It was just about 10 years ago when I visited the Benish brothers, Mike and Dan, on their dairy farm near Lodi, in Columbia county. They were milking 440 cows in a Double 8 milking parlor on the 260 acre dairy farm. They were one of the 13,962 dairy herds in the state.
The Benish brothers will soon be making some major changes in their family dairy farm. Brother Mike’s son, Joe, is now a member (along with the brothers) of the livestock and equipment LLC that has been created and is working fulltime on the farm as the dairy herd manager. Brother Dan would like to slow down.
The brothers are the third generation of the family that has farmed this land since the mid-30s when grandfather Jacob Benish originally bought the farm. His son, John Sr., operated the farm for many years before selling to his sons Mike and Don, who had formed a partnership in 1989.
At the time they were milking 80 cows. In 1997, the herd numbered 140 head with the addition of a herd they purchased. That was also the year they added a Double 8 milking parlor. A 60-cow freestall barn was built in 1999 and the herd increased to 200 with purchase of another herd.
In 2003, the brothers hired their first Hispanic milkers and went to three time a day milking. Two years later a 200 cow freestall barn went up and the herd increased to over 400 cows. At the time of my visit in the fall of 2007 the herd was milking at a 27,000 pound per year average.
As with most successful family dairy farms, the brothers divide the labor and management responsibilities: Dan is the herdsman taking care of breeding, milking and cow and people management; Mike oversees cropping, repairs and feeding.
Calves were raised on the farm the first 45 days then went to a custom calf raiser, to be returned home a month and half before calving.
“The dairy is our profit center,” Dan said. “We put a lot of value on our cow nutrition that’s why we work closely with Mike Linnex of Big Gain Feeds at Lodi.
Dan has been contracting some of the milk production since 1998 through Foremost Farm, their milk processor and several private futures contracting companies. In addition, he has been using “put options” to protect the sale price.
“We want to protect the bottom line,” Dan said. “We want to be aware of what the markets are doing.”
November 2017 - now
The Benish brothers are still milking cows, about the same number as 10 years ago but with herd average of 28,500, some 1,500 pounds per cow higher than that a decade ago.
“We were over 30,000 pounds before we had to quit using rBST,” Dan says.
The calves are now all raised on the farm and heifers are housed at a number of locations.
Dan continues to manage the dairy herd but now has assistance from his nephew Joe.
“I had a stroke in February 2016, spent four days in the hospital and have had to slow down,” he says. “I’d like to retire in a year or two but I do take more time off in recent years, “Dan continues. “In fact I go to Mexico several times a year for two week periods to sort of recharge. I visit former employees and take a lot of gifts to them. I’m a godfather to some of the kids," he says with a chuckle.
"We still employ seven Hispanics: three women and four men, some of which were here when you visited 10 years ago," Dan continues. "One women worked for us for 10 years, went back to Mexico for two years and returned to us two years ago. She and the two other women employees are part of a federal amnesty program so are officially legal to be here. Three of the men milkers are from Nicaragua."
Dan brought out an old photo (we were at his kitchen table) of the farmhouse taken 100 years ago.
“A former owner of this farm gave it to us a few years ago,” he says. "The house is still here - it’s where Mike and I were raised - now some of our women milkers and their kids live there."
Mike Benish is still in charge of the crops on the farm and was busy emptying the 2 million gallon manure lagoon. They also have a smaller 800,000 gallon lagoon.
Why the lagoons, I asked, you are not a CAFO in animal numbers?
“True, “ Dan said, “but we’re very close to Lake Wisconsin.” (Just across the highway and railroad tracks.)
The next generation
Joe Benish (Mike’s son) is a part of the farm's livestock and equipment LLC and fully expects to be the next generation farmer in the family. The 26-year-old UW-Madison Farm and Industry Short Course graduate, has always planned on a farming career and started a custom farming business early on.
“While my friends were buying cars and such I was buying a tractor and farm equipment,” Joe says. “In fact the farm equipment I owned was my ‘buy in’ to the LLC we formed."
Farm Short Course was great
Joe is the day by day herd manager with Dan still keeping the dairy records with Dairy Comp 305.
“My two years in Farm Short Course was a great experience," Joe says. “I and two other former classmates talk almost daily. If I have a problem, chances are one of them have had the same problem and have an answer that I can use.”
“I also talk weekly with Matt Linnex at Big Gain Feed about our dairy nutrition program. Brendon Vandervliete of ABS does our heat detection and breeding and has done wonders with our herd.”
Joe says he also does the crop planting and chopping and says he’ll be ready to take over the operation in a few years.
"My dad is teaching me how to manage the crops and how to fix things in the shop and my uncle Dan has taught me how to work with dairy cattle and employees," says Joe.
One of the major challenges to Joe and the Benish family concerns the future of the farm on its current site.
“We’re really too close to the lake to expand and we’ll need some new buildings. Do we stay here or try to find a new facility that would allow for herd expansion and more cropland,” Joe asks?
Joe also has a younger brother, 19-year-old Adam, who currently works part time on the farm - will he decide to farm in coming days?
The Benish family faces the same future challenges that so many other farm families have gone through, but, they have discussed it and moved forward with the next generation (Joe) almost ready and eager to carry on the dairy.
Many farm families couldn’t or didn’t decide to do so. The 13,962 Wisconsin dairy herds of 2007 have now dropped to 8,938 herds and the number drops by the month.
Chances are that I won’t be around to write another update 10 years from now, but I’m hoping to stay in touch with the family and watch what happens in the face of labor, milk marketing, milk production, exports, price and cost challenges.
Time will tell.
John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached
at 608-222-0624, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.