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Some 700 dairy producers and industry representatives attended the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association (WDBA) sponsored “Dairy Strong – The Journey Forward” business conference in Madison last  week.  As always, WDBA conferences are upbeat and inspiring as they would be when an audience of top flight dairy farmers get together.

My conversations with attendees lead me to believe it was accepted as a timely, informative, interesting and educational dairy oriented conference and get-together. As always, I spent most of my time talking with producers and suppliers trying to get a handle on the business of dairy agriculture. What I learned:

Adjusting

The low milk prices of the past couple of years were damaging but not fatally so. Several farmers said they had laid aside funds during the high prices of 2014 preparing for a low price period they knew would return. Others (most) said they had lowered expenses, changed nutrition programs, put off some purchases and managed better,  and did a host of other things to keep things on an even keel.

Several said they had built new buildings and/or remodeled and purchased some new equipment. “You can't just stop going ahead.” one family said.

Tom and Lisa Vande Wettering who milk 400 cows at Greenleaf (with Tom's brother Bill) while farming about 1000 acres or owned and rented land, built a new freestall and D–10 parlor last year as their son Luke joined the operation. The Vande Wetterings are happy to have the next generation settling into place on the dairy. They also have three other sons who have yet to decide their future.

“We came to Dairy Strong to hear and learn thing out of our norm,” Tom says. “It’s been interesting and  we’re glad we came.”

Suppliers seem to be optimistic about their businesses during this period of low milk prices low prices – perhaps a bit slower but doing OK. Contractors are still building farm structures – fewer and maybe smaller, but ongoing - and doing smaller  remodeling projects that can’t wait.  Ag lenders admit loans are being watched closely and that they are working closer with borrowers, and yes, interest rates have increased slightly for operating loans.

Hispanics share

The panel discussions presented by Hispanic dairy employees were interesting and informative. Although panelists  admitted  language and culture differences cause fewer problems for Latino workers now, but they still exist. In response to a question about Hispanic holidays, Ignaciao Escamilla, longtime dairy employee at Heller Farms, Alma Center, said, “yes, we celebrate your holidays but (jokingly) we don’t eat turkey at Thanksgiving, we eat tacos.”

He said “Mother’s Day is one of the big holidays for us because we honor our mothers.”  He added that Día de Muertos, “ the celebration of the dead”  that dates back to ancient Aztec culture is an important Mexican holiday.” (Note - Día de Muertos is about celebrating and honoring loved ones who have passed away...to remember a person as they were before they went to the afterlife...with the dead joining the living in celebration.)

“Our Hispanic employees and their families are not much different than ours,” a couple of dairy producers said after the panel discussion. “I learned a lot but I do feel bad that those using SS cards not their own will not benefit from the savings in retirement. I hope this can be changed under the new president,” one concluded.

Sustainability?

I attended the seminar “What does the dairy industry look like in 2025” presented by Ryan Sirolli, dairy innovation leader at Cargill Animal Nutrition. He used the word “sustainability” many times during his presentation concluding that “sustainability enables growth.” During the question period, I asked for his interpretation of sustainability as it relates to dairy farming. He said he couldn't give an answer as every industry is different. (Note – my thought as to his answer; does growth identify sustainability?)

A question - Does anyone know what sustainability means in reference to farming? Consumers seem to want it but what is it: A century farm? A farm being managed at a top management level? A farm making a profit over a long period?

There was plenty or time for networking (talking) between attendees and as one dairyman said, “these meetings are about 40% program and 60% talking among old and new friends, and that's good.”

No rBST

Perhaps the most popular subject being discussed centered on family-owned Grassland Dairy Products decision to discontinue accepting cream from processors with producers using rBST effective Jan. 1, 2017. Several dairy producers were extremely upset because they will get lower production thus lower income. “It could mean more cows - to make up for the income loss -and a bigger carbon footprint,” one producer said.

Others felt it was OK and that they have or would would make other management moves to counteract the production loss, others were neutral on the subject.

Why did Grassland make that move? I called Grassland to find out.

“It was 100% based on our inability to compete in the US and export nonfat dry milk powder market,” Trevor Wuethrich says. “All products for export must be rBST free – point No. 1 on the bid requirements is rBST free and over 50% of our domestic customers require rBST free. We had no choice but to comply.”

The many cheese factories that send extra cream to Grassland Dairy for processing into butter (it is the biggest independent butter maker in the US) and many whey protein products were notified of the January 1 deadline last May, so it wasn’t a surprise.

Two new DBA board members were elected: Lee Kinnard, of Kinnard Farms Inc., Casco, and Amy Penterman, of Dutch Dairy LLC in Thorp were elected as farmer directors. Mike North, of Commodity Risk Management Group in Platteville, was reelected as the corporate representative and also as DBA's president succeeding Calumet County dairy farmer Gordon Speirs.

Who found it?

I had an interesting experience: About mid-afternoon on Thursday, I realized one of my hearing aids was gone. I searched the exhibit floor where I had walked and talked  – no luck. I walked out into the registration area and one of the women at a counter, asked, “Are you enjoying the day?” I responded, “It has been great until I lost a hearing aid and can't find it - it's an expensive loss.” “Well,” she said. “I just happen to have one right here, a lady turned it in a couple of hours ago, it shows there are still honest, good-hearted people in this world.”

Who was the observant and kind lady who found it? Don't know. “I didn't get her name but she had her hair in a bun,” the woman at the counter said. Thanks to someone.

All in all, a really good conference!

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him atjfodairy2@gmail.com.

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