Twillight meeting fosters valuable dialogue between farms and community

Gloria Hafemeister

MARKESAN – The last of four Agricultural Community Engagement meetings brought nearly 200 people to Double S Dairy at Markesan on Aug. 30. 

The last of four Agricultural Community Engagement meetings brought nearly 200 people to Double S Dairy at Markesan last month.

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

Held just days after a storm destroyed buildings on many farms near the Smits family’s Double S dairy, the event was a demonstration to the non-farmers in attendance what farmers have known all along: when a farm family has trouble the neighbors are immediately there to help.

Lending a helping hand

The Smits family was among several area farms to take some of the animals that needed to be relocated after a tornado completely destroyed the buildings on the 650-cow dairy owned by the Wetzel family near Alto. 

On the tour of Double-S dairy the visitors learned that employees volunteered to put in extra hours to milk 120 cows from the Wetzel farm along with the rest of the 1350 cows they were already milking in their own herd.

One of the tour guides, Bob Hagenow who is the nutritionist on Double S Dairy said, “This parlor (Double 20) will handle 3900 milkings a day.  With these extra cows they are maxed out.”

He said considering these cows’ dramatic experiences—having a barn collapse on top of them, being moved in trailers, and then getting milked in a different style parlor—they have adjusted very well.  While the milk from the two herds is mingled into one tank the cows are kept in an individual pen and the computerized monitors in the parlor keep separate records of this extra herd’s production. 

The Smits family also provided housing for the dry cows in the Wetzel herd. Other dairy cows were taken to other area farms where they will remain until they are able to return home.

Farms bind community together

The whole situation highlighted the fact that farming communities stick together and help one another in need. Many of the Smits neighbors who had originally planned to attend the ACE event were not there because they were busy helping other neighbors clean up debris.

Officials from county and town boards and state legislators who did attend the event learned that even when farms are big they are still family. In fact, they saw that key employees on the farm are also like family and that these farms bind a community together and rely on the community for support.

Double S Dairy was started 25 years ago by brothers Dan and Steve Smits. Over the years the farm gradually expanded as more family members became involved and new technology became available.

The most recent addition to the farm is the cross ventilated barn. They chose this style barn because of the comfort it can provide for animals during extreme hot or cold conditions. 

Farm goals

During the farm tour the visitors heard about the constant goal of the Smit family: keep cows clean, dry and comfortable.

Double S Dairy is home to almost 1400 cows, 400 bred heifers and 200 calves.  They also raise corn, alfalfa, soybeans, wheat and vegetable crops.

Dan Smit introduced family members, including his parents. His dad just celebrated his 80th birthday and until recently still helped out on the farm.

Smit talked about their farming practices, including doing cover crops for the last 15 years.

The farm tours provided an opportunity to see the farm’s manure management system that includes manure composting and solids separation.  The heated and dried solids are recycled as bedding and the liquid portion, with some solids, is stored in a lagoon and applied to the fields according to the farm’s nutrient management plan.

Several state legislators spoke at the event along with Assistant Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Keith Ripp.

Jon Hochkammer (left) Outreach Manager Wisconsin Counties Association and Michael Koles, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Towns Association facilitated discussions about shared concerns between the agricultural community and the municipalities during one of four twilight meetings organized by Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin.  The annual event is a joint effort of PDPW, WCA and WTA.

Ripp highlighted the importance of agriculture to the state, noting that it is a $88 billion industry and dairy makes up half of that.

Leading the discussion at the ACE event were Mike Koles, executive director of the Wisconsin Towns Association and Jon Hochkammer, Outreach Manager Wisconsin Counties Association.

Facing challenges

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

He stressed the importance of developing a strong relationship in order to face the challenges together.

Hochkammer agreed and noted, “We have to work together. We can’t afford to let agriculture fail.”

He urged farmers to consider running for public office, noting that boards making decisions often do not have a good understanding of the needs of agriculture.

He added, “Talk to your legislators and other officials but when you go in to talk about a problem you should also bring some ideas for a solution.”

 Koles suggested that farmers go to their town boards and talk about animal welfare and manure management on their farms.  He points out that the majority of the phone calls towns officials receive are complaints about either of these issues.

He said if town officials understand what is happening on the farm they will be in a better position to respond to these calls.

Both towns and counties are concerned about roads and as farming equipment gets bigger and milk trucks get heavier, it becomes a challenge.

Koles stressed the importance of working to solve problems locally.

“We need to make sure local decisions are made at the town hall and not at the state or federal level,” he states.