market for their crops.
The project began a few years ago when Marc Braun, of Evergreen Dairy, Antigo; Jeff Betley, Betley Farms, Pulaski; and dairy nutritionist Bill Matzke from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, began searching for a location in the west to raise dairy heifers.
They settled on what Braun called a 'tired feedlot' on the North Platte River in western Nebraska. He said the area offers a mild climate (it was 78 degrees when we talked on Monday), a plentiful feed supply and a relatively low-cost heifer-raising investment.
After some remodeling to accommodate heifers, the first group came on site in September 2014. Headlocks and a silage storage are are now under construction.
Braun, who lives in Shawano and serves as the managing partner of Oshkosh Heifer Development, lists the current owners/members as Betley Farms, Pulaski; Country Aire Dairy, Greenleaf; Quantum Dairy, Weyauwega; Abel Dairy Farms, Eden; Kutz Dairy, Jefferson; Tinedale Farm, Kaukauna; Evergreen Farm, Antigo; and Terry Jessen, Oshkosh, Nebraska (a member of the former feedlot owner's family).
Yes, it's a major change in traditional Wisconsin dairying, but I've heard of other state dairy producers having or planning similar heifer raising systems out west. Thanks to Kirk Branum for the information about this evolution in Wisconsin dairying.
My discussions with commercial exhibitors indicate that farmers have not quit buying: Cows must be fed; equipment must be maintained and replaced; planned remodeling and building construction goes on; and services are added if they are foreseen as moneymakers.
Scott Schneider of Keller, Inc., Kaukauna, explained it perfectly: 'Dairy producers don't farm day by day. They look five to 10 years down the road and plan (with caution) accordingly.'
Producer after producer told me this was the best PDPW conference they had attended, especially in the wide variety of knowledgeable speakers and wide ranging topics offered. Congratulations to Shelley Meyer, her staff and the board of directors at PDPW for doing such a great job in putting the annual Business Conference together and pulling it off. I sometimes wonder how they do it.
John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.