Wisconsin couples named National Outstanding Young Farmers

Gloria Hafemeister
Correspondent

Two Wisconsin couples brought home an honor from the National Outstanding Young Farmers (OYF) Awards Congress in Hilton Head Island, SC.

The class of 2021 and 2022 were recognized for their contributions to the industry of agriculture.

The OYF program began in 1954 as a National Priority program for the US Jaycees. Wisconsin’s first winner was named in 1952 and 66 state programs have been held since. Wisconsin has had winners on the national level, 19 in the national program’s 66-year history including 10 in the last 20 years.

Two Wisconsin families were recognized as such as national OYF winners – in the Class of 2021 Phil and Laura Finger of Oconto, WI, and in the Class of 2022 Joe and Ashley Dudkiewicz of Crivitz, WI.

Philip and Laura Finger of Oconto, Wis., were selected national winners for 2021 at the annual
National Outstanding Young Farmers Awards Congress held Feb. 3-6 in Hilton Head Island, S.C.

Finger family

Phil and Laura Finger both hold degrees in Dairy Science, and operate a dairy farm while growing alfalfa, corn, and soybeans on their 5th generation farm.

Following their selection Laura said of the event, “It was a fabulous experience.  Not only did we get to meet other farmers who were above and beyond us but we were treated very well.”

Back on the farm they are busy preparing to host the Oconto County Breakfast on the farm June 29 as a way to celebrate their farm’s 150th year in the family.

Even in his youth Philip gravitated toward dairy genetics and was fascinated by genes.  He is proud of the fact that one of the best genetic families in their herd today came from his favorite cow as a ten year old boy.

During the time that he was in college his dad had formed a partnership with a neighbor and modernized their farm to include a 300-cow freestall barn.  Eventually his dad’s partner pulled out of the business and Philip and Laura took on the role of partners.

Through all their challenges they remained committed to their genetic vision.

Their reproductive practices and philosophy remains a keystone contributor to meeting their goal with efficiency. To do this, they strive to get cows and heifers pregnant at appropriate times. For the last five years they implemented a Double Ovsync program and that has helped them to get a 30% pregnancy rate and a 50% conception rate on cows while utilizing SCR collars to monitor estrus based activity.  This has helped get heifers pregnant on time.

Genomics through DNA tissue samples taken from calves is another major piece of technology they use to help predict an animal’s future potential for breeding decisions. 

In general, they use conventional flushing on their top genomic animals, but they may use their own donors for IVF with one or two animals per year. The next tier down receives sexed semen while the middle tiers are bred conventionally.  The bottom, which are still really good cows, are bred to beef breeds at a rate of 40% to 50% of the cows per week.

While improving genetics has helped with the farm’s success, Finger also credits their management team who helped with problem solving and encouragement. This supportive cast includes their veterinary clinic, agronomist, nutritionist, financial and crop consultants, banker and a committed assistant herd manager.

The farm currently includes a total of 1400 cropped acres and 540 cows. They own some land individually and the partnership owns some.  They also rent some acres.

Their goal is to ship 7 lbs. of fat and protein components in their cow’s milk each day and the innovation that they employ has been directed to meet this goal. To do this, they strive to harvest crops at the optimal time with the least amount of waste possible. Finger plants varieties of both BMR and conventional corn silage. They also send extra pack tractors on silage to thoroughly compact their feed piles. In addition, they inoculate everything to help ensure the best fermentation possible and then seal feed with Raven plastic.

Besides reaching their production goals they have gotten a few bulls into semen companies. 

Philip acknowledges that his wife has been an integral part of the farm business. Laura spearheaded the move of calves to hutches and took over caring for them which greatly improved their survival rate. She continues to focus on animal health and comfort while she also does tasks such as operating equipment to help in other areas of the farm.

She also manages the parlor and oversees facility maintenance as well as maintaining the farm’s records using Quickbooks.

Laura grew up in Hawaii caring for dairy goats and became involved in the FFA chapter at her high school. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Dairy Science at Iowa State and married into a farm family in the Upper Peninsula but she became widowed and remained on that family farm as a herdsman. 

The Fingers have four children: Alana, 20; Philip Jack “PJ”, 12; Alisa, 11; and Alivia, 8.

Joe and Ashley Dudkiewicz of Crivitz, pictured with their children Jeremy, Annabelle and Jameson, were honored recently at the National Outstanding Young Farmers event in South Carolina.

The Dudkiewicz family

Joe and Ashley Dudkiewicz' grow row crops and cattle on a 1,500+ acres operation with a portion of their acreage purchased in 1927 by Joe’s great grandfather. Joe's deep roots in agriculture stem from his early childhood, leading him to earn an associate’s degree in Farm Business. Ashley focuses on cattle management, bookkeeping, and marketing, and has expanded the business locally, by selling farm products directly to consumers.

Joe got started in farming in 2008 when he began leasing his own cropland. He hired his dad to do custom planting and harvesting for him. Around that time he and Ashley started their own small beef herd. As they continued to build their business they have continued to work with Joe’s dad, sharing equipment and then eventually purchasing the grain-handling facility and shop from him.

Joe says one of his proudest moments in his career came in 2019 when they officially purchased his parents’ farm. In 2020 they took over some of his land leases while expanding their own acreage.

The couple says they are grateful for the opportunity to work with him and transition the business gradually.

Ashley did not grow up on a farm but worked at a neighboring dairy farm where she grew to love agriculture. She went on to earn Dairy and Animal Science degrees at UW-River Falls.

The couple has three children – Jeremy, 11, Annabelle, 7 and Jameson, 4. 

In 2013, the couple realized they needed some assistance with farm financials and business decisions. That’s when Joe decided to go through Northeast Wisconsin Technical College Farm Business program.  The couple also began working with a financial consultant. They say these tools provided guidance that propelled their business forward.

A year ago the couple began making small bales of straw and hay in addition to their wheat, oats, corn and soybeans with an eye toward diversification. They also sell bagged corn and small hay and straw bales to customers at a roadside stand.

Dudkiewicz' rotationally graze their 70-head beef herd and directly market the meat to customers under the name A & J Farms Beef, LLC.

“We are grateful to have had the opportunity to attend National OYF and we are proud to have represented Wisconsin so well during the event,” Joe says. “We are thankful for the support of the Wisconsin OYF program past NOYF winners. We are humbled to be included in the Outstanding Farmers of America fraternity.  With so many great producers of our good quality food and products, we didn’t just personally get this award, the entire state of Wisconsin was recognized."

In 2023, the National OYF Awards Congress will be held in Appleton, WI. For more information or to view a full list of past Wisconsin winners, visit http://www.wi-oyf.org/