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Not every dairy farm meeting has to center on a serious management subject such as cow feeding, breeding or management, sometimes a gathering is just about seeing something and plain talking. The Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (PDPW) has long held an annual  series of get togethers aimed at touring a farm, a lot of talking and eating ice cream.

They are called ACE (Agricultural Community Engagement) on-the-farm twilight meetings where community leaders, city guests and dairy producers are invited to attend meetings to discuss issues important to our rural communities and economy. The event features an hour-long tour of the hosting dairy, followed by open dialogue and ice cream.

The meetings are jointly presented by Wisconsin Counties Association, Wisconsin Towns Association and the PDPW and are open to the public.  

Four ACE meeting were held this summer:  at Brooks Farms near Waupaca;  Mar-Bec Dairy,  Mondovi; Cozy Nook Farm at Waukesha and the one I attended at Ripp's Dairy Valley near Waunakee.

A family farm

As always (I had attended these before) it was an interesting, fun evening with quite a few non-farmers attending for the first time. The host farm, Ripp’s Dairy Valley was a great example of today’s well managed, multi family  dairy.
 
Ripp's Dairy Valley, is owned and operated by brothers Gary, Troy and Chuck Ripp. The original partnership was formed in 1975 by the brothers taking full ownership and the farm became an LLC in 2004. The sons call their mother, Eileen, the farm’s MVP as she makes lunch for the family and six full-time employees every day, picks up supplies, and runs errands.

Touring

Visitors toured two of the four dairy barns (all equipped with fans and sprinkler systems) where 985 milk cows are housed on sand bedded stalls. Interestingly, the sand comes from on the farm and is run through a separator and reused.

Greg Ripp told visitors that reusing the sand has cut sand usage (and costs) markedly.  

Community digester

Ripp’s Dairy Valley is one of the three dairies that are members of a Waunakee community manure digester located just up the hill from the farm. Wisconsin has some 35 privately owned on-farm digesters but the Waunakee digester is unique in that it's the first collaboration of its kind in the state, a partnership between public agencies, private companies and three dairy farms.  

The manure digester was originally built by Dane County and operated by Clear Horizons. But, after a series of mishaps has since been bought by Clean Fuel Partners and has operated trouble-free since.

After the tour the 100 (or more) visitors enjoyed huge bowls of ice cream and listened to farm spokesman Chuck Ripp describe the operation of the family dairy.  

We need them

He told of having 16 employees that includes family members and 11 Hispanic employees most of whom hail from Nicaragua. He said that the president and other government officials don’t really understand how valuable Hispanic employees are to dairy agriculture. Laurie Fisc, her and her American Dairy Coalition have the best handle on the issue. “We need them," he says!
 
“We’ve constantly advertised for other employees but get no response - they don’t want to work on weekends or early in the morning,” Ripp says. “Yes, I’ve had one or two non-Hispanic applicants but they were unemployed and were just fulfilling the requirement that they were actively seeking jobs - they never intended to actually milk cows."  
 
Our Hispanic employees never miss a day of work and they are sending money home to their families, he explains. We work with an agent to find new workers and to solve any problems that may arise.  

Busy brothers

The brothers work together but Chuck admits that they are so busy with milking near a thousand cows and farming 1,800 acres (1,000 owned) that they don’t spend much time together.  “We have monthly meetings, along with some of our consultants and have a very tight budget." 
 
Each brother has major responsibilities: Chuck is in charge of herd management and feeding; Troy oversees dry cows and calves and Gary specializes in crops and payroll. Younger brother Craig works with maintenance, manure and cropping.

Major consultants include veterinarians who conduct a weekly herd check, nutritionist Graham Webster and ABS representative Travis Chapman who heat detects and breeds cows and heifers daily.  

Heifers are moved to cousin Keith Ripp’s farm at five to six months of age until returning home prior to calving. 

Questions

During the question period several  questions were asked:

Q...How is manure handled?  
 
“We get our liquid manure back from the digester, “ Ripp says. “Some of our land is near a housing area in Waunakee so we will spread Monday through Thursday only (to avoid weekends) and we watch the wind speed and direction. We don’t want to hurt the neighbors activities.” 
 
"But at the same time we must spread the manure and nature doesn’t always cooperate. We also inject the manure directly into the soil to keep the odor down. We’re fairly well known and I think the neighbors pretty much understand.”
 
Q...What about your next possible farming generation, any plans? 

“We thought we (the brothers) were the next generation,” Ripp said with a laugh.  “We do have children, some of which are going to college, and we have no idea if any will be interested in continuing the farm, it’s too early. We think some of them will want to be that next generation, But...”
 
Q...What about the low milk prices, he was asked?
 
“Of course we’d like to have $23 milk, but we don’t,” Ripp says. “On the other hand, feed prices are lower.”
 
Ripp’s Dairy Valley  is indeed a family farm with three families owning and operating it. Their near 1,000 cows have a 94# average resulting in a Rolling Herd Average of 30,218 pounds of milk that is shipped to Grande Cheese. Cows are milked three times daily, in a parlor with a  Double 16  BouMatic parallel system. There is also a single 8 parlor in the pre fresh barn.  
 
The visit to Ripp’s Dairy Valley was interesting to all and resulted in people meeting new friends and learning about a modern family farm.
 
Guest speaker Jeff Lyon, Interim DATCP Secretary, told of the upcoming review of dairy siting rules and representatives of the evenings cosponsoring Wisconsin Counties and Town Associations spoke about their organization’s activities.
 
All in all - a good evening of learning and enjoying. 

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or e-mail him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.

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