Dairy Summit brings together farmers, researchers for dairy progress

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
Amy Penterman owns Dutch Dairy in Thorp and sits on the board of the Dairy Business Association.

Dairy Summit, a virtual conference hosted by the Dairy Innovation Hub at University of Wisconsin-Madison, brought together all members of the dairy industry Wednesday, Nov. 18 to discuss their ideas for the future of dairy.

The conference featured several panels that discussed the role of farmers in research, innovations in the dairy supply chain and legislative ideas to support the Hub. It also featured a virtual tour of Pioneer Farm, the 430-acre teaching and research farm at UW-Platteville, and introductions to individual research projects.

The farmers' panel included the voices of Amy Penterman of Dutch Dairy in Thorpe; Mitch Breunig of Mystic Valley Dairy in Sauk City; and Katie Roth of Banner Ridge Farms in Platteville. Shelly Mayer, executive director of Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin and owner of Mayer Farms Beef in Slinger, moderated.

Mayer invited each panelist to share their vision for the future of dairy, a $46 billion industry in Wisconsin. Roth, who milks 500 cows three times a day on a farm shared between five families, said she wants to see chiropractic treatment for cows someday and she'd also like to see rapid detection for hypocalcemia and milk fever. 

Darlington farmer Katie Roth is eager to share her story as part of the Faces of Farming and Ranching initiative.

"(I want) to be able to have some cow-side research done today to detect hypocalcemia or low milk fever ... in cows, and to make it be affordable," Roth said. "From home, I can test our cows for ketosis ... using our BHBA meter. And I was thinking, well, we have this for ketosis, so maybe something available like that for milk fever."

Breunig said he wants to see affordable manure management options for small farms because manure digesters and other equipment can be very expensive. Penterman also shared visions for manure management in keeping odors down. She said she also wants to see production of biodegradable silage covers that would help the environment.

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"Everybody knows how much plastic we go through and we're covering our piles that could be possibly derived from a milk byproduct, a cheese byproduct, or corn or soybeans that could be biodegradable," Penterman said. "(It's important) that we're recycling that plastic that we put on top of our piles."

Penterman said the COVID-19 pandemic has made farmers like her realize they need more cross-training among employees so that in the case of someone being sick for a long period of time, other employees would be able to do their jobs.

This "nightmare" has made Roth think more about employee health too – and pointed out that social distancing is something farmers are already familiar with.

"Social distancing is the one thing that farmers have had down for a while," Roth said. "On our farm all of our calves, once they're born, they go into huts, so they can see each other but they can't physically come in contact with each other. So we have been maintaining a social distancing of six feet for a while."

Mitch Breunig stands among his 400 cows at Mystic Valley Dairy in Sauk City, WI. The key to more milk is reducing stress on the animals via comfort measures such as making stalls bigger and adding fans and other air circulation equipment.

Farms are a "three-legged stool," Breunig said, in that farmers are always looking for improvements in business, sustainability and cow wellness. Farmers are also known for sharing information amongst themselves, because if it works for them, it might work for another, Breunig said.

Penterman said efficiency should play a big role in the future of the dairy industry because it's what drives farmers. Breunig agreed, adding that we should be focusing on innovation in efficiency now, because we will notice later what we didn't do now. He said we should also be talking to youth and asking them for ideas.

"If we're not doing it today, 20 years from now we're going to still be asking the same questions, we're still going to be having the same problems. And the questions we ask today are going to provide the solutions for 20 years from now," Breunig said. "I think what's really important is for everyone to pull together and have that vision for what's the future going to look like."

The Dairy Innovation Hub doesn't just invest in farms, but also in people, Breunig said, and added that "once we have an infrastructure built, we need to invest in the brightest minds and have them work in dairy." Roth pointed out the critical existence of research for dairy farms, saying that farmers often take it for granted even though dairy researchers at UW-Madison are renowned worldwide.

Penterman called lawmakers' attention to the problem of regulation preventing innovation for farmers, asking for them to recognize that farmers are environmentalists too.

"For our lawmakers that might be listening, we've got these bright minds at our universities and there are so many opportunities for innovation. But don't regulate it out of existence," Penterman said. "Let's use the research and the data from our universities to make sure that it's environmentally sound, because farmers are true environmentalists. We have future generations that we want to see continue our farms."

Shelly Mayer

Rounding out the panel, Mayer said the Hub is doing important work for farmers and will not only do good things for them, but also for their communities.

"Nowhere in this world are there people that are more creative, talented and have that perseverance to move forward. You empower people in rural America and you will have a strong economy," Mayer said. "We will bring in dollars that will have an impact on every single community, and it'll fuel jobs and opportunities and education. ... We want to be where the world turns for research."