County ag agent takes new state-level dairy position

Ray Mueller


The University of Wisconsin-Madison department of dairy science's gain could be described as Calumet County's loss when Eric Ronk, the county's Extension Service agriculture agent for the past three plus years, moves to a new state level position this month.

Encompassing teaching, research and public relations duties, Ronk's new working title will be “outreach specialist” for the dairy science department. He starts in that position Monday, Oct. 17. His last work day in Calumet County is Friday, Oct. 7.

A native of a dairy farm near Denmark in neighboring Brown County, Ronk earned a bachelor of dairy science degree at UW-Madison before going to Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Virginia, to obtain a master's degree in dairy science. While at Virginia Tech, he also participated in a research project designed to reduce the deposit of phosphorus into the waterways flowing into Chesapeake Bay.

Eric Ronk

Familiar territory

In returning to the UW in Madison, Ronk will again work with dairy science professors who taught the undergraduate courses he took there. He also enjoyed living in the Madison area while he was a student there.

In his new role, Ronk is expected to spend 40 percent of his time per year in teaching core dairy science courses to students in the university's Farm and Industry Short Course program; 40 percent in working in various ways with the university's dairy research herds at Madison, Arlington, and Marshfield; and the balance of his time in public relations activities, including organizing and hosting visitors (school groups to international delegations) at the university's dairy facilities.

Ronk described the outreach role as a “very good opportunity” that will enable him to concentrate more fully on using the dairy-oriented components of his educational background and his work experiences in Calumet County. “It was a very tough decision” to leave his county position, one that was prompted in some part by the uncertainties pertaining to the upcoming state-wide reorganization of the Extension Service.

Calumet County resume

While in Calumet County, Ronk's duties covered a wide of activities and experiences. They ranged from direct contact with dairy cows on farms in the county, including being kicked on a thumb by a cow while taking part in a research project in late September, to being asked to identify worms brought into the Extension Service office by a county resident.

One of Ronk's oddest experiences among “many interesting phone calls” involved a very distraught lady who encountered “the biggest and quickest” spider that she had ever seen and who wanted to know if it was poisonous.

After researching some Extension Service publications on spiders, Ronk called her only to find out that the woman's phone would not accept calls from an unknown number, which was the case with the county's phone number because of the presence of the jail in the courthouse. Having learned that, Ronk decided it was not in his own “best interest” to call the woman on his personal cellphone.

Reflecting on his overall experience in Calumet County, Ronk said there was much to remind him of his home area about 35 miles away. He described the county residents that he worked with as having a strong “work ethic” and being “big hearted.”

Specific activities

In a role that covered everything from dairy farming to horticulture, Ronk worked with the county's dairy promotion committee for its annual “Sundae on a Dairy Farm”; the forage council for its corn drydown days; alfalfa maturity and quality monitoring, field days and annual meeting; the Master Gardeners association; the Calumet County Agricultural Association (the county fair board); and the Holstein Breeders, who will be hosting the state convention in Appleton next Feb. 24 and 25. He also attended a few Farm Bureau chapter meetings.

Another major duty for the county's agriculture agent is working with the market animal committee for youth livestock projects that culminate at the county fair on Labor Day weekend. Having been involved with the county fair for four years, Ronk was impressed by the development of a number of market animal youth project members during those years.

In tune with his new position, Ronk particularly enjoyed handling questions from dairy farmers in the county, working with teams on two county dairy farms for improving the overall operation and arranging meetings with state-level farm structures specialist Dave Kammel for farmers who were considering renovations or expansions.

Ronk was also responsible for compiling the monthly “Calumet Pipeline” newsletter. Available in print and online, it provides updates on local to state-level agricultural sector activities and research data to farmers throughout the county.

Leadership roles

Despite being in his role for just over three years, Ronk did not hesitate to provide leadership in the region and beyond. For all four meetings in 2015 and 2016, he was the chair of the farm management update programs for agricultural professionals (lenders, consultants, service specialists) that are held in Kimberly twice a year.

Ronk was also the chair of the Midwest “Manure Summit” that was held in 2015. It drew about 200 attendees to a multi-day session in Green Bay.

On the recent day when his thumb suffered a blow from a cow's foot, Ronk was taking part in a research grant project on digital dermatitis (a foot disease) in dairy cows. In addition to being a member of the Extension Service's state level dairy, forage and nutrient management teams of several county agents each, he attended numerous regional and state-wide workshops, meetings and conferences pertaining to agriculture.

If there was one task on which Ronk wishes more would have been accomplished in Calumet County during his tenure, it would be education on nutrient management plans and manure application practices in the geological areas most prone to groundwater contamination from surface activities on the land. Noting that this concern will be “a continuing challenge” in Calumet County, he applied for a grant to fund new educational efforts on that point.

Ronk said he is guided by a statement attributed to Vince Lombardi: “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” Anyone wishing to contact him in the future can do so by email to