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Despite the fact that the prices of products they produce on their farms (corn and soy beans) are well below what they would like, the over 1,500 farmers who attended the recent Corn-Soy-Pork Expo were in reasonably good spirits. 

Why come?

Maybe it was  because they were glad to get out of the near zero weather and into the warm Kalahari convention center at Wisconsin Dells. Or maybe it was a welcome few days vacation away from the farm. Or perhaps it was an opportunity to listen to grain marketers and management gurus offering a couple dozen educational sessions and maybe it was the opportunity to view 150 commercial exhibits.

Probably a combination of each along with the chance to talk with friends and suppliers and what one exhibitor told me, “I want to hear and find out what’s going on.”

In any case the event was again a pleasant success to the leaders of the corn, soybean and pork associations who sponsor this annual event. (I remember when each organization held its own annual get together in a small motel room in Madison. No comparison to today’s joint Expo.)

It’s the prices

Of course, grain prices and the rising production costs were at the heart of most educational sessions and hall conversation.

Chip Flory, Pro-Farmer consultant and popular host of radio’s Agri-Talk, spoke at the opening general session about the grain market and the possibility of its move upward. “There's still a lot of corn and soybeans being produced around the world. But fortunately, the demand for those products is slowly going up, too,” he began.

"It's looking like Brazil and Argentina are going to plant less and produce less corn and soybeans this year," Flory said. "Between this, and uncertainty in the weather, some buyers may be getting concerned and bookings could start to go up for the 2018 marketing year."

He also mentioned the possibility of a large shipment of U.S. corn being purchased in the coming weeks. That would be the third such export order this year.

A long tunnel ahead

"I personally believe that the future is bright, but it'll take some time,” Flory says. “Farmers may not see much difference in 2018, and 2019 will probably not be great either. But once we head into the 2020 marketing year, I think there's light at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately, it's a really long tunnel."

Farmer thoughts

Cal Dalton, Endeavor grain and beef farmer and president of the Wisconsin Corn Promotion Board shared thoughts on the current grain economy with me.

“Cost of production will be going up for us grain farmers,” he says. “Land prices in Wisconsin went up last year with rents probably following; fuel price is on the rise. We’ve already seen it at the gas pump and seed prices are high as special traits are added.”

“And we don’t yet know about demand with NAFTA discussions still in progress.” Dalton says. “Canada and Mexico are our two biggest export markets and we don’t want to lose them with a NAFTA breakup.”

Ethanol sales up

A good sign is the increasing export market (a record last year) for ethanol. “This is a true success story with E15 becoming more available and popular with Kwik Trip now preparing to offer it in all its stores,” Dalton adds. “This should lower gasoline prices by 5-6¢ per gallon and yes, all cars made since 2000 can us E15.”

In addition to his involvement with the Wisconsin Corn Promotion Board (that directs research, new product development, international marketing and education to expand the state’s corn market and sales), Dalton’s 3D Angus farm crops 1800 acres and has 200 Angus cows. Dalton says they sell bulls and heifers and direct market (608) 587-2913) their natural fed beef in halves and quarters.

Like other Wisconsin grain growers, Dalton recognizes the current challenges in the grain economy but is confident of future success in feeding the world.

A mega dairy long ago

During lunch I had a chance to talk with Larry Kippley who manages seven Gavilon grain facilities across the state. We didn’t talk much about grain but a lot about dairying.  For years I have tried to figure out what was the first mega dairy in Wisconsin and sort of concluded that it was John Schottler with his 800 cow dairy at Somerset but perhaps I was wrong.

I surely was aware of Kippley brothers at Waunakee who at one time had a huge dairy herd but I sort of forgot it. Larry gave some history.

“My dad Robert and his brother, Roger, were milking 2,000 cows just down the road from the Gavilon grain facility where my office is located on Highway K between Waunakee and Middleton. The Kippley Brothers herd operated from 1975 to 1984—cows were in stanchions and there was no parlor. There were many Hispanic employees (mostly they were families) working there and cows were being milked around the clock.

“In 1984 the big dairy failed financially and my dad died,” Larry says. “We were farming thousands of acres at the time and remember this was the 1980’s and the era of the farm crisis. And, in contrast to what many folks might think, the big operation never entered bankruptcy.”

Information is the reason

The 150 commercial and educational exhibits offered everything from insurance to financial management to precision agriculture. One that attracted my attention—mainly because I didn’t have a clue as to what it was—featured the Wisconsin Continuously Operating Reference Station (WISCORS) modernization program. There are 92 receiving stations (now updated) across the state, each 8 feet tall that collect Global Navigation System data that can be used by anyone who registers to use it. Among the users are farmers who are interested in precision agriculture.

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Precision is the word

Chad Toeder, precision specialist at Carl F. Statz in Waunakee explained: “Nowadays many farmers are using GPS positioning to do everything from tillage to planting—the WISCORS system is one way to get the GPS signal. There are other sources also, but farmers must have the receiving system, software and modem which we can provide.

My son John C. Oncken, partner in Tru-Equipment at Grand Forks, ND, offers the John Deere Green Star GPS System. “Our company has a series of about 50 reference stations with long antennas across our territory that provide GPS data and some farmers have their own.” he says. “Our RTK system is extremely accurate.”

Why?

Why are more  farmers using such precision systems? “With seed corn costing up to $300 a bag (2 1/2 acres) they can’t have any waste,” Toeder says. “The same for fuel for spraying and tillage and for their own emotional well being. WISCORS is one source of the GPS information and a good one and many farmers use it.”

So, again I learned something as I’m sure many attending the Corn/Soy/Pork Expo did...and that’s the whole idea.

John F. Oncken owns Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or e-mail him at jfodairy@chorus.net.

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