MELLEN - For many, farming these past five years has been full of fears and tears.
Sluggish markets, political aspects, changing public perceptions, so many uncontrollable factors which have even caused some to lose their tractors.
Many farmers have watched their dreams fade. Even though they prayed.
For others, it may seem like the only option for farm survival is to expand but what about those with limited land?
How does one keep going all along knowing if they don’t keep growing it might be the end.
The end of a farm that's lasted generations and one of which so many depend.
The family farm once filled with charm.
But these days there is talk of frustration, depression even suicide so many nights these farmers have cried.
This profession is noble yet this dairy crisis has gone global.
Keeping hope seems to be the only way to cope.
For those who are still actively farming, all this sad news is alarming.
Wondering what you have to do to make it through.
On farm creameries, corn mazes, pick your own fruit patches, Airbnb properties, steer raising are just a few of the things farms have done to diversify but sometimes it makes you question why.
Why work so hard for such little pay, but to a farmer the answer for that is simple and tomorrow is a new day.
Everyone needs to eat so can you imagine feeling such defeat.
So if you aren't a farmer what can you do? Buy some milk and dairy products from the animal that says moo.
If there is a local farm nearby you can surely try to shop there. Remember family farms do care! If farm numbers keep going down, there will be many with a frown.
Farms contribute money within a community, working with several businesses, so it does not simply affect the farm alone when they sell out. So give a shout.
Here's to hopefully more positive days ahead and that we can continue to keep everyone fed!
TOWN OF FRANKFORT - The sky was grey, a light rain was falling and there was a chill in the air on a late afternoon in early October.
Still, it was a pretty out on the Briggs Family Farm. Owned and operated by Jenny and Jim Briggs, the farm lies about midway between Colby and Stratford in the heart of dairy country. I love this area of Wisconsin, but I’m biased. I grew up a handful of miles northwest of the Briggs farm, and I always have been enthralled with the way you can see for miles when you are at the crest of a hill. At the right place, the farm fields and woods and homesteads spread out in front of you like a patchwork quilt.
I was a little nervous, too, because I was on the farm to learn how to milk cows. And I am afraid of cows.
Whenever I am around people who grew up in towns and cities and am asked about my background, I tell them I’m a farm kid from Central Wisconsin.
But it’s not quite true. My childhood house was a small mobile home on a three-acre plot of grass that my parents bought from Grandpa Reel when I was 4 or 5 years old. My grandparents’ house was a quarter of a mile to the south, and they were farmers.
Grandpa milked a herd of maybe 80 to 100 cows. He used a milking parlor, meaning that he brought cows into a special room for milking. Cows, four at a time, would come in the room off the barn and stand on waist-high platforms where Grandpa milked them. He had it down to a science.
I was a small kid and my dad and I would go into the milking parlor every once in a while to talk with Grandpa, but he was the only one who did the milking. And I remember him and my dad cautioning me to stand in the middle of the room, and to watch myself, because cows kicked.
When I turned 16 I went to work on Grandpa’s farm. I only did fieldwork, mostly baling hay, sometimes picking rocks. I worked two seasons on Grandpa’s farm, then he retired. I worked on a neighbor’s farm for a couple more years, again always field work, never dealing with animals.
I’ve been visiting the Briggs farm intermittently now for a few months. Jim and Jenny, their son, Justin, and hired hand, Jan Weiland, have taught me a lot about what it means to be a small family farmer in central Wisconsin in 2019.
Although I can’t know what it feels like to work hard at a game you love knowing that the cards are stacked against you, I felt that learning how to milk, that most basic of farm chores, would be an important step to gaining an understanding of farm life.
I was right.
The weather was chilly outside, but it was cozy in the barn. I know a lot of people wrinkle their noses at the smell of a barn, a mixture of manure and feed, but I find it comforting, the smell of health. I helped Jim feed the cows, and they looked at me curiously with their big brown eyes.
Jan was my milking tutor. She showed me the milking equipment, which had been mostly cleaned before I got there.
I don’t know how to describe the four milkers. They look like alien octopus cyborgs. There’s a small metal bucket device connected to four oblong suction cup things that attach to the cow’s teats. The other end of the milker has a computer that you reset with each cow. It measures how the cow is milking. One hose is attached to a pipeline that takes the milk to the bulk tank. Another hose is attached to an air pipe that provides suction.
It’s a simple process. Clean the cow’s udder and teats. Pull and squeeze on each teat by hand to get milk flowing and to check to see that it’s clear. Lumps or discoloration means the cow is sick. Then attach the hoses to the pipes, attach the suction cups to the teats and let the milker do its work.
After the cow has been milked dry – the time varies depending on the cow, but usually a few minutes – the milker is removed, and moved to another cow. The cows teats are treated to prevent illness, and you do the whole thing over again, 54 or so times.
Jim does this every day, twice a day. He’s been doing it his whole life. He doesn’t even have to think about it. In the morning, when he typically does chores on his own, he listens to podcasts, or the news, he says.
In the afternoon, Jenny and Jan are there to lend a hand. Jenny and Jim use the time to catch up and talk. Jenny is a nurse in her day job, and for her, the chores aren’t really work. They are a way to unwind; a way to connect with the animals.
For me, it was all new of course. The cows knew it. But they behaved. And I started to think about what I was doing. The milk I was extracting from these cute, friendly animals would be picked up by a hauler who takes it to Mullins Cheese in Knowlton, where it gets made into, you know, cheese.
Milk has been a significant staple in the human diet for thousands of years. It was a primal feeling, standing there in that barn, milking those cows.
It all went well. Jan was a patient teacher. Jim stood by and watched, bemused. It took about two hours. Only one cow acted up. I didn’t see what happened, but somehow she got her head out of her stanchion, as if she wanted to go out to play. Jim and Jenny got her back in quickly.
That’s typical cow behavior, Jim said. They can be trouble-makers, sometimes.
“They’re just like teenagers or toddlers,” he said. “They just want to act up.”
TOWN OF FRANKFORT - “The weather has been challenging the whole year,” said Jim Briggs.
Briggs owns Briggs Family Farm in the town of Frankfurt, about midway between Colby and Stratford, with his wife, Jenny. He isn’t complaining. He knows better than that; he’s just stating a fact. He’s a third-generation farmer, so he understands the whims of Mother Nature and how much things like rain, snow and sun impact his operation
And there has been way too much snow and rain this year.
“It started with all the snow in the winter,” Briggs said. “And then we had a cool, wet spring. We had some drier weather in the summer, but not as much as we needed.”
In late spring and early summer, Briggs worried about the quality of his crops. If crops struggle, they provide less feed for his herd of 50 or so milking cows. That in turn, means Briggs ends up buying more feed than normal, upping his costs and edging him closer to financial failure.
And he and Jenny are hanging on by their fingernails as it is. Jenny works as a fulltime nurse, and without her off-the-farm income, they couldn’t make a go of it.
Now, as October begins, the whole state is getting drenched again. That means some farmers can’t get out in their fields to get in the last crops of alfalfa hay. And it could delay Briggs’ corn silage harvest.
Normally, corn silage is ready to harvest now. It’s not this year, because the wetter and cooler conditions in the spring delayed corn planting and growth. Briggs hopes that his fields will dry up as the corn matures, and he’ll be able to harvest on time.
But he doubts that will happen. “Long range forecasts are predicting a wet October,” he said.
That means either he will have to wait until the ground freezes to harvest the corn or rut up his fields with the equipment he uses to chop the corn. Neither is a good option. Waiting means the corn could be too dry, and that degrades its nutritional value for his cows. Rutting up the fields compacts the soil and can leave spots where water doesn’t drain which degrades growing conditions for next year
The wet weather has an immediate impact on his cattle, too. If it’s too rainy, his herd of Jersey dairy cows can’t roam pastures. Standing in wet, muddy soil can cause health problems, from problems with their hooves to pneumonia.
That means the cows stay in the barn when it’s raining.
“They’re happy and comfortable in the barn, but they prefer to be outside,” Briggs said.
Milk prices have rebounded somewhat over the past couple of months, which eases the financial pain of the bad weather streak, Briggs said.
Briggs doesn’t dwell on it. He just keeps going, and endures.
“There’s just been no break from the weather this year,” he said.
MELLEN Cleanliness on a dairy farm may seem like a Sisyphean task, but it is essential for maintaining milk’s wholesome image and protecting the health of the herd and consumers.
For a dairy farmer it’s a dollars and cents issue: If a load of milk does not pass inspection it can be rejected by the dairy.
On the Thewis family farm, about two-man hours a day are devoted to cleaning the milking parlor and equipment after the farm’s morning and evening milkings. In addition there’s more time spent on deeper, more intensive cleaning throughout the year.
“It’s easier to clean on a humid day because the cement will sweat,” Peter Thewis said as he hosed down the floor after a morning milking.
In winter it’s best to clean right after the cows leave the milking parlor because they warm it up.
“The time spent cleaning doesn’t change, if I could milk 300 cows (instead of 110) the time spent cleaning wouldn’t change at all because it’s the same amount of square footage,” he said.
Dairy farmers in Wisconsin are inspected at least once a year by a dairy sanitarian working for the state’s Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Producers are sent a letter stating what month their inspection will take place, but the exact date is not announced.
Inspectors look at the general health and cleanliness of the animals, and the general cleanliness of the barn, including whether there is excessive manure buildup, odors and water management such as backflow prevention of water lines and well protection, according to DATCP spokeswoman Leeann Duwe.
BRILLION Last week, Amber Horn-Leiterman’s oldest sons Grant, 13, Trent, 12, and Mason, 9, showed dairy cows from Hornstead Dairy for the first time at the Brown County Fair.
Horn-Leiterman said showing the cows at the fair “kind of their vacation,” after a summer of hard work on the farm and the additional work of raising and working with their show cows.
The boys, all members of the Morrison 4-H Club began preparing for the fair shortly after school ended in May.
“This is the culmination of all their efforts,” Horn-Leiterman said.
MELLEN - Summer is the season of feed.
The Thewis family typically harvests 1,400 tons of haylage, a high-moisture form of hay, and 1,000 tons of corn that is chopped and processed each year to feed their herd of about 110 dairy cows.
That is about the same as the maximum take-off weight of five Boeing 747-400’s, each weighing about 900,000 pounds.
Hay is cut three times a year. Some of it is turned into about 250 round bales, weighing 1,000 pounds each, that are moved by a skidsteer. Corn silage is stored in seven 9-by-165-foot plastic-wrapped tubes.
The goal is to get through the winter without having to buy feed for the cows, an expensive proposition in an industry in which farms struggle to stay profitable with razor thin margins.
TOWN OF FRANKFORT - The fields surrounding the Briggs Family Farm northwest of Stratford are green and lush.
But Jim Briggs, who owns and operates the farm with his wife, Jenny, wonders if they are green enough and lush enough.
Being a small farmer like Briggs means that you must accept that your operation and finances will be buffeted by forces out of your control. And this year, the whims of nature seem to be conspiring against him and other farmers across the state.
First, a harsh winter killed off the hay in his fields, grass that he would have used to feed the 100 or so head of cattle he owns. To replace that hay, Briggs had to buy seed – an extra cost – and plant it. The cold spring meant he was late in getting that seed, and corn, too, into the ground.
The first cutting of that hay is just getting ready to be harvested for silage. Usually alfalfa, the typical hay crop, is cut and harvested throughout June, maybe even late May if conditions are right. In good years farmers can get a second, and sometimes a third cutting off of fields. The more hay a farmer can get, the less feed a farmer has to buy for his cows. Hay and corn are money.
Briggs welcomed the July heat. Corn, especially, thrives in hot, humid conditions. But still the corn, which also got a late start, is lagging behind where it should be for this time of year.
Overall, he said, “it’s been a discouraging summer.”
There is a bright spot. The price for milk has increased over the past six months or so. Briggs said he’s been getting about $18 per hundredweight, or a hundred pounds of milk. A half year ago, that price was $12 to $15, he said.
He doesn’t know how long these milk prices will last, and if they do, whether the extra income he’ll get will offset the costs he’ll incur. He expects he’ll need to buy hay and corn to augment what he predicts to be poor crop yields. A lot of farmers will be doing that, he anticipates, so the demand for corn and hay will drive up prices and gouge into Briggs’ bottom line.
So how does Briggs deal with all the uncertainty, especially when his, and many small farms like his, are on the cutting edge of financial survival?
He shrugs. “It’s hard,” he said.
For Briggs, spending time caring for his cows, doing chores with Jenny and their son, Justin, helps with the anxiety. One cow, especially, helps. She cuddles up to Briggs when he walks over to her and scratches her head.
Her name is Spice.
The Briggs family calls her “Spice the Therapy Cow” because she is so friendly.
MELLEN - This summer, Starr and Skyler Thewis, are learning important lessons as they raise an Ayrshire calf that Skyler, 4, will show at the county fair.
BRILLION - With summer weather heating up in the second week of July, the Hornstead Dairy operation was hard at work cutting, chopping and packing their second cutting of alfalfa.
“We’re about a week behind our normal schedule. Corn is about three to four weeks,” Amber Horn-Leiterman said. “Which isn’t going to be horrible as long as we don’t have an early frost or something like that. That’s what will send us off the deep edge.”
Winter-kill took many of their alfalfa crops, which they plowed back into the ground and replaced with corn to supplement the feed. Brian Horn said the plan this year is to stretch that alfalfa by making a 50-50 blend with corn silage.
“A lot of guys are complaining about the heat, but we need it. We’ve got a lot of cows to feed. We’ve gotta grow forage. That’s our plan with the corn,” he said.
If all goes well, they plan to be able to take the corn for silage in October and have enough to get them through till next season.
“The stuff we’re making today is the primo stuff - the alfalfa that we want,” Horn said. “I think we’re gonna do okay.”
BRILLION - On the first day of summer, Amber Horn-Leiterman was worried about frost.
But Horn-Leiterman, who runs Hornstead Dairy in Brillion with her parents and brother, wasn’t worried about the temperature that day, which was warm with clear skies.
After weeks with frequent rain, though, Horn-Leiterman and her family still have hundreds of acres of crops to plant — a process that normally starts earlier in the year, but was delayed by wet weather this time around.
As a result, they’re going to need all of September and October to get their crops — hay and corn — off their fields, Horn-Leiterman said. An early frost could cause problems for the crops they’ve worked so hard to produce.
“That’s going to be a huge gamble,” she said.
Those crops are eventually used to feed about 1,500 cows producing milk at the dairy. So, Horn-Leiterman is hoping for a dry, sunny summer, with only spurts of rain to soak the fields.
But it’s not easy to rely on the weather when so much depends on it, Horn-Leiterman said.
“They say that’s what makes it fun,” she said. “That’s what’s making it very stressful this year.”
MONROE – She wanted to keep on milking cows, but this spring Emily Harris realized her dream of being a dairy farmer had come to an end.
The price she and her wife, Brandi, received for their farm’s milk fell by about a third under a new contract implemented in May — and there wasn’t another milk buyer to be found.
So when Emily found a job driving construction equipment, she put their herd of 30 or so Jerseys on Craigslist. They had to sell the cows, she said, before the dairy operation lost any more money.
More than 300 Wisconsin dairy farms called it quits between Jan. 1 and May 1, according to state dairy herd license records, and about 90 farms — three a day — closed in April alone.
Ed Flood, a livestock broker from Ellenburg Center, New York, bought the cows from Emily and Brandi sight unseen. He had a home for them on organic dairy farms in New York and Indiana.
“Everything came together really fast,” Emily said.
“We were thinking that if we could have made it another two years, to get our debt down to a more manageable level, it would have been easier for me to transition to a new job. But we are just going to have to wing it,” she said.
Brandi will continue in her administrative job at Blackhawk Technical College in Monroe. She and Emily plan to keep their 92-acre farm, where they also live, and raise some crops for other farmers.
“It’s going to be really tight for a while … but we were not taking on more debt,” Emily said.
They also may raise “family cows” for people who want a cow or two for their own milk.
“We’re basically selling them pets,” Emily said.
They’ll keep a few cows of their own — for milk, butter and yogurt and to keep the barn at least partially occupied.
Their Jerseys have been bred to produce what’s called A2 milk, which doesn’t have a beta-casein protein that some say makes conventional milk less digestible, almost intolerable, for a large number of people.
A2 milk has grown in popularity, but it’s unlikely that Emily and Brandi will return to dairy farming full time. Once their dairy operation license lapses, it would be hard to requalify unless they spent a lot of money on upgrading their milking equipment.
“It doesn’t feel like it’s worth it,” Emily said.
MELLEN - Kendra and Peter Thewis know it’s important to educate people about agriculture because less than 2 percent of the population is directly employed in farming.
When their four-year-old son, Skyler, was student of the week at his school, Kendra visited his classroom to talk about life on a dairy farm.
She showed the kids what it was like to milk a cow by hand, using a glove filled with water . She also had the class make butter.
The highlight was Peter Thewis bringing a small male calf named Ironman to interact the kids.
MELLEN - With a $1,000 grant in hand from the Wisconsin Ayrshire Breeder’s Association, Kendra Thewis went to the association’s annual spring auction in Neillsville looking for a registered cow her family might show at future competitions.
With an additional $1,050 she was able to buy Royale-Divide B Starkissed, a pregnant 3-year-old cow.
Winning bids came from as far away as Colorado.
MELLEN - Life experience might be the biggest difference between growing up on a farm instead of a city.
Spend some time with 7-year-old Starr Thewis and her 4-year-old brother, Skyler, and you’ll see.
“They see how things are born, how they live, how they die, how things are made. They see Peter and me work together,” said their mom, Kendra Thewis, who farms along with her husband and her father-in-law, Mike.
They have a work ethic formed through chores and helping tend the family's cow herd.
“I think they (farm kids) just have a better work ethic,” said Kendra, who also grew up on farm. “Their work ethic is better than a lot of adults because they know what it’s like to feed something all the time. Chores have to be done before you can go somewhere.”
Even at the age of 7, Starr is starting to assume some responsibilities.
“I have to feed the calves. It’s hard work and I don’t like doing it sometimes,” she said with a smile.
Kendra, who grew up on a farm near Almond, in Portage County, used to watch her parents do chores from a playpen in the barn. That’s common on farms, she said. Farmers who might not have easy access to child care or don’t have grandma or grandpa available to watch the kids just take their kids with them into the barn while they do chores.
And for some, that’s just how they want it.
“I never wanted to live in town … ever!” she said. “I just don’t like the small little spaces.”
Editor's Note: Town of Frankfort farmer Jim Briggs wrote this piece about his interest in the concept of dairy supply management, an effort currently used in Canada to coordinate supply and demand for dairy products, with an ultimate aim to provide farmers with more consistent prices for their products.
In early 2018, Dairy Together, a movement to rebuild a viable dairy economy for family farmers and rural communities, was off the ground and running.
Two members from Dairy Farmers of Ontario came to Wisconsin in March of 2018 and explained their supply management system to us by way of five very well-attended meetings held throughout the state.
Most who attended left with a new sense of hope and firsthand knowledge of how to move forward, even though we also knew that supply management has been an unpopular idea for decades in the U.S.
Dairy farms have become more efficient at adapting new technology and producing more product, which is why a supply management system of some sort is more important than ever.
A whole book could be written to explain how milk is priced and farmers are paid, but essentially the current system is constantly pushing each farm to produce as much milk as possible from that farm, which in times of surplus pushes the price lower. Then you are back looking for ways to produce more milk to replace the lost income -- and as soon as milk prices come up, everyone wants to produce more milk to capture the higher prices.
We are always on this treadmill going nowhere. We only want long term, sustainable solutions. The taxpayer-funded “bailouts” do little for the average family farmer and only draw more distance between farmers and consumers. In my opinion, a properly managed system would make these unnecessary. In the last couple of years, farmers have been paid about the same as farmers were getting paid in the mid ’80s! Have you checked the price of farm equipment or supplies lately? They are definitely not 1980s-priced. Dairy farms are huge economic drivers, when we have money we like to spend it on equipment upgrades, facility maintenance, supplies etc. Our local economies are far better off having many farms, rather than just a handful of large scale farms scattered throughout the state.
Bottom line is that a properly designed supply management system would benefit more than just farmers, and since we currently don’t have one it could essentially be “built” how it will work for the US. Beginning in late March, the Dairy Together movement will be hitting the road and traveling around the country with the goal of sharing information and ideas and engage farmers and policymakers in community conversations. More information at www.dairytogether.com.
MONROE - For Emily and Brandi Harris, spring can’t come soon enough.
“It wasn’t one thing this winter, it was the length of winter,” says Emily. “Cows have been in(side) far longer than they normally are. It requires a lot more manual since all the feeding is done by hand.” Once spring is in full bloom, the cows graze while out to pasture most of the day.
Emily says cows weren’t alone in feeling the effects of winter.
“Every time it snows it creates more work, shoveling doors and bunks, more fuel in the skid loader to clear the driveway for the milkman.”
Like many farmers, she feels her place needs some cleaning and tender loving care to bring it back to normal.
“This has been a winter if just being happy everyone gets milked, food and water every day,” says Emily.
MELLEN - Starr and Skyler Thewis are farm kids.
They are steeped in the value of hard work and have witnessed the cycle of life and death in a barnyard.
But they're still kids. So a trip to a water park is a special thing, a time to join their parents away from a milking parlor, to splash and play.
Last weekend the Thewis family took time between the morning and afternoon milkings to visit a waterpark 30 minutes from their farm for a few hours. Before the waterpark, the family stopped by the local implement dealer for a free lunch.
When your herd needs to be milked twice a day, it’s difficult to get away. They have been able to go on two-night camping trips in the past when a neighbor will do their milking for them and then they will repay the favor.
TOWN OF FRANKFORT - The little calf had her own stall in the Briggs Family Farm barn.
She was less than a week old, and a bit unsteady on her legs, as if she had too much to drink or was standing on the deck of a rolling ship. She was light brown, had floppy ears and wide dark eyes. She looked like a cross between a fawn and chunky brown Labrador puppy.
The little calf was a Jersey, and she stood among a crowd of more than 50 other full grown versions of herself. Owning a Jersey herd sets the Briggs Family Farm apart from most farms. Holsteins, the familiar black and white cows, are the most common of the dairy breeds.
When Jim and Jenny Briggs purchased their farm in late 2014, they chose to buy Jersey dairy cattle for both sentimental and practical reasons.
Jim Briggs is a third-generation dairy farmer, and both his grandfather and father owned and milked herds of Jerseys on their family farm located about 25 miles southwest of Boston. Jersey cattle tend not to produce as much milk as their larger Holstein cousins, but the concentration of butterfat and protein in their milk is much higher.
That higher quality of milk was important to the Boston-area farm, because the Briggs pasteurized and sold their milk directly to consumers.
"If you drank that milk," Jim Briggs said, "you would never want to drink store-bought milk again. I'm convinced that's part of the reason why people are drinking less milk than in the past. Today's milk just doesn't taste as good."
Jim Briggs had other reasons why he wanted Jerseys on his and Jenny's town of Frankfort farm. Jerseys are smaller, so they are easier to handle in the barn. An average Jersey weighs 1,000 pounds; Holsteins average 1,400 pounds. Jerseys also have nice, curious personalities, Jim Briggs said, and tend to be healthier than other breeds.
The Briggs Family Farm is struggling for survival, and being a farmer is stressful. But the animals are a big reason why Jim and Jenny were willing to take financial risks to start up their dairy, and why they work so hard to keep the business afloat. They love the animals.
"They're our lifestyle. They are our income, so it's in our best interests to take care of them," Jim Briggs said. "We know every cow, their names, their personalities. ... They are essentially an extension of the family, more or less. You're around them seven days a week. It's hard not to (love them)."
BRILLION - The weather hasn't been any warmer lately, but that hasn't stopped Amber Horn-Leiterman from thinking about spring.
Horn-Leiterman, 36, runs Hornstead Dairy in Brillion with her parents and brother. The snow hasn't melted yet — in fact, it just keeps falling — but they're already making plans to spread manure on their fields in anticipation of planting crops this year.
The winter hasn't been ideal. A combination of frequent snowstorms and frigid temperatures have made life more difficult for Horn-Leiterman and anyone else who frequently spends time outside on a farm. Horn-Leiterman spends her mornings feeding calves — a job that requires her to spend time outside, which can be especially trying on bitterly cold mornings.
"You're ready to throw your hands up in the air and go back to bed," she said. "But that's obviously not possible in this line of work."
Despite the harsh winter weather, the dairy is forging ahead toward planting, a crucial step that ensures the cows have enough to eat.
"We are stuck in this cold weather trying to keep everything rocking," she said.