ACE meetings connect farmers with local leaders and neighbors

Gloria Hafemeister
Christine Bender returned to her family’s farm after several years of working off the farm after college.  She has helped to bring about some changes to the farm including a heated baby calf room where she can care for the new-borns more efficiently.  The room is shown behind her inside the freshening barn on the McFarland farm at Watertown.

WATERTOWN – The last of four Agricultural Community Engagement (ACE) meetings brought nearly 150 people to McFarlandale Dairy recently.

Hosted by Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin together with the Wisconsin Towns Association and Wisconsin Counties Association, the event featured a farm tour and open discussion between government officials and farmers. 

Also joining in the event were representatives from the local Pheasants Forever who demonstrated the conservation efforts in place on the McFarland farm and how they help to protect the local rivers and streams and prevent runoff. 

Officials from county and town boards and others who attended the event learned that even when farms are big, they are still family.

Connecting farmers with local leaders and neighbors is the goal of the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin’s ACE on-the-farm meetings, now in their twentieth year. 

Visitors toured McFarlandale Dairy, a sixth generation family-owned farm that milks 900 cows and runs 1200 acres just outside of Watertown. 

Peter and Cindy McFarland continued the family tradition of embracing changes and modernizing in order to remain competitive. Since the family started farming in 1852, the family has adopted new practices. Between the 1930’s and 1970’s, the family expanded the business by adding a bottling plant and store to the farm, generating enough income to bring three McFarland brothers and their families into the operation.

When Peter farmed with his dad, they doubled the size of their stall barn, putting the milkhouse in the middle and installing a 360-foot pipeline that they believe was the longest in the state at the time.

Peter’s mother, Donna, was on hand at last week’s ACE meeting. Donna still lives on the family farm and is proud that her granddaughter Christine Bender and her husband Robb, a full-time nutritionist, are joining in the family business.

Bender told the audience her favorite part of farming with her parents is the opportunity to see new life on the farm every day. Since joining the family business, a newborn calf facility was designed inside the freshening barn and features in floor heating, fans and supplies for calving.   

The facility provides an effective way to care for the young calves, especially on cold winter days, and is more convenient than using heat lamps and warming blankets as in the past.

Robb Bender shared that he enjoys his involvement in the farm due to his fascination with the diversity of the business from cropping to calf and cow management. As the farm’s nutritionist, he showed visitors the variety of feeds that are a part of the dairy cows’ ration.

Peter and Cindy McFarland are pleased that the farm will continue to operate in the family and say it is exciting to see the next generation make changes and do 'their thing' to make the farm efficient.

Payge Dahlke worked for McFarlandale Farm at Watertown during her high school years and returned as the farm’s full-time calf manager after college.  She outlined her calf-care procedures to about 150 visitors at the farm last week during the PDPW’s ACE meeting.

Full-time calf manager Payge Dahlke explained the movement of calves as they develop, first living in hutches before moving to a group barn where they remain until the age of six months of age when they're transferred to custom heifer grower. The animals return to the farm just before freshening, says Dahlke who has worked on the farm throughout high school and returned to work full time after college.

Dignitaries at the event also included Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture Randy Romanski and Alice in Dairyland Taylor Schaefer, who travels the state meeting people and promoting the agriculture industry.

Shelly Mayer, Executive Director of PDPW shared that Schaefer spent a summer living on her family’s Slinger farm in 2021 while serving an internship. 

Mike Koles, executive director of the Wisconsin Towns Association and Keith Langenhahn, field services representatives for the Wisconsin Counties Association fielded concerns from attendees on a variety of issues including wild parsnip and the increase of other invasive weeds along town and county roads. 

Some farmers expressed concern over a trend of private homes being used more and more as Airbnb's, in which property owners rent out their spaces to travelers looking for a place to stay. 

Farmers say when a home had permanent occupants, they were able to establish good working relationships with their neighbors but they now do not know who is residing in neighborhood homes at any given time. Attendees argued that they are better neighbors if they are able to communicate with residents around their farms. Not knowing the occupants makes it difficult to know when special parties or events are planned so they can avoid manure spreading or other field activities during these times.

Concerns also arose over posted weight limits on town roads. Koles suggested that town officials consider building roads that will withstand heavier traffic such as milk trucks.

“If we want a 21st century ag system in Wisconsin we need to have a 21st century infrastructure," Koles said. "We don’t need road weight limits if roads are built right.”

He did, however, acknowledge that, due in part to the increased cost of fuel and oil, the cost of building and maintaining roads has increased significantly.

Both he and Langenhahn stressed the importance of developing a strong relationship with local government officials in order to face challenges together.

“We have these events to engage local officials. They need to learn about agriculture and agriculture also needs to understand the issues that towns face," Koles said.

Both stressed the importance of working together and suggested speaking with local officials frequently; not only talking about problems but also bringing some ideas for solutions to the table.

In addition, Koles and Lengenhahn say farmers need to help town officials understand how they care for their animals and manage their manure, two of the biggest issues that town officials hear from concerned residents. If local elected officials understand farm management practices, they are in a better position to answer the concerns of the non-farming residents.