Farming as time goes by

John Oncken
The seed corn at Renk Seed is being picked.

The daily newspaper tells us, as does the calendar, that summer is leaving us and fall is sneaking in quietly, but surely. But what really tells me that the harvest season is establishing itself is when the vast fields of Renk Seed Company seed corn – they line the rural highway that I travel daily – begin to get a tinge of brown and will soon be picked.  

Field corn production will be at or near a record this year.

Seed corn being picked

On Monday this week, I dropped in at the Renk Seed office and asked sales director Jeff Renk when he would start the harvest that is always a month or two ahead of the farmer field corn combining startup. With a laugh, Jeff said, "We started today and quit a few minutes ago when a rain shower passed through."

So it's confirmed: the corn harvest season has arrived, at least on the seed corn growing fields at Renk Seed. "And this year's crop might be the best ever," Renk added. 

That's a rather strong statement by Renk, considering that his family began producing seed corn in the early 1930s when universities were starting to push the benefits of hybrid corn. Renk Seed was in the forefront, growing and selling hybrid seed corn. Interestingly, in 1936 the farm, under the ownership of William and his two sons, Walter and Wilbur, was incorporated as William F. Renk and Sons, making it the first family farm to incorporate in the US.

Soybeans are ahead of average this year.

Records or not?

Experts across the land are debating if this year's corn and soybean crops will be record breakers. The Aug. 10 severe storm, called a derecho – a widespread, long-lived, straight line wind storm that is associated with a fast-moving group of severe thunderstorms – will make a difference. Iowa officials said much of the corn and soybean crops in the path of the derecho would not be harvested. About 14 million acres, or 57% of Iowa's planted fields, were hit by the storm which had over 100-mile-per-hour winds, equal to an EF1 tornado.

Farmers are beginning the harvest season with silage being made.

Crops far ahead of last year

As for Wisconsin, the latest crop report says that areas needing rain the most got it last week, but about 30% of those areas still need moisture. The corn crop is four weeks ahead of last year and 11 days better than the five-year average. Soybeans are also about four weeks ahead of the last growing season and eight days ahead of average.  All in all, the 2020 crop season looks good all across the state and might be remembered longer (by farmers) than the doom and gloom experienced earlier in the year.

Milk consumption has jumped during the quarantine.

What happened?

A friend recently asked me a good question: "Whatever happened to the milk dumping we heard so much about earlier this year?"

My reply: Well, it did happen, but not for very long, and it did mess many farmer's lives up a good bit. One must remember that cutting or adding milk production in a dairy herd is not easy nor done fast. Actually, the cut backs by dairy processors were required over a short period and the logical response was to cull or sell cows, which many did.  

Then the scene changed and the processors said, "Go back to full production, we need the milk." Dairy producers then had to make a full turnaround and try to get that lost production back, which isn't easy, but the income lost during the cutback had to be reclaimed somehow. And my guess is that the transition both ways was by and large carried out by dairy producers who are innovative, smart and so good at what they do, that they did it.

Dairy producers have juggled their dairy herds during and since the “too much milk” period by selling, and maybe buying, cattle.

Milk price booms

Did it pay off? The Aug. 31 USDA report says, "The Wisconsin all-milk price for July was $22.30 per hundredweight, $2.80 higher than last month and $3.50 above a year ago. It also points out that the US all-milk price was $20.50 per cwt., $1.80 lower than Wisconsin's price, but $2.40 higher than last month. All of the 24 major milk producing states had a higher price when compared with June. To the surprise of many, the milk and dairy product consumption has risen during the COVID-19 stay-home period as people eat more breakfast using cereal and milk.

Herds of all sizes have struggle through trying times.

Exports up big time

At the same time, US dairy exports in June were up 28% by volume and 22% by value, capping a first half of double-digit growth. This year's gains have been all the more impressive in that they came during one of the most disrupted dairy trade environments in history. Remember, however, cheese exported in June was purchased during the low, low cheese prices of months earlier, meaning these high export figures may change along with the higher cheese prices since.

It was 20 years ago when a robot first milked a cow in the US.

20 years already

Robotic milking is regularly in the farm news as stories of dairy farms adding robots to new or remodeled construction appear. Many young farmers and consumers don't even blink an eye anymore as robots are talked about and used. But it's been only 20 years since US dairying was introduced to robotic milking at an open house held on a summer day in 2000 at the Knigge farm near Omro. It was indeed a historic event as these were the first dairy robots installed in the US. Yes, I was there and wrote a national story for the Farm Journal.

Pete and Theo Knigge and son Charlie installed two Lely robots to milk about 130 cows while cropping 600 acres of alfalfa, corn, soybeans, oats and wheat and raising some 170 heifers, calves and steers. I know there were skeptics in the crowd who didn't believe cows could be milked without human hands, although robots had been used in The Netherlands for years.

It's now 20 years later and the Knigges still milk the same number of cows with their two (now second generation) robots that indeed did and do work. Time passes fast!

The Cattle Connection has been with us for 30 years.

Congrats to Tom and Sandy Morris of Amery, who started the monthly Cattle Connection 30 years ago to "connect buyers and sellers coast to coast." Yes, you do it.

John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-837-7406 or email him at